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.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.
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.
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.So what does all this have to do with cartography and GIS?
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.
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]