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?


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 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 (, Codecademy,, 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,


A Developer’s Toolbox

“No home is complete without a proper toolbox. Here’s April and Andy’s: A hammer, a half eaten pretzel, a baseball card, some cartridge that says Sonic and Hedgehog, a scissor half, a flashlight filled with jellybeans.” – Ron Swanson, Parks & Recreation (video)


While many of us laugh at April and Andy’s toolbox contents, the statement Ron makes is a valid one. We all need, in some capacity, a toolbox to properly equip us. Developers and non-developers alike, we need a specific set of tools to get our jobs done.

But just because we have a tool in our own ‘toolbox’ doesn’t mean someone else will use it in the same way, or use it at all. For example:

  • Do we all need the same tools? No
  • Do we all use the same tools? No
  • Do we all use the same tool in the same way? No
  • Will we use the same tools throughout our careers? More than likely, no.

Another element to keep in mind is that sometimes we need more than one tool to solve a problem. In fact some problems require the use of multiple tools together to solve a routine task. Check out the crow intelligence video below (an oldie but a goody):

So listing the name of tools I use is somewhat misleading. Will my list of tools help you? They could, or they could have the opposite effect. Also, tools can become obsolete over time – look at the Google Earth API.

But with these things in mind, below is a short list of some of the tools found in my toolbox, organized by price [Note: I use Windows as my OS both personally and professionally]:

  1. Notepad ++ (Free): Think Notepad on steroids; it’s simply amazing. A source code editor that supports a lot of languages (I haven’t found one that isn’t supported yet). Plus the creators compare it to ‘free speech’ and ‘free beer’ on their website; clearly you can’t go wrong with this product.
  1. OSGeo4W (Free): The Windows package of: GDAL/OGR, QGIS, GRASS, MapServer, OpenEV, uDig and others. From what I have used and seen I am a huge fan and it’s made my life so much easier. Some of the tools you can tap into with GDAL are incredibly powerful and can produce some amazing things, sometimes superior to Arc- products, plus it’s free. I am not sure about other OS’ and I am pretty new to the scene but if you ask The Googles, you should be able to get what you need.
  1. Eclipse IDE (Free): While I complain a lot about Eclipse, it’s a pretty cool tool. You can customize the environment in any way you like, including a whole suite of amazing plug-ins. However, a forewarning for beginners: it’s not the easiest tool to setup and anytime Java updates you may encounter some issues. But if you are willing to weather the storm, you will enjoy this product as a developer.
  1. Git (Free/$): When a colleague first showed me Github I was extremely weary of it but it’s been extremely useful to me both personally and professionally. I have been able to learn new tidbits and tricks and improve my overall knowledge all while meeting others in the development community. Git tools, specifically Github for Windows (Free), provide a way to sync your work with the Github community. Most of the Git tools are free but a few do have a small cost.
  1. GIMP (Free): An amazing raster graphics editor. GIMP was the first open source tool I ever used so I am somewhat biased. Overall, I find it much more usable than Photoshop and hey, it’s free.
  1. Adobe Illustrator CC ($$): An amazing vector graphics editor, especially for cartography and graphic design. I have tried to use the free and open source software, Inkscape but in my opinion, it simply isn’t the same as the Illustrator product. While I am very resistant to fork money over for something that has a free alternative, this is one of the instances I recommend going with the paid version.
  1. Adobe Acrobat Pro ($$): Love, love, love this tool! Whether it be for combining multiple documents, creating professional forms, and/or scanning documents and redacting private information (for reference). I do recommend getting this when you purchase a new PC, it’s usually a much better deal than the monthly pricing Adobe lists on their website.
  1. Esri ArcGIS Advanced ($$$): I don’t want to start an ArcGIS vs. QGIS debate and to be honest, I don’t have much experience with QGIS but since this is what I know, I am adding it to my list. This goes back to one of my comments above; as my career progresses this tool may or may not be on it but for now it’s on the list (please don’t send me hate mail). The package includes: ArcMap, ArcToolbox, and ArcCatalog among other items. Be ready to sell your first born on this product; it is quite spendy.

Monetary Guide:

  • $ Broke and/or young professional approved. 🙂
  • $$ A larger investment but worth it if you can afford it.
  • $$$ You better check (and re-check) your bank account before making this kind of purchase.

So tell me, what tools do you use?

