Careers & GIS and Geomatics
, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Grow or Die – 3 Key GIS Career Needs

The premise of a liberal arts or science degree is to get a wide range of exposure across several disciplines.  The end goal being a “well rounded” education.  I’ve always liked to believe that was my intent when I studied Geography two decades ago, because that simple degree was a gateway to an exciting and challenging career in GIS.  The reality was more providential than planned on my part – I ended up focused on one particular part of my education to get employed: GIS.  I’m thankful I never had to pump gas with my degree, though sometimes mass map printing and plotter babysitting sometimes felt like a dead-end in itself.  So it was a high priority for me to build on my initial GIS training to ensure I was more well rounded in my career than I had been in my schooling.

The subsequent years have shown me that a trio of particular skills are absolutely essential for getting ahead in this industry.  If you have GIS under your belt, you may already know that your training cannot end there.  You must learn at least two other key kinds of tools to be truly grasping at the next rung in your career ladder.

[Disclaimer: I accept the fact that not everyone sees things as I do, worrying about being “left behind” by the technology I depend on for a living.  If that’s not you, then I’m glad for you, but for the rest of us we can’t imagine doing just one thing and never growing.  So, while I may disparage certain kinds of tasks, please don’t take it personally.  For those of you who are like me, for the record, the drive to keep growing, training and applying new skills does not seem to lessen with age.]

At some point you are going to either tool up or be left behind as the local plotter babysitter.  Since that would truly be a Cinderella story – with your colleagues out at the party, while you’re at home scrubbing floors – we can’t let that happen.  So here is what you need to learn more about.

Diversify Your GIS Skills

If you’ve only ever used one product and one operating system, you are probably already in the minority.  Branch out before you wither on the vine!  Many workplaces focus only on one product, cornering their employees into only delivering through their own business partner associations.  But, believe me, other companies out there do give freedom and inspiration to their employees to find/use/learn/buy better tools for the job, so you better too.

Employers, please take note that if you want inspired employees, then they need room to grow outside of the stifling geobiosphere you may have them chained into at the moment.  This encouragement to branch out is just as applicable to you.

Regardless of where your employer has you focused, there is really no excuse for not branching out on your own time.  Of course, if you just want to punch in at a 9-5 job downtown (until they replace you with a teenaged intern fueled on Red Bull), this article is not really for you.  However, if you are like me and you want to sharpen your own skills, then all the tools you need are readily available online – freely as open source or at least through trial versions or even free versions for developers.  (Yes, you should start thinking of yourself more as a developer, but that’s a discussion for another day.)  You can see why there is really no excuse to get your hands on some other tools and slowly pick away at learning them.

Have you only used proprietary GIS products that you learned at school?  Get some open source products under your belt.  Only learned about mapping data by using the latest open source AJAX slippy mappy appy platform?  Dig out a desktop tool and get your hands really dirty with “traditional” tools and data you need to hammer into submission.  Not only will you learn a new skill, but your (neural) biceps will thank you for the workout.

Why?  Because, in this Knowledge Worker’s economy, communication matters and it has to be practised to be improved.  How does having a broader skillset enable communication?  You can’t expect to walk in someone else’s shoes without actually walking in someone else’s shoes.  I’m not saying you need to become a pro at some particular GIS toolset, but you should know enough of the patterns that you could switch to another application without much headache.  You can only learn patterns after repeated use across various products – i.e. get outside your comfort zone.

Eventually you’ll have a customer/user/boss who will ask you if you know a certain product and it usually pays to be able to say yes (and you better be able to prove you aren’t lying).

Manage Data In The Enterprise

All good starships use a database product to manage their assets, so should you.  My, how the world changes in only a decade.  Back a few years it was like pulling teeth to get users to move their data in relational database technology.  It was even harder to find good connectivity between applications and database backends.  Now we are smothered in options.  Now you are smothered in options!

Are you proficient at more than just using Excel, Google Docs and Access databases?  If not, then you have work to do.  Cast the net around your geospatial data and get it truly harnessed.  It is no longer an option to just be throwing files (zipped or not) around your network and through your email.  We all know that’s not a niare waiting to happen, that’s one well underway!

