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Do I Need to Code In Geospatial

Do I Need to Code to Have a Successful Career in Geospatial?

There is no doubt that geospatial skills are in demand. Just this year the UK government published an independent report assessing demand for geospatial skills. They cited increased demand for geospatial skillsets across the whole economy, in various industries, but more crucially, they need people with GIS programming skills. 

In another case, this GIS jobs report for 2022 outlined that recruiters are increasingly looking for candidates with some programming knowledge. More often than not, Python specifically. The highest number of jobs advertised involved a blend of GIS and data science skills, with employers frequently wanting more than just a map, but some sort of interactive element, or integration with other software in their stack.

We’ve previously covered the very wide range of jobs available for geospatial experts in many sectors (see this blog post). Many of them, realistically, do not require coding skills for the majority of day-to-day tasks, but automation can make your life easier. If your aim isn’t to become a GIS programmer, does that mean you really need to code to have a successful career in geospatial? We’ll have a detailed look at the current job market and geospatial job forecasts. 

“To code or not to code?”, that is the question.

Coding Skills Wanted, Not Always Needed

With greater access to location data and advanced tools comes greater demand for integrated geospatial analysis and applications. Employers will frequently request coding or programming skills in a job advert. This does not mean the skillset will realistically be used often, or even at all. 

Many of the job vacancies are for analyst or technician roles, but don’t forget that geospatial career paths can be quite varied. The feedback on coding use by GIS professionals is spread pretty evenly across the industry, with an equal number saying they rarely use any code, and others saying they use it regularly, even every day. 

Of course, many companies are waking up to the advantages of spatial data analysis and the potential for real-time spatial applications. Employers will always seek what they determine to be the most qualified and adaptable employee for the role, and frequently a job post’s requirements are a wishlist.  

Now is the Time for Skills Development

Coding skills are not necessarily required for all jobs in GIS, however, if you were to choose one skillset for professional development, coding would be a wise choice. 

All GIS professionals would agree that to work in geospatial means constant learning and development. The world we map is changing, and you must change with it. The industry has been evolving since it’s foundation and is continuing to advance with the introduction of new technologies.

Data science is considered the fastest-growing career path in 2022 — and geospatial has a big role to play in data science.

With more and more jobs requesting at the very least basic Python coding knowledge, this is a sure sign that it’s time to jump on the bandwagon. By adding programming skills to your repertoire, you make yourself a more valuable member of the team. In addition, you will also be more likely to attract a higher salary. 

If for one reason or another you refuse to skill up (also called upskilling), you may soon find your job threatened as competition increases and you get left behind. Alternatively, upskilling may ultimately lead you down a different career path, whether it’s the right one for you is for you to decide.

A Career Switch in Geospatial Becomes Possible

With geospatial now sharing many similar skillsets to that of the computer science field, more and more people are making a career switch. 

Listen to Dan Mahr chat about his experience with the Mapscaping Podcast about moving from a career as a GIS analyst to software engineer.  

There are countless examples of people all over the internet, moving from general GIS jobs into software development or software engineering. Often, their GIS skills are carried with them, so it’s not a complete career switch.

For those wanting to stay in the geospatial field, you might be wondering how exactly you will use code in your career, without making it your whole life?

How Will You Use Code in Your GIS Career?

A vast majority of GIS work revolves around collecting, cleaning and displaying geospatial data, often with a dash of basic data analysis thrown in. Once you go beyond a GIS technician or analyst role to a GIS programmer, programming becomes a no-brainer. You frequently must know not one, but several coding languages to fulfill these roles.

A geospatial analyst will be required to analyze, compile and visualize geospatial data, nowadays often making use of web mapping, and leveraging existing databases. Web mapping requires the integration of code (usually JavaScript) to display data, so someone in this role will need to be familiar with this language. Other roles, like that of a GIS developer, will involve developing geospatial applications and software — a role heavily dependent on code. A database administrator is responsible for managing geospatial databases, which requires code (usually SQL) in order to sort and filter large databases. 

Having a basic knowledge of a language like Python, will make everyday tasks, like automating repetitive map operations or workflows, so much easier. Having coding skills is not all about career progression.

Having programming skills could end up leaving you with more time to experiment with the ‘fun’ stuff in GIS as you automate your day to day tasks.

As a result your career may benefit indirectly from coding skills, and you can even leverage your new skills for personal projects.

What Code to Learn?

In reality, it’s worthwhile learning multiple languages, but is one better than another and where should you start?

Python Dominates Geospatial 

Python is the coding language of choice for most geospatial software, be that ESRI or open source options. Python was chosen for its simple syntax, and wide offering of libraries, yet the ability to produce complex operations. That’s not to say that other languages won’t also be of benefit, but Python is the most essential addition to your toolbox. 

JavaScript Taking Over Web Mapping

Almost all of the popular web mapping applications like Mapbox, Leaflet, CARTO and Google Maps API use JavaScript. JavaScript enables you to create an interactive web map for simplified data communication. It can also go bigger than that. Building dynamic traffic visualizations or even real-time maps sourced from geotagged twitter feeds are popular applications of the language in geospatial.  

SQL for All Things Databases

You’re probably already aware of SQL, without even realizing it. SQL is the language you use to process simple queries in ArcGIS, for example to find features with a particular attribute.

SQL is the primary language for querying, processing and modifying GIS databases, so it’s a good one to know. For any kind of database management role, you will need to consider learning SQL in more detail. Luckily, it’s not too tricky to pick up.

R the Statistical Genius 

Finally, there’s R, which is used for statistical data analysis. If you want to move into deep data analysis, this is a must have. A firm understanding of R is helpful for many GIS professionals, and is extremely relevant in modern academia.

Programmers Will Benefit from Multiple Languages

As a programmer, let’s be realistic, you will need to know a wide range of coding languages to be competitive, and relevant on the scene. You’ll be more likely to use C, C++ and .NET to work across multiple platforms. Python is the gold standard of course, and having knowledge of JavaScript will give you the ability to make high quality, interactive web maps, which satisfies the needs of most job descriptions on the market right now.

If you are looking for a power couple, Python and JavaScript is the way to go. 

To really answer the question of if coding is essential for success in geospatial, you need to define what ‘success’ means to you. If having a successful career in geospatial means having a high salary, then maybe coding skill is integral (but also, maybe not).

Ultimately, each company will have a very different take on your specific role. Some people may use code significantly throughout their day, while others report rarely using code, except to automate a few repetitive tasks. However, everyone is in agreement — having one or more coding languages in your skillset, will put you ahead of others. 

Globally today, there is an enormous appetite for web and mobile applications, and that’s only going to continue to grow. It’s hard to conclusively say that you definitely need to code to advance your geospatial career. The job market trends indicate this is only going to be more beneficial as time goes on, but it’s not the be all and end all to a successful career in GIS.