Take the First Step

While attending another phenomenal Maptime MSP event last week I overheard a few others around me say, “I can’t code”. I can’t remember my exact response, but I tried to tell those gathered around the table that anyone can code and not to think of coding as something that only developers can do.

Another individual responded with, “I can write SQL statements, but that’s as dangerous as I can get.

“YES!”, as I almost flew out of my chair while exclaiming my excitement, “Exactly, that’s coding! Even if it seems small, take baby steps, and build up as you go. Just because you aren’t writing applications doesn’t mean you can’t write code.” But Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated it best:

“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

I returned home from Maptime and couldn’t stop thinking about the discussions. I felt the same in the not-to-distant past, and I know others, even those leading the charge in the development community that have as well.

I wanted to ask others how they felt, whether they were just learning how to code or are experienced developers. Mostly, I wanted those that attended Maptime to know they weren’t alone and that it is normal to feel this way.

As a result of asking the Twitter community, I was incredibly blessed to watch an overwhelming amount of organic discussions take place. I also want to give a “Thank You” shout out to those that sparked these conversations in Minneapolis last week, those that participated in the Twitter conversations, and those that were watching from afar. 🙂

Note: I apologize in advance for the repetition of my question below but thanks to WordPress, despite countless member complaints, there is no workaround to remove the original tweet while showing replies. But at least you’ll see how and why each person responded in the manner they did, right?

A few of the responses via Twitter:

I really like Adrian’s response because coding seems complex when we look at the level of effort needed to implement a solution from start to finish. Many times coding, like geospatial analysis, has many different solutions and no person would necessarily answer a resolution in the same way. Difficult, yes, but that’s why the geospatial and development communities are so dynamic and rewarding. Even if something seems completely overwhelming: break it down into smaller more manageable tasks, tackle each task as it comes, and if you can’t solve a task find or ask someone for their input.

YES x 1,000, and spot on Penny, François, and others! I’ve said this one countless times and its one of the most common things I have heard from colleagues across all sectors and jobs. Dedicated training time is hard to come by, even if we have the backing of upper level management. We still have deadlines, projects, and customers waiting on us. The Twitter conversations this past week helped me sit down to think about the last year of my career, which has been seriously lacking training and inspired me to block time off in my calendar.

In a discussion with another young professional getting into development we talked about not only the need for training, but the time to do it. If we take even a few hours to sit down and learn something new not only will be adding to our skill set along our coding journey but we’ll be saving time by learning effective strategies to do our jobs.

We may not use our new found knowledge right away but we can apply it to other on-the-job responsibilities. Training opens our minds to new possibilities, and even four hours a week will go a long way. Make time for training, block off your calendar and ensure you don’t have any distractions during this time.

Will brings up another great point. Even if we are learning, we feel like we are still running at least fifty paces behind others. I struggle with this realization often but recently saw an image that really put things into perspective. It’s not that someone else knows more than you, it’s that they are more knowledgeable in one specific area. Think of all of the skills you bring to the table and how you outshine others in many other unique ways.

Imposter Syndrome

Lastly, and most importantly, as Emily mentions the biggest realization that we must have as individuals is to believe in ourselves. Once you believe you can do it, anything is possible.

Learning to code is like learning to ride a bike. It takes time and patience and hopefully you have someone by your side helping you along the way. Sure, you’ll fall from time to time but when you get your bearings and start going, nobody can stop you. Over time you’ll learn some new tricks, some of which others may never learn in their lifetimes. And in time you’ll be teaching someone else to do the very same thing. But first, you have to take the first step and believe you can.

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Transitions

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! 🙂

Initial E-mail:

Hi Kitty,

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.

  1. Broadly speaking, what level of experience do entry/technician level GIS people need to be competitive?
  1. What have you seen that separates top young professionals from the crowd?
  1. Where is the fastest change or biggest growth within GIS that you’re watching?

Thanks!!
—–

My Response:

Hi ——,

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.

First and foremost, set yourself apart from others. Being unique gets you a long way in the geospatial community. For example, if you have interest in programming then take a class in Python, another in JavaScript, another in C#, and so on. Or, if you have interest in natural resources field, learn the natural and societal impacts as there aren’t many areas of the world left untouched.

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. 🙂

Warm Regards,
Kitty

An Unplugged Story

“Live your life each day as you would climb a mountain. An occasional glance towards the summit keeps the goal in mind, but many beautiful scenes are to be observed from each new vantage point.”  –Harold B. Melchart

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10 days.  13 cities. 1,412 miles.

