Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Further to my last post, the thread on James Fee's blog took an interesting turn in which John from Jerzee complained against unqualified people creeping into GIS (especially in management), I responded noting that I had only three classes in grad school and a studio art degree and have built a successful career on that, and John responded (in part):
Nat: I find your post irritating to say the least. Your example is based on getting an entry level job you were never qualified for then learning on the job and taking a higher position you should’ve never been qualiifed for either.
My argument is based on people like yourself who think you can pick up every detail on the job. Unfortunately, you can not and that is why formal training is neccesary. All my cartographic skills were developed in training and college. I applied them in my job but I never gained more cartgraphic training at work.
On the job training teaches us how to make cost effective maps not cartographically correct maps.
Not surprisingly, I take umbrage at the idea I am unqualified for my job. But the whole exchange sets up for me a fundamental divide not just between GIS and cartography, but between people whose job it is to manage and operate a complex system, and people whose job it is to make something or perform a service. For the former, training is essential; for the latter, seat-of-the-pants can work, especially if the system is not too complex.

There was an article last year in the New Yorker by Atul Gawande about checklists in medicine. A doctor named Peter Pronovost has found that using checklists for procedures (such as intubation) where every step is essential can save lives, because in the heat of the moment even the best nurses or doctors can have a momentary lapse. In a relatively simple system, like driving a car, one can readjust, but at some point that is a recipe for disaster.

The classic example, and the origin of Pronovost's idea, is the 1935 crash of the prototype Boeing airplane later called the "flying fortress." The plane crashed not for mechanical reasons, but because the plane had gotten too complex to fly by the seat of the pants. So:
...the Army purchased a few aircraft from Boeing as test planes, and some insiders remained convinced that the aircraft was flyable. So a group of test pilots got together and considered what to do.
They could have required Model 299 pilots to undergo more training. But it was hard to imagine having more experience and expertise than Major Hill, who had been the U.S. Army Air Corps’ chief of flight testing. Instead, they came up with an ingeniously simple approach: they created a pilot’s checklist, with step-by-step checks for takeoff, flight, landing, and taxiing. Its mere existence indicated how far aeronautics had advanced. In the early years of flight, getting an aircraft into the air might have been nerve-racking, but it was hardly complex. Using a checklist for takeoff would no more have occurred to a pilot than to a driver backing a car out of the garage. But this new plane was too complicated to be left to the memory of any pilot, however expert.
So what does all this have to do with cartography and GIS?

A GIS is a very complex suite of software. It takes all one's expertise and attention to make sure it does what it needs to do, and it can do an enormous amount. But because of this, GIS experts tend to be very focused on the system.

Cartographers (or at least the graphic-designy ones I identify with) tend to have a less intensive approach to the tool(s), and spend more time on the product as an organic whole. The cartographer will be working back and forth between comparatively simple adjustments of the map elements and stepping back and judging how it is working from the point of view of a user.

All extremely generalized, but as I think about the difference between liberal arts types and technical types—and how they approach the nature of a job—it makes a lot of sense. Most of us find ourselves having to meld the two approaches: the generalist has to learn some very specific tool-based skills (and yes, training of one sort or another is usually necessary), and the specialist has to learn some basic "liberal arts" skills like business writing and customer service (often on the job).

[updated 2-17-13 with new links]


ChrisW said...

Hi Nat,

Enjoyed your posts on James Fee's blog, which brought me here to enjoy more of your thoughts on the world of maps. Glad to see somebody sticking up for the "Renaissance" man (or woman) too. As a linguist by training, a database developer by experience (20 years) and a GIS wannabe (currently on an MSc in GIS), I get really tired of the widespread assumption that only monomaniacs should be allowed to practice in any sphere. Not every job requires the same degree of training as a brain surgeon, however much we try to flatter ourselves otherwise, and in many fields you really can learn a lot (if not always everything) on the job. Indeed, if you haven't learned anything new in your job since leaving college, you probably need to find another job. Respect for professional training and skills should be tempered by respect for results, because that's what the customer is looking for in the end.

As you may know, the Germans have the wonderful term "Fachidiot", which is a play on the word "Fachmann" for specialist: "Fach" means both a box and a specialist area or subject, so a "Fachidiot" is somebody who is an idiot outside his/her "box" (which often leads to idiocy within the box too). A neat and useful term, I find...

Anyway, I am inspired by the discussion on the role of cartography in GIS, and encouraged by the example of people who continue to develop and broaden their skills throughout their careers, not just while they're in college.

natcase said...

Hi Chris, thanks for coming over. Please feel free to comment/argue with me here... that's kind off the point.

You can't help but expand your skills at work (can you imagine someone saying, "Sorry, can't use this new version of Arc, we didn't study that in college"?). And we all learn the peculiar needs and data structure of our specific field and organization. Heck, most of us help develop them.

What gets me is when people don't count that as learning... if it isn't a class, it isn't learning, or something like that.

Fachidiot. Good word. I'll keep that one in my pocket.