Directional Passions

I recently finished reading the book From Here To There by Kris Harzinksi (Amazon). As a cartographer, looking at hand drawn maps has always been a fascination of mine and the collection compiled by Harzinski is no exception. His book has: direction maps, found maps, fictional maps, artful maps, maps of unusual places and explanatory maps. Some of my favorites are: Fellow Passenger Becomes Friend (34), Quastolia (96-7), and Shared Notepad (114-5).

From Here To There Cover

Each of these maps, different in their own way, are based on the cartographer’s intent and knowledge of an area. Each shows the individuality of its cartographer and their thought process on a piece of paper. Some maps are incredibly detailed while others very simplistic. When looking through the maps compiled by Harzinski I see more than a map and try and think in the cartographer’s shoes. “Why was this map drawn this way? What was s/he thinking? Feeling? Intending?

For me it goes back to one of the first maps I ever drew – before MapQuest or any web mapping tool was available to the public. It was a map with detailed directions from my school to my house to anyone who would be visiting from my school. This project is one of my earliest memories that sticks in my mind – ten years before I knew I would have a career in Geography – a sixth grade geography assignment that changed my life. To this day, those directions are the same directions I give to anyone visiting my parents house.

What is your directional passion?

Campaign Maps

Maps that Tell a Story

One of the newest ideas in the cartographic world are maps that tell a story. Sometimes viewers cannot get the full perspective of a map that looks “normal” or contains information we see everyday. Instead, cartographers are trying to tell a story using either dynamic information through social media, photos and/or videos or distorting maps to show you what your eye misses at first glace – conveying a story. Below are some distorted maps that tell a story of the upcoming election.

Electoral Votes

In most nationwide maps we see which candidate has won over its respective state with a number of electoral votes won by that candidate. But what the map does not normally tell us is the weight of the state with its electoral votes. In the map displayed below you can see the weight each state has based on their electoral votes and the state’s popular vote from the 2008 election. This weight is key as the electoral votes by state, not the popular vote in the nation depict the final winner – as we saw in the 2000 election when George W. Bush had a lower popular vote but won the electoral vote over his opponent, Al Gore.

The United States with state sized based on the number of electoral votes. Map Source: Adam Cole/NPR.

Election Advertising Spending

As we focus on the importance of the electoral votes we understand the weight of the United States but we do not get an understanding of the states that the candidates consider the most important for the 2012 election. Advertisement spending is only conducted in states where opponents think need the most attention, or may sway the electoral votes. The following two maps show advertisement spending by state in millions of dollars and spending by state voter in dollars respectively.

The United States with state size based on advertisement spending by outside groups in the 2012 presidential race. Map Source: Adam Cole/NPR.
The United States with state size based on political advertisement spending by outside groups on the 2012 presidential race per voting age adult. Map Source: Adam Cole/NPR.

Mobile Maps

The last week in the mobile map world has been a public hit – and not for good reason. Apple’s latest OS – iOS 6 dropped Google Maps as its primary map application and it replaced it with the newly designed Apple Maps.

This image shows Google Maps on the left and Apple Maps on the right.

The latest release has users and developers scrambling for an answer to solve the answer of many Apple users – where am I and how can I get somewhere? One of the most used applications on Apple products changed last week. Many users noticed the change within minutes of the upgrade including problems such as relocating the Dublin airport to a farm, mislabeled neighborhoods in downtown San Francisco and missing key landmarks in downtown areas across the world to name a few of the many issues with Apple’s mapping solution.

The Dublin airport labeled in a farm field in Apple Maps.

As a geographer it is hard to watch Apple remake maps from scratch when others like Google and OSM (Open Street Map) have had working maps for nearly a decade. But alas, here we are back at what seems to be square one with Apple maps. This geographer is not upgrading soon and is already considering the other options in terms of phones this fall/winter season. What are your plans?


Paper Maps

Day after day GIS staff are known for making maps. Many times we are asked to make a paper map, even during a time when electronic maps can change dynamically daily. Why? Why do we still print e-mails, PDF’s, Word documents, or Excel spreadsheets? Sometimes a paper copy is the best way to disseminate the information at stake. Most days, we stare at our computer screens more than we interact with each other.

I know when I attend the ESRI User Conference one of the main events I look forward to most is the map gallery. I can see artistry at work – and yes, critique the thousands of maps freely available to me. But each has its story and the cartographer gets to tell that story to their best ability with a piece of parchment. While the automation process of maps is efficient most days, sometimes a paper map tells a story electronics cannot.