HxGN RadioPodcast

Location Intelligence: Finding your geospatial career path

The geospatial career field covers a broad spectrum of industries, job roles, and focus areas. And before you decide which direction you want to take your career, it always a good idea to have a clear picture of your options, and how to prepare and pursue what interests you most. In our ongoing podcast series about geospatial careers and professional development, we talk to Mike Lane, Global Education Manager of Hexagon’s Geospatial division, and Elliott Ferguson, Vice President of Geospatial at Hexagon US Federal, about the many possible career paths in the geospatial industry, including opportunities within the federal government, the intelligence community, and the private sector. Also discussed are the varying skill sets needed to succeed and how to identify the right fit for you.

JD: Hi, and thank you for tuning into location intelligence on HxGN radio. I’m your host, Justin Dinger. The geospatial career field covers a broad spectrum of industries, job roles, and focus areas. Before you decide which direction you want to take your career, it’s always a good idea to have a clear picture of your options and how to prepare and pursue what interests you most. In our ongoing podcast series about geospatial careers and professional development, I’m talking to Mike Lane, Global Education Manager of Hexagon’s Geospatial division and Elliott Ferguson, Vice President of Geospatial at Hexagon US Federal about the many possible career paths in the geospatial industry, including opportunities within the federal government, the intelligence community and the private sector. We’ll also discuss the varying skill sets needed to succeed and how to identify the right fit for you. Mike and Elliott, welcome back to the show. Thanks again for joining us.

ML: Yeah. Thanks for having us again.

EF: Yeah, it’s a pleasure.

JD: In our last episode, we talked about how each of you started your careers in the geospatial industry and the journey you’ve had so far. Mike, for someone thinking about starting a career in this industry, what’s step one? You know, what’s your advice on how they should go about discovering all the possible job roles or focus areas?

ML: Yeah, so I would say first and foremost, starting off in geospatial is to narrow down what you like to do, what you enjoy. You know, if you really don’t like programming, but you still want to be in geospatial, do some research. You can become part of LinkedIn groups, Facebook groups, and really explore that way, different opportunities and different things outside of something like programming. So, for example, if you wanted to do technical writing or technical marketing, become an applications GIS analyst, all of these things are available. So, I would say definitely pick something that you’re going to want to do and enjoy, and then do some networking around on some groups. If there are face to face meet-ups, potentially you can go to those, but as we know right now, a lot of things are virtual. So, continue to explore things online, and become part of those groups and ask a lot of questions. There may be opportunities out there that you haven’t even thought of. And by talking to people and understanding what is out there, I think that it would be a great opportunity to explore those, those different careers.

JD: Thanks, Mike. Elliott, you know, from your perspective, what’s your first step advice? You know, how should someone go about discovering all of the possible job roles or focus areas in the geospatial industry?

EF: Yeah, like Mike said, I think it’s really do your homework. Do your research, and find your niche, where you, you like to perform. If you’re coming right out of college, obviously a lot of the programmes that exist within those colleges have networks of their own, where you can leverage those to get into traditional GIS fields where folks may already be connected to that particular programme. If you’re having a fresh start and just sort of starting over in your career and want to start new, most businesses these days, in one way shape or form are dealing with geospatial data. So, there might be a way to carve out a place for yourself within your own business, or even reach out to others within your existing network to see what they have available as far as exploiting geospatial data or solving complex problems for marketing and other things similar to what we talked about in the last show.

JD: Thank you, Elliott. So, kind of going back to that and Mike and Elliott, I think both of you kind of talked about this kind of discovering what you’re interested in. And I think, you know, are there a set of questions that career entrants should maybe be asking themselves as they start down this path in geospatial?

