June 23, 2018
As a former GIS specialist who has transitioned to a new career as a software developer I have a story to tell about the changing nature of starting and maintaining a GIS career in a sector that thrives on making GIS accessible to everyone.
GIS used to be harder to master when you had to understand datums and projections. Now, with GIS software doing everything for you except the analysis (AI is coming for that as well) I’m not sure that a GIS career is all that it once was cracked up to be. It’s certainly not the road to job security and property it used to be, judging by stories the old timers talk about.
Seasoned industry veterans such as Todd Barr have seen this coming for some time. Industry leaders like Esri or FOSS4G (an organization which promotes and supports open-source geospatial software) improve their already career-disruptive software to lower the barrier of entry into the geomatics sector. GIS and map-making are easy now; look no further than ArcGIS, which has become the WordPerfect of map-making. Just fire up the software, start dragging and dropping in data, a little symbology and a north arrow, and there you go: A map suitable for publication.
With so many programs both at the college and university level pumping out post-grad certificates and Masters of Spatial Analysis, it shouldn’t be shocking to find that your first job may only earn you a handful of dollars more an hour than the minimum wage. As well, there are plenty of new online programs to take.
In the geospatial industry, you’ll find many talented individuals who are content to offer a discount for their work. If this is your desire, go with grace. But if you want to make more money while working adjacent to this industry, there are ways out.
As someone who used to compete and struggle for a GIS job I can tell you that in major metropolitan areas, the competition for a GIS job was fierce a decade ago. I have seen qualified analysts spend 1-2 years looking for their next GIS job – a demoralizing prospect if there ever was one! Now it can be as bad or worse.
Spatial is no longer special enough to merit its own career path. But that doesn’t prevent you from being spatial in your own industry. In Canada, these are a handful of industries where there is demand that lies adjacent to analysis or working with maps.
After running into the issue of too much competition and declining wages in my chosen geospatial career path, I made a switch to software development in 2016. I can safely say that my prospects, pay and life satisfaction improved qualitatively and quantitatively. There are not enough software developers who can do the math, map and refactor. There are many paths to success in software development. In 2014, I saw this truth after I graduated from university and persuaded a student I knew in his second year to move from Geographic Analysis at the University of Ottawa to Computer Science with a GIS minor. Between co-op jobs and work afterwards, he has never looked back. There is lots of work and lots of demand for his skills. A life saved from destitution.
There are many opportunities for those who want to blend data and analysis. If you loved your spatial analysis course, math and statistics, or your first-year labs at university, data science might be up your alley. Data science is the set of techniques used to gain insight from data; lots and lots of data. A GIS background has already partially set you up for this: you have the basics of database manipulation, the beginning of solid data visualization, domain expertise in geography, the ability to use R and Python, and some statistics as well as the scientific method. But there is a ladder you’d have to climb to make it to the top. The ability to figure hard things out and the ability to be comfortable with math are critical to success in this path. If you have these traits, a lot of good can follow.
Data science is a multidisciplinary blend of data inference, algorithmm development, and technology in order to solve analytically complex problems.
The lessons you learned in spatial analysis, geography and biology are still in demand. So is field surveying. But as Canada is still primarily a resource-based economy, the good jobs are not in the city and they will keep you away from home for long periods of time. But they are fun jobs and likely the nicest and most light-hearted job sites you will find yourself in, if you can put up with the occasional bit of discomfort, the daily safety briefings, and the 12-hour, multi-week shifts. You’re young, and the money is going to be better than sticking it out in the city.
If you are fond of designing the best posters and maps and have a joy for typography or colour theory, this is an industry that you may want to investigate. Like the industry you’re coming from, there have been dramatic shifts: We don’t print as many reports, papers, flyers or banners as we used to. But we still require our applications to be well-designed, and we still need the packaging to call out to our souls. The money isn’t as good as the other trades, but eventually you may find yourself at home producing beauty.
If you’ve got the entrepreneurial spirit, you’ll might find that there is promise in this career as it will help you practice the very techniques and tools that help build beautiful maps. But for the same reasons GIS analysis jobs come with fierce competition, you may find the pay and the difficulty of getting the interview for your first slot is as difficult as that of an analyst.
During a co-op job in university, I was lucky enough to befriend a near-retired cartographer. He was able to navigate change and keep his career together by being an early adopter of spatial technologies and finding a niche where his skills were in demand, but his story is becoming too rare. More common at various meetups are those of mid-career button-pressers who got laid off and found themselves unemployable. Why should this be a surprise? They spent their life on one specialty that is no longer desired as an ends in itself.