I received an e-mail with some excellent questions geared towards students and young professionals. With permission from the recipient, I am posting the content of our e-mail exchange, edited for bloggage purposes, but 99% intact.
By no means do I have all of the answers, but I wanted to share our conversation with the world as I think they are some of the best questions students and young professionals should be asking both of others, and themselves. If you have any additional comments and/or suggestions, please post them in the comments section below! 🙂
My name is ——. I’ve run across your blog a few times and certainly have enjoyed it and learned a few things along the way. I’m a GIS student of sorts.
I’m working on getting into GIS in a full time capacity sometime soon. As there isn’t a big GIS community in my small town, I’m starting to get to know GIS people in —— and nearby.
Hoping to throw a couple questions at you.
- Broadly speaking, what level of experience do entry/technician level GIS people need to be competitive?
- What have you seen that separates top young professionals from the crowd?
- Where is the fastest change or biggest growth within GIS that you’re watching?
Thank you for your kind words in regards to my blog! It’s great to hear your story, learn of your interest in the geospatial community, and hear that you are pursuing work in the geospatial field! 🙂 I truly believe we can change the world with a map and history doesn’t lie; it’s been done countless times over the course of human history.
From your initial e-mail I wanted to commend you, you are asking the right questions and are on the right track in getting some key contacts locally and in ——.
I tried to answer your three questions, listed below, based on my experience but there are many pathways you can take in your journey. So take my answers with a grain of salt but hopefully they help lead you along the way. Also, don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any other lingering questions or something comes up in the future. I truly believe we all work together, no matter our geography as we’re a cohesive team around the globe trying to solve the world’s problems together.
Okay, enough of my babble, let’s get to your questions!
Q1. Broadly speaking, what level of experience do entry/technician level GIS people need to be competitive?
This is a great question, and one I have heard from many others trying to get into the geospatial community. I, too, had the same question when trying to figure out what recruiters were looking for. I’m going to answer it in a roundabout way, but hopefully it makes sense in the grand scheme of things.
In my experience, recruiters appreciate applicants that are worldly and aren’t focused on one particular area but can span across many different areas and/or disciplines and apply their work in a similar manner. Geospatial professionals use tools from a toolbox to do their work, so being a “one-trick pony” only gets you so far.
As far as the basics go, try and dabble with different technologies and tools. Use both open source (QGIS, GDAL, MapServer, etc.) and Esri technologies. Neither of the technologies are the catch-all answer and both are used no matter the environment you are working in. Having knowledge, even at a basic level of many different platforms and coding languages will also build up your résumé.
If you need more on-the-job professional experience, I recommend contacting various employers whose work interests you to see if there are any unpaid or volunteer opportunities available. Sometimes funding is an issue with an organization but work load can be high and some organizations will welcome you with open arms. Plus, employers appreciate your initiative and are more inclined to make an opportunity available to you. Sometimes these roles even lead to full time work in the long run.
Back to your question as to the level needed for an entry-level position: I don’t think any level is required other than: being yourself, taking the initiative, focusing on multiple areas (even if they seem unrelated to your ultimate goal), and having a willingness to learn.
Q2. What have you seen that separates top young professionals from the crowd?
This is a really great question, and one that I was trying to figure out when I was first getting into the industry and in creating my own path along the way. There’s no ‘right’ answer to this question but based on my experience, I have a “top 5” list below helped propel me down a path leading me to where I am today:
#1. Network, Network, and Network some more
Use social media to get to know others, especially others in your area, or area you plan to work in professionally. Send an e-mail to someone to say ‘hello’ and find out the work they are doing. Learn about the work they are doing. Do you have interest in doing their work now, or in the future? If so, find out how they are doing it and find ways to build up your portfolio/résumé in this way.
Plus, getting your name out there helps you immensely when you are applying for positions. This fact used to annoy me as a student and young professional but I see even myself doing it now. The geospatial community is small, in particular in less populated areas but even throughout the nation, and worldwide. Get to know these people; it’ll take you far (plus, they are pretty much amazing). 🙂
#2. Get an Advanced Degree and/or Professional Certificate(s)
Thanks to the latest recession, many young professionals couldn’t land a job after receiving their Bachelor degree (myself included). So we opted for a longer time in school to focus on building up our résumé. Great for us, not so much on the student loan debt, but hard on students and other young professionals today. Even now, with the economy gaining strength, I can’t name one student that hasn’t pursued an advanced degree. Plus, it’s almost impossible to move up in the ranks with a Bachelor degree these days.