ML: So definitely. First of all, some of the questions you can consider are what kind of problems are you interested in solving? So, what interests you the most. As I said before, are you interested in public or private sector jobs? A lot of times this deals with time and the pace at which you are moving and working. If something like working an eight to five job and spending time with your family in the evening is important to you, versus being in a fast commercial environment where you’re taking calls in the evenings and spending, you know, a little bit of more flexible time versus a structured schedule. That’s also something important to consider that work life balance when you’re considering your role. What kind of environment, a work environment appeals to you? So, for example, do you like to work by yourself? Do you like to work in small groups, larger groups? Are you interested in becoming a practitioner or GIS analyst working by yourself, or maybe more pursuing a career in management? Whatever path that you are choosing, do you have enough credentials and certifications, or is your future role going to be something that you need to spend time in the evenings studying, more degrees, more certifications? What is your goal? So, these are all the types of things that you should consider when you’re first getting into geospatial. And of course, you can progress as your career progresses. But in the end, you’re going to be happiest and stick with it longer if you’re doing something that you enjoy and take a look at these bigger picture things from the beginning to make sure that the job that you’re taking and the career path that you’re going is one that’s going to be successful and enjoyable.

JD: Elliot, from your perspective, do you have anything to add to the questions that Mike’s kind of put out there?

EF: Honestly I think she nailed it. For the federal government specifically. that’s where we focus our customer set. I think the questions are all very applicable. What Mike just went over. The other thing that kind of comes to mind is within a government setting, if you’re looking at the federal government specifically, a lot of times you have to get your foot in the door and then grow that career over time. So again, going into an entry-level position and understanding that the federal government provides a lot of opportunity for growth and mentorship and also training inside of their standardised programmes is something to keep in mind. So, if you can get in there and start at a rudimentary level and grow over time, the federal government is very good at helping to grow and expand your talent set through training and other opportunities there. So, I think there’s some good opportunity if you’re willing to start at the bottom and work your way up.

JD: So, let’s go back to that. And let’s just go back and look at just the federal government. And I know that, that’s where you have a lot of experience, you know, what can someone that’s coming in to a career at an entry level position? You know, what are some of the maybe roles and responsibilities or focus areas that they could maybe expect to, I don’t know, walk into when they enter the federal government workspace?

EF: Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s a very broad in the federal space. Commercial obviously is very similar in this regard. But there are things, everything from the DOD in supporting the actual armed forces. They have a far more analyst perspective obviously going. If you’re coming from the military or going into the military, you can get training and expertise that way. Starting out as a civilian with the federal government, you can go into a multitude of organisations, anything from department of interior that could be FEMA or HHS or DHS. There’s all of these organisations that have geospatial as part of their core operations team. When you come in as a, as a startup analyst, essentially your entry-level positions are going to be helping review data, ensure data’s in a proper and appropriate formats, producing an analysis reports or just analysis. Overall, again, depending on your particular organisation, maybe it’s FEMA looking at flood mapping or disaster impacts all of those sorts of things. And then growing your expertise over time to help that particular mission.

JD: Thank you. I mean, that sounds pretty broad and I’d kind of like to pivot and think about, you know. You also mentioned the difference between public sector and the private sector. And Mike, what I’d really like to know is I know you bring a wealth of experience working with universities. Have you seen any hiring trends or skill demands from the private sector as you’re out there talking to professors and talking with students? And what kind of opportunities are available in the private sector?

ML: Well, as we’ve mentioned, as Elliot mentioned before. Every industry is using location based data now. So, it really just depends on your interests. Almost all companies are using GIS and location-based information to make strategic decisions. So, you really can’t go wrong with a geospatial degree. I would say programming experience would be a great thing to have. Keeping up to date with Python, R, Java, those types of things. So, what I encourage professors to think about when I’m talking to them about curriculum and what they’re teaching at the university is variety. And exposing students to a variety of different software packages, whether that’s commercial or open source, how they work together and why we each one of those is important in our industry today. So, getting as much exposure to both different types of software and as many pieces of software as you can is going to be a great asset.

JD: It sounds like that a lot of students coming out of university programmes, it’s knowing more than just your geography or earth sciences or relevant degree sets. Is that true?

