What should I learn first?

It’s Friday the 13th, which means all kinds of weird stuff is happening: pigs are flying, water is running uphill, and Lyzi is publishing a blog post. Happy 2015, y’all. Enjoy.

(Also here is a puppy.)


Somewhat recently, I received an email from someone who came to MaptimeOAK for the first time. This person is super excited about maps, but is new to the field and doesn’t know where to start.

The email as sent asked some really good questions. This person was trying to understand the dynamics of the marketplace to influence the way they pursued the skillset. They drew a line between continuing with GIS and learning web-mapping skills. They had heard that traditional GIS is a flooded marketplace and that more and more GIS professionals are out of work, but that learning how to dissect and analyze spatial information would be important to their goals. They had heard that learning web mapping would make them more marketable, but they weren’t sure if they needed a strong foundation in GIS to be successful learning web mapping.

This is quite common in geospatial tech, and it is one of the reasons I think Maptime is so valuable. But clearly we’re missing the mark here a little bit, and in writing my response, I may have figured out why.

Instead of paraphrasing here, I’m just going to do the tried-and-true copy-paste (with identifiable information removed, of course). If you disagree with me, I want to know: tell me on Twitter (I’m @lyzidiamond) or shoot me an email. Let’s talk.</em>


Hi ____,

Thanks for reaching out! I hope I can answer some of your questions.

First of all, it’s not either/or, it’s both. Learning technical ability is a journey, largely because the actual technical skills associated can quickly become outdated if you don’t stay up on what’s happening in the field. New technologies are appearing all the time – it’s less about learning tools and more about learning problems and how to solve them.

In terms of “traditional geography” and GIS skills, these are very important. The reason that you’ve heard that traditional GIS is outdated is because a “traditional GIS education” has long been centered around one specific piece of software (ArcGIS) made by one specific company (Esri). I got my undergraduate degree in geography and GIS, and I’m not lying when I say that 90% of it was learning what buttons to push in this software. This was pretty good preparation for my job that came afterward (I was a GIS Technician at the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries), but there was a significant amount of learning I had to do on my own – even in the “traditional GIS” environment – to be successful.

Pardon me while I bloviate on education:

In school, typically, we learn a basic formula: “When you’re faced with this problem, use this tool to solve it.” The real world is simply not like that. So much work goes into a) assessing the problem, b) determining which solution out of the possible range of solutions is best in this particular situation, c) deciding which tool is best to execute on that solution in that particular situation, and d) doing it over again because you fucked something up. I never learned about that reality in school, and I think that was a stunting factor.

Back to the topic at hand…

When people say that “traditional GIS” is outdated, they mean that you need to know more than just how to push buttons in ArcGIS to be successful in the field. For a long time, just simply learning this software meant you could have a job. But we’re a much more technically-literate society these days, so just learning the software isn’t enough. You have to understand both the theoretical principles around the tasks you’re executing on as well as the technology that’s underlying the software. For any tool you execute in ArcGIS, there is both a geometric/spatial problem that’s being solved (in a theoretical sense) as well as a database task that’s being executed (in a technical sense). Understanding both of those things is what will make you successful in the field.

I understand that that’s probably a scary thing to hear. “I have to learn geometry AND databases to be successful?” The truth is, this stuff is FUN! Spatial analysis is so cool – understanding the shape of the earth, understanding how spatial relationships between things can be used to solve real-world problems… these things are so neat! And computers are magical and wonderful and there has been enough research done on how to teach about them that you can do it in a way that’s not totally overwhelming.

With all that said, my advice:

  1. Get some HTML, CSS, and JavaScript under your belt. This is just super fun, and you get to see the things you’re making happen in real time! AND understanding how the internet works is radical. Codecademy is great for learning this, but if that’s not your jam, I’m happy to point you toward other resources. There are also of course many courses you can take.
  2. Keep reading about spatial problems and how people are solving them, both from a technical standpoint and a theoretical one. I’m biased, but I think that Mapbox has some cool resources with our guides and examples on our blog. I have also written some stuff on my website, plus all the Maptime Lessons and Resources.
  3. On that token, keep coming to Maptime! That’s a super good place to continue learning.
  4. If you’re interested in taking the Web Mapping Quickstart class, I suggest you do it. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. :)

I’m not sure if that was helpful at all, but there it is. Feel free to ask more questions if anything is unclear. I hope this is useful to you in some way, and I hope to see you at a Maptime soon!

I added a Part 2 after I posted this one because I had more to share.