I have been fortunate to travel to some amazing places around the world, but Alaska was one of the most breathtaking places I have visited on Earth. As you may already know, Alaska is fairly remote and incredibly vast in size, geographically-speaking. Despite the mileage and hours we traveled (the equivalent of driving from Minneapolis to Indianapolis one-way), we hardly made a dent in the state. On top of those two elements, even though tourism is booming in the summer months, tourists act differently in Alaska than anywhere I have visited before. I am convinced Alaska’s scenery and remote location has a calming effect on visitors.

Even before our plane descended into Anchorage I saw some of the beauty Alaska has to offer. I was prepared before arriving as a colleague of mine told me about the descent, but as soon as they came into view I still couldn’t take my eyes off of the fjords, glaciers, vast forest, and overall beauty. I couldn’t stop asking myself, “I get to play HERE for TEN days!?”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A few days into our Alaskan journey, while touring Denali National Park, our tour guide asked a question that stuck with me the remainder of the trip:

“We all have different journeys that have led us here and reasons why we are here today. Why are you here? What brought you here?”

Our group looked around at each other and saw just how different we all were. A few spoke up indicating where they were from: Australia (we ran into a lot of Aussies), New Jersey, Oklahoma, Arizona, Alabama, New York, etc. But we all had the same goal; to see the wildness that Alaska provides, its beauty, its wonder, and its wilderness. For the remainder of the trip, we saw picturesque untouched environments. While no photography can capture the true beauty and wonder we saw, some of what we did capture provides some context.

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Kenai Fjords National Park
Ruth Glacier Amphitheatre, Denali National Park
Ruth Glacier Amphitheater, Denali National Park

Before leaving the land of 10,000 lakes I made a promise to myself and my husband that I would stay off Twitter altogether during our trip and limit my cell phone usage as much as possible. Heck, this was #YOLOVacation (yes, that term was used throughout our travels). But, when in Alaska…

I wasn’t sure how I would fare as those who know me know I am probably too connected with “the internets”. Even where there was service (wireless service is sparse around most of the state), it was impossible to take your eyes off of what was around you. It may sound strange, but even during downpours, the scenery is phenomenal and I have never seen anything like it in my life.

The mountains, the trees, the crisp fresh air, and of course the wildlife; it really doesn’t get any better! We had reception every evening and that’s when we would reconnect for an hour with friends and family (which was difficult with the long daylight hours and 3 hour time difference). However, ultimately being ‘disconnected’ let my husband and I SEE Alaska as it is. We didn’t miss anything because we were on our phones. In fact, there were countless times where we lowered our camera to see what was in front of us; some of the most breathtaking places on Earth.

Wherever we were we heard a new story and told our stories in exchange. I came home with stories I will never forget: rounding the cruise boat to the port side to come face-to-face with Dall’s Porpoise swimming with our boat, standing on top of Ruth Glacier in Denali National Park, seeing the top of Mount McKinley/Denali, seeing the most magnificent glacial blue color, moose crossings, a humpback whale breach, following a family of orca whales, eating dinner with a sea otter watching us from only a few feet away, and countless others.

Even a week after returning, I have had more conversations with colleagues and friends, hearing their stories and travels of Alaska or to hear of their aspirations to travel to Alaska one day. Truly, I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to travel to The Last Frontier and disconnect from the world to see nature in its purest form. I also noticed how relaxed and rejuvenated I felt upon returning. It was even more so apparent when I returned to the office and many of my colleagues noticed right away, too.

So, long story longer, I will definitely be doing more of these ‘off the grid’ adventures in the future as it helped me focus on the “right here, right now” and experience what was there in front of me. We’re all human and need to get away from the technology we rely on daily. And reconnecting with nature in its purest form can help us recharge ourselves to provide a much needed break from today’s hyper connected environment.

Lastly, I leave this post with some inspiration my friends have decorated in their home in Homer, Alaska:

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Code on

The most important takeaway I have learned, in my short time, in a development role is this: Code now; ask questions later.

For those that are now even more confused then you were a few seconds ago, know this: I, too ask a lot of questions. But coding is the act of doing, you will learn much more if you act by doing one line of code at a time (after all, practice makes perfect).

Sure you will encounter roadblocks, you will want to give up, and maybe even want to throw your computer out a window but the struggle makes the journey.

A good friend of mine recently traveled to Peru and hiked the Camina Inca (Inca Trail) to the beautiful Machu Picchu. Most of the stories from her trip were about day two of the hike aka the “day from hell”, as she described it. Day two included a nearly four mile uphill hike that included an almost 4,000 foot elevation change (yikes).

Inca_Trail_Elevation_Profile

The reason I bring this up is while those numbers seem flat out insane, the ultimate goal of day two en route to Machu Picchu is the same as the journey of coding. Never stop; keep one foot in front of the other and one day you will turn around and see you have climbed a mountain. When you arrive at the top, you will see the journey that lead you there and the one that lies before you. Plus, you’ll have some amazing stories to tell!

