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.

Fix for Disappearing WD15EARS

I recently bought a new 1.5TB Caviar Green Western Digital hard drive to serve as a backup for my music, movies and photos.  This replaced two aging 7200RPM drives that had started showing chkdsk errors.  I decided to go with the “Green” edition since I didn’t need stellar performance at the cost of more heat, noise, and energy usage.  When Newegg had it on sale for $95, I pulled the trigger.  When it came, everything worked perfectly: benchmarks checked out, chkdsk reported no errors, and the AHCI driver booted faster than it had before.

Everything seemed peachy until I resumed my system from sleep and noticed the drive was mysteriously missing.  It didn’t show up in My Computer, in Device Manager, or in the Disk Management section of Administrative Tools.  I assumed that either the SATA data or power cable had somehow come unplugged.  I turned it off, and opened the case–cables were fine.  I turned it back on, drive reappeared.  Weird.  The next day, I had the exact same problem, though only after I resumed the computer from sleep.  When I restarted the system, it reappeared.  Weird.

I knew that it probably wasn’t a cable problem because SATA is hot-swappable, so I poked around on Google and found a few other people with the same problem.  Eventually I found this post, which claimed that installing a hotfix from Microsoft fixed the problem.  Apparently, Windows normally throws a stop error if a hard drive takes longer than 10 seconds to spin up after resuming from sleep.  The hotfix prevents this behavior.  Checking the S.M.A.R.T. data from the drive, the disk claimed that it had a spin-up time of 5967 milliseconds–a far cry from the 10 second threshold used by Windows.  Even though everything didn’t entirely make sense, I installed the hotfix to see if it would work.

Success!  The drive hasn’t disappeared since I applied the patch.  I suspect that the “GreenPower Technology” in the disk’s controller delays or lengthens the spin-up time to use less power.  This trips the 10 second limit imposed by Windows, and the drive disappears in a puff of smoke.

See Microsoft Knowledge Base 977178 for more info.  I can’t say for sure, but this fix probably also applies to any cases of disappearing WD10EARS or WD20EARS drives as well.