However, school isn’t for everybody. It’s costly, both in debt and potential lost wages, and requires a lot of time. In fact, some that try and go back never end up finishing what they started and end up with even more debt. So another option is to focus on professional certificates, whether through a school program or professional organization. Some of these certificates I pursued early on in my career included: GISP (GISCI), HAZUS-MH (FEMA), and Project Management (University of Minnesota). They still have a cost to them, but they are far less of time commitment and financial burden.
Both options may have a high initial cost and time commitment to them, but in my experience have the greatest return on investment. Many programs and certifications require a lot of additional money and work for a reason. This one pays off right away and you’ll likely never see the return diminish in this category. I received my advanced degree over six years ago and there hasn’t been a month where I haven’t reaped the benefits.
#3. Join ‘Amateur’ and Professional Organizations
There are SO many incredible and amazing organizations available now with the Meetup group boom. When I was getting into the industry, there weren’t a lot of groups but I joined as many as I could to see what other professionals were up to. I learned a great deal in a short amount of time and it helped build up relationships I still have today.
Check out the Meetup site to see what is happening in your neck of the woods. If there isn’t a local Maptime group in your area already, get one started. Even if you are in a small community, you would be surprised how many people have interest in cartography and maps even if they don’t plan on getting involved in the geospatial field professionally.
For more ‘formal’ organizations the following are some good starting points: the Association of American Geographer’s (AAG), the American Planning Association (APA), the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS), and the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA), and many others!
#4. Learn Something New Every Day
- Attend Conferences: Using your connections from professional organizations, attend professional conferences. Attend presentations, give presentations, and make a map for a poster competition/map gallery (this also helps with the networking piece, too). I am also very biased in this regard as I have been a student assistant for two conferences: the Esri UC and the National American Planning Association conferences. I was able to connect with other students and young professionals, meet with conference organizers, see behind-the-scenes, and learn a lot. If this is an option for you along your journey, I highly recommend it. In many instances student assistants have almost no out-of-pocket expense and the return on investment is out of this world. To this day, seven years after my experiences, I have some of the best relationships with colleagues across the globe I have ever acquired in my life.
- Take an Online Course: Recently Lynda.com has been my go-to for training. It’s relatively cheap at $300/year and includes training for: developers, designers, the web, photography, business, education, animation, music, and much more! There are many other sites that are beneficial, many of which have no cost. Find a few that you like and stick with them.
- Follow a Conference on Twitter (e.g. #esriuc, #foss4g, #sotmus, etc.): When you are unable to attend a conference (there are a lot) many others will tweet some great tidbits of information via Twitter. Live vicariously through them, you’ll learn a lot.
- Attend, Participate, and Lead Meetup events: I was hesitant to get involved in Meetups, but you’ll meet some amazing people from all walks of life with a high interest in topics. Don’t be afraid to volunteer to lead a talk or discussion, even if you have limited knowledge in the subject matter. Use the experience as a way to learn more about a topic you never knew about and to pass on your new knowledge to others. You won’t regret it.
#5. Get Involved
Join a committee whether it be local, regional, state, national, or internationally. This is another way to network, get engaged, help others in the community, and learn a lot. As a young professional you feel like there isn’t much you can bring to the table, at least that was my thinking early on. It wasn’t until after a colleague told me I should accept a nomination into our local GIS group that I believed I could make a difference. It took a year to get situated but once we got going, our group was able to get involved and make a difference for others in the geospatial community. From a networking perspective, it was a fantastic way to meet others around our local geospatial community and work together to better our community.
Q3. Where is the fastest change or biggest growth within GIS that you’re watching?
From what I have seen over the last few years the biggest growth I have seen is in UI/UX (user experience and design). Sometimes UI/UX go hand-in-hand, depending upon an organization’s size or demand, and sometimes they are separated.
Everything from cartography to web design has a particular focus on how a user views, interprets, and analyzes the information. Of course, there are so many ways to interpret a user’s experience and how to design something to better their experience. Unfortunately this makes it difficult to point any resources towards building up a skillset in UI/UX other than watching what others are doing and understand WHY they are doing it in such a manner. But there are a few education programs that focus on UI/UX. The two educational programs I believe that provide the best focus on this are Penn State (they also have an online curriculum) and the University of Wisconsin.
Other recent changes and growth have been in the development community, but this is where my bias comes in since I develop for a living. IMHO, there are many people that can make maps, many others that can develop, but not many that do both. I can name a handful of people, myself included, that have switched over from geospatial analysis to development. If you have interest in the development realm, I recommend using some key learning resources (Lynda.com, Codecademy, Code.org, etc.) and getting an account on GitHub.
I hope I answered your questions, or am steering you in the right direction but if I missed anything or any additional questions have sparked, don’t hesitate to ask. 🙂