ML: I would say absolutely, yes. So, for example, there is a GIS day that happens every year. If you’re not familiar, it’s typically around the middle of November and it’s a designated national day. Universities typically have vendors and career day around this day. And the last time, last year I spent that day at the University of Georgia talking to a variety of different students in their geography library and where their students come to take their GIS classes. And I was actually amazed that almost all of the students there had a major in something that they were very passionate about, something that was not GIS related at all, like journalism or conservation, forestry. Something that was involving the geospatial field, but then they were all minoring in GIS. So, it was quite a different experience for that instead of just being a major in geospatial, geosciences, that students were taking, at the kind of the, the opposite way. And majoring in their study of interest and then applying GIS and location-based information as a part of that. And again, that’s what we’ve been talking about in the last couple of podcasts is how important location and GIS is across all industries. So, you can kind of approach it from either way, either becoming fully involved in geospatial and GIS, or doing your field that you are passionate and applying a geospatial background and more applications involving GIS as a minor.

JD: And while we’re on the topic of education, I know that, you know, back when, you know, a couple of minutes back when you were talking about some of the questions career entrance should ask themselves. You mentioned like secondary education or kind of ongoing education, and I’m just wondering, you know, what types of educational requirements or recommendations are helpful in the geospatial career field?

ML: Certainly, a GIS certificate. A lot of universities offer that as a supplement into whatever career that you are planning to go into. So, sometimes it is a year degree or a two-year certificate that you can apply to your field of choice. And that is always a great thing to have, going into whatever fields and getting any job as we know. So, I would say definitely a GIS certificate, any online courses that you can find for your field of interest. So, there are online courses for GIS. We have a partner called Brilliant Remote Sensing Labs that offers remote sensing education online through an online portal. They also offer certifications as well, that you can add to your CV and resume. So, you can find all different types of these certifications online and ask questions to other students and to your professors. If they see these as valuable and worthy of taking, obviously ask your professors for advice on which other certifications they recommend as well. But adding location-based information and certifications on top of whatever career that you’re going into will benefit you in the interview process and help you with your perspective, new employer.

JD: Elliott, what’s your take, what’s your perspective on secondary education and ongoing education?

EF: Yeah, I think that any education that you can receive like Mike said. Whether that’s a certificate or additional training or whatever. It’s good to keep yourself fresh. GIS, specifically in geospatial is constantly moving, constantly evolving. What we’ve seen in the past are these large stacks of software that were utilised to solve problems on the desktop. And now you’re seeing a lot of that move into the cloud and very specific microservices being used to solve very specific problems and workflows. So again, just in the short time, relatively that I’ve been in geospatial over the last 10 to 15 years, it’s changed a ton. And so, I think keeping yourself fresh and relevant is super important. And secondary education is huge; a huge part of that. The other component that I liked, what Mike said, is I think more and more people are discovering how geospatial can become a part of your toolkit. It may not necessarily be your underlying place of study or your underlying interest, but it’s a tool in order to get you more information within your desired outcomes. So, if you’re a computer scientist and you want to do things with spatial computation using things like AR (Augmented Reality) or even using other languages like Python and traditional stacks can be utilised. And so, doing secondary education on getting a GIS certificate, like Mike mentioned, it could be super helpful to your underlying area of interest or study. Or even what you’re supporting in your corporate environment.

JD: Thanks. And I have another question for you. If a career is a marathon, Elliot, what’s your advice on making that career in the geospatial field, a long and successful and rewarding experience?

