Who Makes the Best GIS Developer?
3/1/2013 1:58 PM
By: Kevin J. Switala, GISP, Vice President
“I can’t believe she doesn’t understand projections yet,” laments Ben. Jenn retorts, He doesn’t even know the difference in public, protected, or private classes!” And thus, another Battle Royal begins anew in the never ending saga that is - Who makes the best GIS developer?
Unlike its relatively specialized origins, throughout the past 20 years, the GIS industry grew to penetrate a multitude of industries, and the democratization of GIS development tools from software vendors made rapid prototyping and web-enabled application development more accessible. However, those unique hybrids in our industry with strong competencies in a combination of data concepts, geoanalytics, and formal computer science education and training continue to represent a small portion of the overall spatial IT developer pool. Many software and services consulting companies have struggled to identify which group of candidates offers the best starting point for cultivating strong GIS developers.
Traditional GIS analysts often possess a core understanding of spatial data structures, topology, and analytical techniques to query and process spatial data, and use of one or more powerful desktop GIS software. What they do not often receive is the rigorous education and training on proper coding structures and techniques/technologies.
Conversely, traditional developers responding to your job posting may arrive with formal education in a wide range of computer science topics, including database structures, networks, IT security, object-oriented design and development, and the use of different application development methodologies. However, this is often balanced with a complete lack of exposure to and understanding of spatial data objects, geoproccessing, and basic mapping API’s.
Neither of these two starting points is optimal for the accelerated productivity required from new consultants in today’s recessed economy, where the outputs of every hour count. To overcome these gaps and leverage the best of both worlds, it is best to leverage a few basic strategies to build your spatial IT project development teams.
1. Identify Your Working Group Size and Leader – Staff mentoring is most productive when done in small bites and intimately among three to five individuals. Teams of this size working on modular tasks led by one of the few, true senior GIS developers or development managers in your organization provides the most likely chances of cross training and steady education of your next generation of strong GIS developers. The leader of that team optimally brings patience combined with formal education, or years of professional experience, in both spatial IT data structures, data services, geoanalytics, and proper coding structures and techniques so as to be able to teach junior team members. Not only how something is done, but why something is done. The small working group is also comprised of representatives from both GIS analysts and traditional non-GIS developers you need to ultimately make into competent, self-sufficient GIS developers.
2. Identify the Right GIS Analysts – A GIS analyst that demonstrates strong logic and a propensity towards mathematics in his/her formal education or prior experience likely has the native foundation to make an effective GIS developer. Departing from standard interview questions that probe an analyst-centric candidate’s understanding of now fairly accessible activities including python scripting and exposing map services, and replacing them with logic problems may improve your odds of discovering their adaptability long-term to the role of a competent GIS developer.
3. Identify the Right Developers – Seeking out developers with a strong foundation in CompSci should simply be your first step in the screening process. Look to develop and inquire about other critical thinking skills in developer candidates. Also, inquire about their experience with wayfinding of different sorts (e.g. do often pursue outdoor activities that require them to traverse terrain and find their way like mountain biking, hiking, orienteering, or have they experienced significant travel throughout the U.S. or world), which required them to understand the spatial relationship between locations, the logistics involved in getting from here to there within a defined time period, and even just being able to effectively read a map.
4. Implement an Effective Mentoring Strategy – Even during the execution of a project, take time to ensure that parallel to project activities time is taken by your small team leader to mentor both groups of staff at the same time. This allows your GIS analysts to add to the discussion anecdotes from their knowledge base regarding GIS data and processing, while traditional non-spatial developers on the team can reinforce the importance of certain coding techniques and strategies. The framework is provided by the leader, but allows team members to learn from each other to eventually become their own redundant support system. Focus your efforts teaching GIS analysts the underlying principles of object oriented programming, design patterns, and application development environments. This allows them to leverage their inherent understanding of spatial data structures to support backend, database services and stored procedures effectively. Focus your efforts teaching non-GIS developers the underlying principles of spatial data structures, data services, and spatial data principals. This takes into consideration the likelihood of non-GIS developers spending less energy mastering the more accessible frontend API-driven development tasks.
So, what is the answer to the question: Who makes the best GIS developer – GIS analysts or traditional developers? The answer is simple: a combination of both types working towards a common knowledge base under the mentorship of a patient, senior GIS developer or manager.
2 comment(s) so far...
By Geogeek on
3/3/2013 1:51 PM
Re: Who Makes the Best GIS Developer?
I couldn't say better
By FSenyah on
3/9/2013 2:47 AM
Re: Who Makes the Best GIS Developer?
I like this!!! Well Said.