This is not just about helping your data, but about saving your career.  If you cannot tame your data into a well thought out schema, or can’t connect your latest project to a database somewhere, then you limit what your team can do collaboratively.  When was the last time you had shapefiles, file geodatabases, or CAD drawing files copied to your local machine, just so you could run a process on your desktop against them efficiently?  If the answer is less than 5 years ago, give it a second thought. Why aren’t these handled in a better way?  It may just be some corporate policy, but it could be a “user issue”.  Don’t let yourself become an issue!

I’m not saying you just need to map a network drive to a cloud service somewhere.  You need an honest-to-goodness sabbatical study of database technology, so you can store, manage and even analyse (shocking, I know) your geospatial data with more finesse than you’ve ever done.  Get to know databases, your CTO will thank you… or else you may not be around to thank.

Extend Your Products Online

In GIS-land, the result of all your labours is usually a map, a report or other similar data product.  When we started exporting maps into 50MB PDF files, the alarm bells should have been going off.  If that’s you today, then publish to the web already!  Coupling your GIS and (possibly newly honed) database skills makes a powerful combination.  But if all you can do is talk to others inside your workgroup, then some important players are missing from the data conversation: external customers, stakeholders, or more bluntly, your future employers.

Being comfortable with web server technology and geospatial web services is becoming more and more presumed in the marketplace.  If you need a dictionary to define HTTP, Apache, TCP port, OWS, catalog service, WMS, etc. then take some time to get caught up.  Attend a conference (no, a different one than usual), or view the slides and videos afterwards.  Buy a book, take a course, read more blogs, etc.

Two spatial analysts walk into a bar.  One knows the latest OGC lingo, the other does not.  Which one will know how to request the best service?

Okay, so it’s not funny, but you get the idea – some know enough to talk about things and some do not.  Which ones will be most comfortable dealing with a broader range of customer needs and which ones will quietly excuse themselves from the conversation?  Open standards are called open for a reason.  This is, yet another, excuse crushing reality: all the training material is sitting there waiting for you, so be sure you catch up before you have to explain why you have not.

Still just pushing out PDF files or using email to handle on-demand requests for data?  For the price of a couple hours of your time per month, it’s possible to have a web presence.  You only need a place where you can start to publish the results of your work for others to access, self-serve style, as-needed, 24/7/365.

First you have to get the skills in place and learn some new tools, but it will be well worth it, as any web development also turns into a living, breathing, portfolio of your skills.  Your future employer will be able to see clearly what you are able to do with a few peeks at any public projects you worked on.  Or, maybe, they’ll have no clue because you never learned anything beyond your desktop GIS!  Let’s make sure the latter does not happen.

Transform and Roll Out

This trio of skills is targeted at you, a GIS audience, to encourage you to learn database and web services technologies.  This admonition readily applies to others as well.  Are you a DBA or a web developer?  You need to cross-train too or risk being left to the most mundane tasks imaginable.

The combination of these skills truly puts you at the top of the stack of resumes for geospatial jobs.

Well, if it doesn’t put you on the top for a particular job you applied for, don’t worry, you probably didn’t really want that type of job anyway.  Trust me.

This article was originally posted on January 22, 2013.

19 comments on "Grow or Die – 3 Key GIS Career Needs"

  1. Ryan says:

    Excellent article Tyler! I am two years out of my University degree in Geomatics and my immediate sense when getting onto the job scene was that I had hardly learned anything in school that was going to help me advance in my career. Thus, I’ve made a big time investment to learn things they never taught me. I’ve focused on learning the ins and outs of web development and how to interact with the RDBMS. Learning languages like Python and JavaScript have helped in my daily GIS workflow and I am keen on learning more.

    I think your premise in this article is right. If we stagnate, we will surely fall of the map.

  2. Jim F says:

    Very good article, and one that speaks to anyone in the field, whether they are just fresh from graduation, or at or past retirement age. Be challenged, look for fresh ideas (even if you don’t agree with them), and embrace change – it is truly the only constant we have.

  3. Darren Platakis says:

    Great article Tyler!! I clicked on “Buy a book” and lost an hour of my day… That’s a good thing!


