Resolution 2017: Create a professional development plan

By Diana S. Sinton

The symbolism of January for new beginnings and forward-facing intentions is common throughout the world, and often the resolutions are inward-facing. What are you going to do to help yourself be a better person this year? Well, what about your professional goals? Where can you turn for professional development in 2017? In this article we’ll consider some of the available options.

Degree & Certificate Programs

If now is the time to commit to a formal degree or program, you’re in luck, as it is a buyer’s market for the options. Keeping track of what is available is a dizzying endeavor and compilations of available choices, such as this list that URISA publishes or a mapped distribution from the GeoTech Center, are unfortunately only as current as the information contributed by program representatives themselves. Once you’ve filtered down the choices with the typical variables such as online or in-person, focus, duration and cost, you might want to consider the opinions of others in the community as well. Find alumni of programs, or ask a question on a discussion forum like Reddit GIS or CartoTalk. Unofficial rankings, like what geospatial professional Justin Holman publishes, are worth knowing about even if it’s the comments and discussion that are most helpful for you. Don’t skimp on gathering as much info as possible before you decide. It might not be the most important decision in your life but it could be one of the more expensive ones!

Skills and Training

Professional development in the form of targeted skill acquisition is probably the most popular form of professional development for people already working in the business or those looking to migrate in from a neighboring field. One of the newest models for this type of online learning is a company providing the platform on which people, hopefully with expertise, offer their services as an instructor for any number of topics. For example, with Udemy you might find exactly the specific and narrow content you need, like “How to do Binary and Weighted Habitat Suitability Analysis,” or “Utilize MySQL Data for GIS iOS App in Swift,” but there are also full introductory courses available. Rankings and reviews of courses are available to help you evaluate the offerings. DiscoverSpatial is another such entity and their focus is already only geospatial.

For general training on an OS software package, the GeoAcademy’s collection of five free classes for QGIS is a notable product. If Esri is your flavor of choice, then you should definitely familiarize yourself with their new training site. Having all of their offerings findable at one place is both a blessing and a curse. It’s easier to search than to browse the vast collection, so I suggest you have at least a general idea of what you are looking for before you dive in.

Turning to the federal government as a source for geospatially-related training is a new idea (at least for me), but it shouldn’t be a surprise given how much of our data they provide and distribute. NASA has both webinars and workshops as Applied Remote Sensing Training. An upcoming workshop on Land Cover Classification with Satellite Imagery will blend conceptual remote sensing knowledge with the need-to-know steps of locating, accessing, and downloading the imagery itself. This particular session is already filled to capacity, a clear indication of the existing demand for this content and approach. As another example, in 2015 the USGS created a multi-lesson technical training course on how to use the National Map products and services. Though the original intended audience for this course is an internal USGS one, the presentations and videos are readily available as helpful tutorials for the public and may be exactly the type of new knowledge you’ve been seeking.

Geospatial MOOCs in the post-modern world

Remember the enthusiasm around MOOCs a couple of years ago? Me too. All good MOOCs haven’t died away, they’re just a little less “open” and therefore a little less “massive.” UC Davis has continued to offer its 5-course GIS Specialization via Coursera, and Penn State’s iconic Maps and the Geospatial Revolution persists as well, but there are now nominal fees associated with the courses. However, as Anthony Robinson of Penn State recently said to me, “Monetization is now a major force for most of the major MOOC platforms, and not surprisingly, the classes get a lot smaller once you start charging for things. The good news is that there is still sustained demand for what we teach. Thousands of students are still signing up and taking what is currently available. The class cohorts are not as large as they were when the platforms were more open, but it is clear that if we build excellent online courses that are open for enrollment and engagement, there is demand around the world to take those courses.”

Other MOOCs that have remained available and free of charge include the Esri collection as well as the  Desktop GIS course offered by Pace University through Blackboard’s Open Education platform. In both of these cases, there are clear incentives for Esri and Blackboard to provide these educational offerings as part of their overall sales and marketing agendas, and both companies are in the position to fund the course development or the hosting environment as perks for their current or future customers.

Leadership & Management

Maybe the type of professional development you need has nothing to do with button pushing, code writing, or data downloads. If instead you have a need for the softer side of the high-demand professional skills, then perhaps URISA’s Leadership Academy is for you. While the content itself may sound general in nature, with sessions like “Building a Team” and “Managing Change,” addressing these topics entirely within the context of geospatial technologies and its associated professional networks is highly valuable — perhaps even priceless. You won’t be the only one who thinks so; the program will be offered twice in 2017 in order to satisfy the ongoing interest.

Thinking Out Loud

Perhaps what you need most as a developing professional is a chance to think out loud through a problem, unconsolidated knowledge, or unconnected dots. The very act of thinking out loud provides the opportunity to organize and articulate your current state of understanding and see the gaps more clearly. One modern form of thinking out loud is online expression through a blog or other forms of written communication. Assuming that you put some thought into what you are writing, the very process of formulating a question to post to a discussion forum forces you to explain exactly what it is that you want to know. Compelling yourself to be articulate about what you need is a primary step towards taking ownership of your own professional development. Plus, once you say it out loud or publish it online, you open yourself up to the responses of others, which in turn can inform your own learning.

A corollary to this is the act of teaching. If you really want to learn something yourself, try teaching it to someone else. In order to assemble knowledge into a clear and communicable form, you will first have had to arrange that knowledge well in your own mind. It’s a fundamental principle of effective communication.

What does this look like in the geospatial world? Mapbox’s Lyzi Diamond models this practice well. For example, organizing her thoughts around geocoding into a lengthy Twitter thread might mean she started with a clear sense of the bottom line message she wanted to share and then worked backwards to see what sequence of 140-character snippets would get her there. Or, more likely, she just wrote out loud as she thought out loud about geocoding, conceptually and as experienced, with Mapbox. Either way, the result is a shared slug of knowledge and ideas around geocoding that is informative, entertaining, and easy to digest. Nathan Yau’s FlowingData and his tutorials get this balance just right too.

Life-long Learning

Professional development is one of those extremely broad umbrella terms that means something different for everyone. Be honest with yourself about what you can actually manage to add on to your already busy life. In our rapidly evolving field, the need for training and education will extend throughout a career. A mix of formal and informal options will be easier to maintain for the long run. Do you have a personal learning network in place? Are you confident and competent at deciphering instructions and tutorials? Do you have one go-to website that you trust to point you in the right direction? (Adena Schutzberg’s Ignite Education is mine, and I thank her for the insights she shared with me for this article too.) Can you trouble-shoot what inevitably will come your way? Would you know at least where to start? Getting yourself to that point is a great goal for 2017.


Published Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

Written by Diana S. Sinton


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