Pivoting from GIS analyst to software engineer

Entry-level knowledge worker positions, such as the venerable GIS analyst, often have a narrow set of career paths. One can move up into project management and/or personnel management. But that usually means doing less of the geospatial problem solving that got you interested in GIS in the first place!

Another commonly suggested path is to learn to code. Programming requires constant problem solving, and the huge demand for developers and engineers means that salaries are generous. In addition, the post-pandemic world means that companies are suddenly more amenable to remote workers from anywhere in the United States. But how would you actually go about making this career change?

I recently had the privilege to be a guest on the Mapscaping Podcast and discuss how I pivoted from GIS analyst to software engineer. This blog post offers some additional details to anyone considering a similar pivot.

Go For A Test Drive

Upon hearing of the huge salaries that Silicon Valley software engineers rake in, some folks want to immediately quit their jobs and jump feet first into a master’s program or a coding bootcamp. This is the kind of moxie and gutsiness that America was built on…right? Wrong. 

Make sure you actually enjoy programming before committing to costly education. 

Let’s do a thought experiment. Pretend you’re in the market for a used car. You find something with low mileage from a brand with a reputation for reliability. However, it’s listed on Craigslist so it lacks a warranty. Moreover, the seller refuses to let you test drive or even see the car before you put down a deposit. Would you send a wire transfer sight unseen? Definitely not: only a fool would be so rash! For the same reason, only a fool would dive into a master’s program or bootcamp without going for a proverbial “test drive” beforehand.

The best way to test drive whether you like programming is to use it in your current job. Much of the day-to-day busy work of knowledge workers can be enhanced, made more efficient, or perhaps completely automated through some kind of programming:

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Feedly userscripts updated

Feedly is my preferred RSS reader/aggregator since the demise of the late Google Reader in 2013. It has an attractive interface, straightforward means to add new feeds, and keyboard shortcuts for power with dozens of feeds and hundreds of articles per day. There are also some sharing, searching, and discovery features under their subscription plan with which I am not familiar.

A few weeks ago, Feedly rolled out a shiny new UI which I liked, by and large. However, there’s way too much whitespace on the left navigation bar for my taste, and even the “Compact” display density setting (under “Appearance”) is not sufficient. Userscripts to the rescue!

Userscripts are typically small snippets of JavaScript that can modify the appearance of a webpage, injected via a browser extension like Tampermonkey. I just updated my Github repo with two userscripts (originally copied from the now-dead userscripts.org site):

  • feedly-enhancer-chrome.js, originally by neword, injects some CSS to reduce the amount of whitespace in the sidebar and main area.
  • feedly-unread-favicon.js, originally by Matthew Wilkin, changes the favicon to display a tiny counter of the number of unread stories.

The gif above shows a quick before-and-after. Feedly looks a lot better and is a lot more useful with the userscripts enabled.

Review: The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes

The Making of the Atomic BombRichard Rhodes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb has been on my to-read list for a long time. After reading this exquisitely detailed history, I believe the development of the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project was the pivotal event of the 20th century. The bomb was, simultaneously, a tremendous culmination of a half-century of scientific achievement, a deplorable instrument of war that indiscriminately killed hundreds of thousands, a shortcut to end a war that saved millions of lives, a threat that instigated the Cold War, and perhaps even a marker in geologic history.

The first half of the book dives deeply into the scientific work of physicists, chemists, and engineers from the 1911 discovery of the atomic nucleus through the 1938 discovery of nuclear fission. The story follows Niels Bohr, Leo Szilard, Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Rutherford, Enrico Fermi, and dozens of other researchers in biographic detail across these decades. The importance of international collaboration is repeatedly emphasized: such rapid scientific progress would have been impossible without timely publication of results for replication and further study. In many cases, multiple laboratories made key discoveries (e.g. the existence of the neutron) within days or weeks of one another, racing be the first to mail their revelations to journals. Anchored by Niels Bohr, this close-knit community shepherded Jewish scientists to safety as anti-Semitism arose in 1930s Germany, many of whom would later work in the Manhattan Project.

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