  4. Thanks for the encouraging response guys!
    It’s worked for me at least, to keep myself as sharp as possible. I’ll have to follow up with an article on why we should all think like we are programmers. (Possibly followed then by another one that suggests the opposite, by I get ahead of myself…)

    1. Sue Smith says:

      I really enjoyed the article. It was well written and not the usual bunch of techno babble. Thanks for making me realize that even though I’ve been in the industry for 20 years there is always something new to learn!

  5. Ray Smith says:

    A great article and this echos what I have been saying for the past 5 years the GIS job market is changing and the Analyst role is evolving from what is was (mapping analyst) to the modern analyst who is more likely to be asked to code a solution rather than map one. I have been in the industry 12 years and it has been a slow shift but in the past 4 years it has sped up to the point I honestly don’t see much of a future (i.e. reaching retirement) for a GIS Technician as more automation is created there will be less need for a highly trained level employee as general labor will be able to be trained to do these tasks. The future is development and automation!

  6. Johann says:

    Tyler, thanks! Just the thing I needed to get me going again! |This has really made me think of my own situation and how I am going to get moving! I got a lot of work to do!

    Great article!

  7. Deeter Smith says:

    What a wonderful article. It is nice to know that there are others in the GIS field that agree with what I have been saying for years. There is always something new to learn and another way to think.

  8. Mel says:

    Great article Tyler! I love this article. I share similar ambitions in trying to expand my tool box by constantly trying new things, seeing what works for me and my employer, crossing new boundaries and trying to get out of my comfort zone. The GIS world is rapidly changing, and being a part of this industry means partly going with the flow, but also thinking outside the box by gaining new skill sets. Thanks for your contribution, it’s motivating!

  9. Jeremy Murfitt says:


    As with other responses, a great article. I read it and thought yes that’s me, guilty on all counts. I use ESRI, I use MS Access and you guessed it pdf’s!! I have to add that I have used Mapinfo as well and do experiment with iPad apps for distributing GIS data. I am a Chartered Surveyor (Property/Real Estate) and that is my primary profession. I have been fortunate to have been using GIS for nearly 20 years (I think the first software I had was Atlas) and yet I am still with ESRI and Access? I guess that this is because GIS is to a degree “secondary” to my main profession however GIS is becoming of greater and greater importance. More recently I have branched out and undertaken pure GIS jobs providing a client with customer/market analysis. What is important is that I love mapping and think it is still i it’s infancy.

    In my line of work I am dealing with SME’s and medium sized businesses. I have found that in the majority of cases the client wants to know the answer and not how you got there, back to the sausage making analogy referred to earlier. In the UK it certainly appears that ESRI has become the industry standard in particular for distributing data (shapefiles used a lot). I also find that pdf’s are the common output format. The reason here is that the clients generally want the cheapest solution possible. I have been experimenting with ArcGis On Line with some success but the lack of functionality is sometimes restrictive.

    However said all that I know in myself that I do need to be open to change and be flexible in my approach. Your article will kick start having a broader outlook on GIS!!



  10. It’s great to see all the comments, folks, thanks!

    One area I should probably clarify, just in case people skim-reading miss it, is in the diversity of tools you learn to apply. Being stuck in any silo can have a long term isolating effect – that could be a problem with any product used – both in proprietary or open source style of products.

    So while many mention they know Esri, MapInfo, etc. and are encouraged to learn a few other packages, I also encourage those who only know open source products to also learn some non-open source products as well. Before anyone rolls their eyes, consider that if you want to be involved in helping migrate into/away from any platform, you tend to need to know both ends of the pipeline.

    Translated: your competition can out gun you by being able to offer migration paths for their customers… but if you’re too myopic, you can only help them do one part of the larger picture.

    Anyway, just didn’t want anyone to think I was only recommending an “anti-proprietary software” attitude – that’d be far from the truth 🙂

  11. Stevens says:

    A splendid article, Tyler. I got introduced to GIS late in life and have cultivated interest in it. At past 55, should I pursue that interest? I want a candid advice. My background is geography and urban and rural planning.

  12. Sagar says:

    Yes indeed a good article as i have experienced it like everybody does, we need to extend our applications and various ways to apply GIS within that applications. People often get confused between cartography and GIS, ya catography is big chunk of GIS but it is also important how you do it. Atlast quality and efficiency is what we are remaining with.
    Good Article!!!