EF: So, my answer, my particular answer might not work for everybody. But for me, variety is the spice of life. So, find things that you like, but then mix it up as much as possible. That’s, what’s been working for me. I see a lot of, there’s a lot of problems that can be solved with geospatial solutions. So, I don’t feel like there’s any particular point in my career that I haven’t found a challenge that I don’t want to go attach myself to. But for others, they may find a mission or an opportunity or a particular problem set that they want to solve and put their head down and focus on that in the long-term. And that’s where academia really comes into play. And potentially even being part of larger studies or even federal organisations like we talked about before with long-term missions, things like that NASA would potentially run or FEMA. Or other large studies could be very long and rewarding careers where you learn more and more and evolve as that project or mission evolves. And then there’s the other side of the coin similar to mine, which is a mass in rapid exposure to as many things as possible. And that may be jumping from job to job or jumping from project to project within your corporation. I think it’s a little bit of a both for most people and the way that I’ve approached it anyway. I think adding new problem sets and understanding more about the industry as a whole has really kept me engaged. And again, continuing to find new and exciting opportunities to apply that to.

JD: And Mike, how about you. You’ve been in the industry for 20 years. What’s your advice for making a career a long and successful and rewarding?

ML: Yes. So, I mean, what Elliot said is exactly right. You have to find what is going to resonate with you and what you are going to be happy with and be sustainable with. So, we’ve all heard, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. So, although I’ve worked for the same company for a long time, I’ve done a variety of different roles and I’ve changed it up every two to four years based on what I’ve learnt and what I want to get involved in next. I think that it’s important as well, too, once you are in a role to really to do well and excel at that role before you maybe jump onto the next thing, so that you can really be successful. Understand the role of bring some new ideas into it. And you really learn from that to understand what you want to move on to next. Obviously Elliott and I have a similar kind of a background in which we have changed jobs very frequently. Maybe not for me change companies, but changed roles. But as Elliot said, some of our colleagues have been doing the exact same role for many, many years, and they do it really, really well, and that’s their passion and they’ve stuck to it. And they’re perfectly happy doing that. So, find your passion, find what you want and that will create a sustainable career in which you will enjoy and pursue for the long-term.

JD: Great. Thank you. I think that’s great advice. I just really have one last question. Mike or Elliott, are there any parting suggestions, ideas, or advice for career-seekers as we wrap this episode up?

EF: I can jump in quickly. I think the one for me that I haven’t mentioned yet is for a lot of people coming right out of school, you have a really good idaea of what your area of study prepared you for. But that may not be the thing that you’re going to be passionate about for the rest of your life. For me, that was the case. And so, when you’re looking for new jobs or looking to explore ways to get into a particular career field, be willing to put yourself out there a little bit. Go after things that you may not feel a hundred percent comfortable with. But you think sound interesting because as long as you can find a level of interest, the passion will develop over time, or you’ll have to find something new to go after. So, you know, put yourself out there, know that you’re going to go in at a low level and have to grow over time. And that’s where that expertise and sort of seasoning comes from. And as Mike was talking about earlier. And if you can do that, I think you’ll have a long and healthy career. And just set those goals for yourself early and often so, you know if you’re hitting those points along the way that you wanted to hit.

ML: Yeah. And I’ll just add on to that. We talked a lot about personal and what you should do in your own personal way to advance your career. And what we haven’t really mentioned is the people that you work with and how important that is in your career. So, finding a place where you really fit, really kind of taking your coworkers and pursuing relationships, liking the people you work with finding a mentor, either within that organisation or outside of the organisation can be really important as well. So, make sure you make those connections within the industry, people that have like-minded interests. As we mentioned, technology and groups, but as well within your organisation. I think that’s also the recipe for success in a long sustainable career is knowing the people that you work with and, and really enjoying working with those people.

JD: Great, thank you, Mike. In the next episode, we will discuss how to build your network and mentoring and things like that. So, I’d really just like to see a big thank you to the both of you for doing another episode.

ML: Thanks for having us.

EF: I really appreciate it.

JD: In the next episode of this series Mike and Elliott will discuss how to build a professional network in the geospatial industry. Thanks for tuning into Location Intelligence on HxGN Radio. For more great stories and podcasts, visit hxgnspotlight.com.