Getting From Here To There

May 27, 2014

In particular, getting from where you are now to where you want to be, in terms of your career.

As a result of an email I sent to the Haskell-Cafe mailing list a couple of weeks ago looking for someone to take over a contract I had been working on, someone contacted me asking for career advice. Clearly not someone who knew me at all, otherwise they would have known what a crazy idea that was. Anyway, this person was asking about one of the fundamental problems when you’re starting out in more or less any profession: how do you acquire the experience you need to apply for jobs that say “experience required”, which is more or less all of them?

They asked: “What is the path to getting involved in this stuff? How do I bridge the gap from just playing around with these technologies to having real world experience? It seems that most opportunities are for people with experience.” And this is exactly right. Particularly for contracting, no-one wants to hire someone they think will have to learn on the job. You need to know what you’re doing, which means getting experience somehow. And it would of course be nice to be able to eat and have a life while getting that experience.

I wrote an epic email in reply, and was told that it would have worked better as a blog post (or perhaps a short novel). So here I am, turning it into a blog post!

Learning on the job anyway

So what do you do? This discussion was all in the context of GIS work using Haskell, which is a bit of a niche market, but I think a lot of what I said applies to the tech industry in a more general sense.

The person who emailed me had actually done quite a lot of different things, and appeared to be someone with no lack of motivation and ideas. And really (barring some potential obstacles I’ll talk about below) that’s all that’s needed to “bridge the gap from just playing around with these technologies to having real world experience”.

My main suggestion was pretty simple and was based on the fact that I learnt about GIS in a job where I was hired to do something not very GIS-based, but it turned out that GIS skills were needed (so I sat down and learnt ArcGIS “on the job”) and similarly, before this recent contract, I’d never used PostGIS. I’d done quite a bit of database work in the past, so I knew SQL, but I’d not done any spatial SQL.

Again, learning on the job (and a vast amount of hubris: I thought to myself “Spatial SQL? I bet it’s just like normal SQL with a few extra join conditions! And you can only really use spatial indexes one way, so that’ll be simple!” and off I went, telling the client “Sure, I can do that”…). I know that this goes against the “experience required” idea, but there’s a balance to be struck: I usually work on the basis that if I know a bit more than half of what I need to know in a new job, I’ll do OK, probably with some late nights and pressure to start with, but eventually it’ll work out. That takes a little bit of confidence and chutzpah, of course.

Another alternative, and one that I used when I was starting out, is to take the best job you can find with your current level of experience, and then gently twist that job to learn skills that you’re interested in. That can be a real win – you learn the things you want to learn, you get paid for it, and you may even incidentally do something useful for your employer.

Learning off the job

What do you do if you don’t have a job where that might work, and you don’t have enough experience or confidence to do hubris-based in-post self-education? In the absence of a job that would force you to learn things this way, why not invent one? There are a huge range of environmental, public health, social and legal questions that rely on spatial data analysis of one sort or another (and if you’re not interested in GIS work, just replace all this talk of spatial data analysis with the thing you are interested in and figure out what fields it’s useful for). Pick one that you care about, trawl the web a little to see what data sets are available (you’d be surprised how much stuff is out there if you look), pick a question you think it would be interesting to answer, and do it, forcing yourself to use the tools you want to learn.

I followed this up with a description of a problem I’d been working on recently, the details of which aren’t terribly important, but that illustrated two things. First: you can learn an awful lot from trying to answer seemingly simple questions. It was pretty amazing how many different data analysis techniques and tools I ended up using to solve what on the face of it initially seemed like quite a simple problem (it was in fact far from simple, but it sounded that way to start with). It’s hard to get to the end of a process like that without learning something! And you can choose the skills you develop by choosing the tools that you use (learn GIS + Haskell by doing GIS + Haskell). Second: to show you that if you’re persistent at pushing through a problem, it’s quite easy to do things that really very few people have done. This problem I’d been working on (basically producing street-level housing occupancy estimates using OpenStreetMap data along with large scale official population figures) is really useful and, from talking to a few people about it, it seems like it’s something that hasn’t really been done much before. It’s quite easy to find new problems.

So, if you pick something simple that you care enough about to do it properly, you do it, and you write up what you’ve done, that would count more to me as “real experience” than someone doing this kind of stuff in a paying job. If I was looking to hire someone with GIS experience to do something difficult, and I had one candidate who’d worked in a job doing this stuff for a couple of years and another candidate who said “I’ve never been paid for doing this, but look at this report I wrote about public transport scheduling in Chicago based on a neural network model for predicting traffic delays” (or whatever you might do), I know who I’d hire.

Obstacles

Earlier, I mentioned some “potential obstacles”. What do you do if you don’t have a job you can twist to your own purposes, or the time or resources to learn new skills in “your own time”? (You might have caring responsibilities, you might have to hold down a second job to pay the bills. There are lots of things that can get in the way.) This is a structural problem in the tech industry. There are no (or very few) apprenticeship-level positions where people can learn the skills they need and earn enough to live on at the same time. That’s not a good position for anyone and I honestly don’t have any good ideas about how to get around it. I guess it helps if you can find a mentor to help you get the most out of what time you do have, but you do still need some time to do this stuff.

Apart from badgering companies to offer (non-exploitative!) apprenticeships or other entry-level positions with training possibilities, it’s hard to see what to suggest. I’ve been really lucky in my career to date, but I’ve still spent a lot of time working on things that were ultimately not really what I wanted to be doing. Getting to that higher level of job satisfaction, beyond paying the rent and not feeling like your just slaving away for someone else’s “thing”, takes a lot of time, and even more luck.