How to Get a Job as a Web Map Maker

I am a Geographer, I have a lot of Geographer friends and of course a lot of Geographer colleagues (I do have non-Geographer colleagues). A popular topic of conversation about the industry is the growing need to incorporate Computer Science (CS) skills into the training required to obtain an occupation designed around delivery of information with maps.

Many feel as though they could have seriously benefited from more CS work in their curriculum. At the same time, I don’t think the data science and CS community is doing themselves any favors by focusing on data as separate from geospatial data. I recently talked with a Galvanize grad who mapped locations by stitching together google map images. I was really excited that he was able to see the value of Geospatial Analysis for his application and get creative to use location, but still… strange times we are living in.


Technical Requirements and Job Descriptions

There are realistically only a handful of ways to be employed as a GIS practitioner, and Web Map Maker is a subdivision of this group – or is a Computer Scientist with no Geographic or Cartographic training. The actual work available, can be summarized in a few categories. My categories of ways to make money as Geographer are:

  • Geospatial Engineer – planning, construction firms, building, utilities
    Primary tasks: Batch processing raster/vector input for data analysis, presenting results, permitting, legal surveying, boundaries
  • Government – earth agencies and human geographers
    Primary tasks: Batch processing raster/vector data for curation, some analysis of data, cartography, field validation, education and outreach.
  • Map Developer – designing and implementing interactive web maps
    Primary tasks: Scripting together databases and web map interfaces to produce interactive web experiences, analysis on data to deliver web map requirements, creating data from open data sources combining with private data
  • Software Developer – GIS software products
    Primary tasks: Designing and maintaining proprietary or open source Geospatial software through development of operational scripts, sales, marketing, education and outreach
  • Map Research, Education – map librarians, professors, researchers
    Primary tasks: grant acquisition and research, field research, curating, cataloging, GIS center operations

GIS consultants could be considered another category, but they do all of the above so its a bit redundant. As for the required training needed to get into one of these jobs, there are, of course, a vast number of permutations that can bring a person to a given title. That being said, there are some identifiable patterns to provide guidance.

  • If you want to be a Geospatial Engineer or work for an Earth Agency, you can expect that you will be doing a lot of batch processing of data. This work requires knowledge in ArcGIS, QGIS, ogr2ogr/GDAL, python and R.
  • To be a Map Developer, this job can be done with ESRI and also with JavaScript. If you are doing web dev with ESRI you are most likely working in government. Private consultants in this space that build fully customizeable interactive high performance web maps most commonly use JavaScript, Leaflet, Angular, Mongo, PostGIS, Mustache, ogr2ogrGDAL, Mapbox, Mapnik, Mapzen, OSM, OSRM, some generate their own Vector Tiles, and, of course, also do all their own hosting and styling (AWS, html, css). The most advanced web maps I’ve seen created also included some D3 to frame the UI with widgets that tell the story and cater to UX (ESRI has a very user friendly tool for including photos and text boxes with maps called Story Maps, it really facilitates the use of a map for presentation of information). On top of all that, the libraries for all these languages are constantly updating, and as the technology improves so too does this list grow.
  • A Software Engineer needs to know all of the Map Dev stuff, and also have the ability to troubleshoot any problem to a solution, which requires rapid learning of any new scripting language at any given time.

All that to say, its really hard to learn everything you need to know to be a Web Map Developer without getting two degrees – one in Geography and one in Computer Science. It is near impossible to learn to make a web map by working in your free time, the only way to learn is to get a job where they will teach you how to code. Pursuing this career path is not something that can be done easily with a few tutorials on nights and weekends.

If you know Arc, the path to web development is a bit easier using Arc. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of my frustrations with the quality and performance of those products in many web services I’ve visited, but they’re still making web maps and doing cool things for data management so I can’t be too much of a hater :). AND, in my estimation, I think someone could learn it on nights and weekends – especially if an Arc license is available through work. Unfortunately, the primary barrier to entry on this route was the need to have a license to access the software to learn to do web dev with ESRI. Depending on your Geography, you might get lucky and have someone like Andy Gup living in your area – he is the ESRI Web Dev primary outreach, AND he runs 4 hour workshops training ESRI web dev environment and promotes them on the Meetups website. Also, I heard recently that if you volunteer your GIS services, ESRI will give you a license. So, there are ways to learn even if one can’t personally afford an annual license.

Many Geography graduates without CS curriculum have built the skills leading to either an analyst and/or cartographer. Beefing up data management and data architecture skills would go a long way for this path, and there is a LOT of work out there for people wanting to do the less glamorous work of data curation. As we all know, good data makes good maps, and its not a bad consolation prize to having the skills required to develop a sexy web map. When seeking a career in this arena, find projects to build up your analyst skills – volunteer or just come up with something to investigate on your own. There’s cool opportunities out there with those skills.


The Non-Technical Answer

Sometimes I just hop around LinkedIn and look at the job descriptions that my colleagues (the one’s I know, and also some I don’t!) writeup about their work, and what they are doing. One of my favorite exercises, its a great way to get perspective when I’m feeling lost or overwhelmed. Its fun to dream about yourself doing the work they do, and creating things using different tools and skill sets. Seek the Venn diagram of what intersects your categories of “job tasks that excite me and make my hair stand on end” and “job tasks that the skills I have gathered are setting me up for success for”. If you’re lucky then there is some decent overlap and all you need is a couple night classes (in Geography if you have a CS degree, and in CS if you have Geography). However, its probable that the job tasks that get you the most excited are outside the tasks you can do – but oh well, not all is lost. You might not actually be a web map cartographer UX extraordinaire, but there is lots of work available in the industry that is rewarding, pays the bills, provides work/live balance and keeps you current. These things are just as valuable and rewarding as those big hairy audacious goals. The ideal of course is to set yourself up for success when you start your degree – double major in Geography and CS.


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Margaret Spyker

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