But as with everything else, good things happen to those who are willing to learn at their own pace. Learning how to code takes time, and no journey is the same, so try to be patient along the way. Just because it seems like you are sitting at a computer struggling doesn’t mean someone else with the same skillset isn’t doing the very same thing you are.

Most importantly, remember this: The master has failed more times than the beginner has tried.

The Little Things

Coding is hard. Seriously. The last few work days have been extremely hard for me as I’ve been trying to learn a new library and struggling; heck failing. Yes, failing.

It felt similar to this:

Scissors

Learning and innovating go hand-in-hand with failures every now and then, right? Of course. But how do you tell your colleague(s), stakeholder(s), and/or customer(s) that you failed? It’s incredibly difficult.

Two little things came into my life this morning that made everything better, and I hope they will have as much of an impact on someone else as they did on me:

  1. Even the best of the best feel this way sometimes.

Don’t overestimate the world and underestimate yourself; you are better than you think.

YOU have gifts to share with the world.
YOU are not alone.
YOU are not flawed.
YOU are human.
NEVER, ever give up.

  1. Start using a four-letter word.

When you complete any task, no matter how small, say the word: Done. Break down those large “beast-like” tasks into smaller ones and either say or write down the word “Done” when you complete it.

Not only are we creating an emotional reaction by using the word, we are also releasing serotonin, our body’s ‘feel good’ chemical, allowing us to feel calm and satisfied. Seriously, do this, and do it often.

Done.

Stop Comparing and Start Celebrating

“Have patience with all things but first with yourself. Never confuse your mistakes with your value as a human being. You’re a perfectly valuable, creative, worthwhile person simply because you exist. And no amount of triumphs and tribulations can ever change that. Unconditional self-acceptance is the core of a peaceful mind.” –Saint Francis de Sales

I turned thirty last month; one of those “oh, sh*t” moments in my life. Sure, I’ve accomplished some really great things both personally and professionally but there’s still so much I want to do.

As a “young professional” I often compare myself to others and I have seen many of my peers on the same boat. We want to know where we stand, what we need to do to get better, and understand the path(s) we need to take to achieve the next great thing. In doing this, no matter how hard we try, we are often comparing our beginning to someone else’s middle, or even someone else’s end in some cases.

When we compare ourselves to others’ at another point, we will find that we are never satisfied with where we are at because we are not at the same level and we will struggle to celebrate any of our accomplishments.

Something I do quite frequently is think that there is much more I could be doing. Of course, I could be doing more, as could you, or anyone else to “better yourself”. But just because you could be doing more doesn’t mean that you should be doing more. The demands we place on ourselves will exceed the resources we have available to deal with the stressors in our lives. Each of us needs rest and breaks and when we set unrealistic goals for ourselves we could be headed down the road of burnout.

Ultimately, what I’m getting at is stop comparing yourself to others; people achieve their successes and failures at different rates. Sometimes you will be ahead of your peers and at other times you will be behind them (and that is totally normal).

Own where you are and where you will be as you continue moving forward. But always take time to celebrate and appreciate your accomplishments and never compare your beginning to someone else’s middle or end.

No one Knows What They’re Doing

One of the most common talking points I have with other young professionals is in regards to what is expected of us as many of us have received very little training from our employers. Yet we are expected to wear multiple hats and get everything done, with deadlines of yesterday, while keeping up with our colleagues who have years of experience and training already under their belts.

This growing trend has been a frustration for me and the many other young professionals who just want to make the world better than it is. Plus, it is incredibly terrifying to be thrown a handful of projects with no idea on how to conquer them before their deadlines.

To me the feeling is like being thrown overboard in the middle of the ocean with a lifesaver and asked to get to shore with only the ability to swim. Sure, you’ve got a great foundation and a tool that can prepare you for the challenges ahead but: How can you find the shoreline? What resources will you have and/or find along the way? What obstacles will you encounter? How will you survive?

In my opinion, April from Parks and Recreation (video) said it best to her partner-in-crime, Andy:

“I’m going to tell you a secret about everyone else’s job: No one knows what they’re doing. Deep down everyone is just faking it until they figure it out. And you will, too, because you are awesome and everyone else sucks.”

AprilParksRec

I can’t think of anyone that hasn’t had a moment similar to Andy’s at least once in their career. We are all just fish swimming in an ocean navigating through rough waters, tidal waves, and at times, even hurricanes. These moments and hardships help define and guide us throughout our careers.

But, while I am still in the beginning stage of my career I am doubtful this feeling will ever go away; even if we do receive adequate training and support from our colleagues. There is no way to know everything as there will always be something new to learn and even a new, seemingly impossible project on the horizon.

So let’s navigate some rough waters together and make the world a better place. What say you?