  13. I agree with many of the points made, particularly having a web presence which indeed acts as a growing portfolio of your geospatial deliverables. In my experience I’ve noticed there can be many ‘tiers’ of GIS Analysts, and it is no fun to stay stagnant on the bottom tier (producing simple static figures as daily requests to “make me a map” come flooding in from your colleagues). Anyone can master one piece of software but there are so many other doors to be opened and challenges to engage in…. which keeps things interesting.

  14. Zaki says:

    Great Article, and even a good guide for the experts who are already in the field.
    I am new to GIS and looking for the University Post Graduate program, any one can guide me which university is best for the GIS education in Toronto in particular and Canada in General?
    Regards to all.

  15. aNGELINA SINGSON says:

    Ray Smith,
    I like your statement “code a solution, rather than map one”. That is what I am understanding when I walking into a Geomatics class having a programming background. Knowing how to use the software is great knowledge, but not all problems require simply using a software to produce a map. Or if it does, it is a very long tedious mind numbing process. Coding your solutions to the problem, not only saves time and money, but also integrates geo-spatial data into the coding world.

    Tyler: Very insightful indeed. While my transition from Open Source GIS is slow to adopt to the Microsoft of Mapping Software (ESRI), I see your wisdom in diversifying. If I have to accept contracts for bigger industries, I would have to work with ESRI like packages. So, thanks for the heads up.

    And I need to get on board that ship, Enterprise!

    Glad to see interaction in this article, at least we all can agree where our careers are heading to, and what kind of future we will have, aside from super cool Matrix films.

  16. Glen Bambrick says:

    Enjoyed reading your article Tyler as it really resonated with my own decisions over the past couple of years. I was a GIS Manager for a group of four junior mineral exploration companies in Australia. I really landed on my feet when I got the job in 2009 and the first three years were challenging, not so much on a GIS scale but learning the ins and outs of mineral exploration, the type of maps required, geophysical, geochemistry, geological etc. and the best was to present these to the decision makers for analysis. The fourth year, however, I felt it was getting too repetitive and the challenge had severely waned. Did I want to collect a (great) paycheck and be bored or was the thrill of the challenge more alluring?

    I packed my bags and returned to Ireland, first port-of call was a post-graduate in IT, like a conversion course, laden with Java programming, databases, web development and much more. So now I had a good background in GIS and a good understanding of IT. The next and current step is a MSc in Geocomputation to merge the GIS and IT together. A couple of modules are a breeze because of my past endeavors, but some are extremely challenging such as spatial statistical analysis using R programming, and object-orientated programming using a variety of languages.

    I think back to the height I was at in my career based on a job title but at the end of the day that’s exactly what is was, only a job title. I didn’t know half the stuff I should have known and even though I could bluff my way I always felt it would be better if I had true conviction and was able to confidently point the company in the right direction.

    I’m delighted with my choice to become a poor student once more. It’s only a side-step, a two year educational-infused vacation, and I’m looking forward to continuous learning once it’s over. My challenge is to remain challenged!

  17. Brian Bancroft says:

    Hey, I came across this article now. I’m a year and a third from my degree, and I’ve already hit that brick wall you and some of the commentors talk about. Since then, I’ve taught myself gdal, qgis, and I’m munching my way through the boundless geospatial tutorials for RDBMS as a introduction to the topic.

    This article speaks truth. Thanks for taking the time to write it!

  18. Jorge Gonzalez says:

    This is the third time I read this article and I find it usefuf time after time. In my opinion you are 100% on the money. Thanks Tyler!

Comments are closed.

Related Articles

Google Earth Engine – What is a Data Cube and Why Canadians Should Care

What is a data cube and how is it used for big data analytics?  How does a data cube work…

Remote Sensing QGIS: Semi-Automatic-Classification Plugin (SCP)

Semi-Automatic Classification Plugin   Today I’m going to take a quick look at one of the remote sensing plugins for…

GIS in Action: How Does BC Pinot Noir Express Terroir?

Editors note: In this previously published article, Karl Kliparchuk, BCIT GIS Program Head & Instructor uses GIS to explore the…