Will Cadell: “People talk about ‘thinking outside the box’; I don’t think there is a box anymore”

Will Cadell
Will Cadell
Will Cadell is the founder and CEO of Sparkgeo.com, a Prince George-based business which builds geospatial technology for some of the biggest companies on Earth. Since starting Sparkgeo, he has been helping startups, large enterprises, and non-profits across North America make the most of location and geospatial technology.

Leading a team of highly specialized, deeply skilled geospatial web engineers, Will has built products, won patents, and generally broken the rules. Holding a degree in Electronic and Electrical Engineering and a Masters in Environmental Remote Sensing, Will has worked in academia, government, and in the private sector on two different continents, making things better with technology. He is on the board of Innovation Central Society, a non-profit society committed to growing and supporting technology entrepreneurs in North Central BC.

Q: Sparkgeo. What does your company do exactly? Do you have any competitors in the custom geospatial consulting field?

A: At Sparkgeo we put maps on the internet.

I try to keep this description as simple as possible. It goes back to the question of what a GIS person does, which is actually really hard to explain and terribly boring at dinner parties. Instead, I stick to maps and the internet, both of which are critical features of what Sparkgeo does. The other leg of our stool is people. Really, we work in places where maps meet people on the internet.

We find ourselves doing lots of interesting things. Things like building data pipelines, building geospatial compute engines, building UIs, undertaking broad data acquisition and analysis projects. We have found ourselves in the enviable position of only doing interesting things.

With that in mind we end up touching the “full stack”. A web mapping project is actually a full stack effort; you must consider every piece of the data flow to build a great map. The web map is the tip of the spear, but the data supporting that map is really the shaft, it’s the weight of the effort. Understanding the linkages between data and its delivery, and being somewhat flexible about how to sculpt those linkages is why Sparkgeo is useful.

I am sure we have competitors, but there is simply so much important geospatial work to do in the technology sector presently, I don’t feel pressured by it. Really the most competition is for talent. Indeed, that talent gap is to a large extent why we exist.

In the last year or so we have been spending our spare time on maptiks.com, which is like Google Analytics for a web map. Our thinking here is that although lots of organisations spend time on mapping technology, few seem to iterate back over their maps to make them incrementally better, and fewer still inform that process with actual data.

Q: What libraries and tools does your company use? Can you provide some examples of your favorite projects?

A: These are some of our favorite things:

  • Mapnik
  • Python
    • GDAL & OGR
    • GEOS
    • Shapely
    • Fiona
    • Django
    • CherryPy
    • Pillow (PIL)
  • Javascript
    • Mapping APIs:
      • LeafletJS (inc cartodb.js & mapbox.js)
      • Openlayers
      • Google Maps
      • ESRI JavaScript API
      • Cesium.js
    • Turf.js
    • AngularJS
    • ReactJS
  • Amazon Web Services
    • All the things

However, it’s not about the tools or the library; it should be about the question and how best to answer it. Sometimes the best answer is “don’t do this thing”, sometimes the answer is “buy a bigger boat”, and sometimes the answer is “we’ll help you build a thing”. We are in the enviable position of not having to sell licenses for anyone so we can actually be objective (and opinionated) about technology choices.

Q: Tell us about your work with Nextdoor. What technology stack did you use? What lessons did you learn?  

A: Of course I can’t tell you too much about how Nextdoor works. What I can say is that we have helped them achieve a number of their business goals through the development of a custom geospatial datastore accessed through a custom python API. In essence though, we just added some focused geospatial expertise to their already talented engineering team.

We have used this model a great deal in helping technology companies achieve their geospatial business goals. By attending stand ups and taking on the “geo” tickets we can add the capacity necessary to give a typical web engineering team the geo-confidence they need to keep their velocity up. Often these kind of engagements become much longer term relationships.

Although ultimately we are a “professional services” organisation, we have become a lot more about people and relationships than we are about projects and requirements. That way we get to work with some of the biggest tech companies, hottest startups, and most interesting non-profits on Earth.

Q: You are the CEO of your company. Describe the tasks you do in a typical week.  

A: I talk to a lot of people. I write a lot of emails. I pitch ridiculous ideas. I write reports. I do a bunch of administration. I solve problems. I remove barriers. I remind clients about our invoices. I go and buy snacks for the team. I manage payroll. I ponder our future. I talk to our accountant about tax management. I go buy more sticky notes for the office. I stress about project pipelines. In fact I stress about a lot of things 🙂

…and occasionally I get to write some code or make a map. It’s actually the best job I’ve ever had. I’m always having to learn new things and solve new problems. I tell everyone, including our team, if they stop learning they should leave. That’s true across the board, there are too many interesting things to do to waste time being bored.

Q: You recently wrote an article about remote working (http://buff.ly/1OEEWte). What does the breakdown of your company look like? How many are remote and how many work from the office? How do you bring together everyone? How do you promote company culture with remote workers? Explain how you manage/check in with employees that are working remote. What are the strengths/weaknesses in the current setup?

A: I first heard the term “remote first” in terms of the workplace mid last year and I realised it fits us well. We have an office in Prince George, BC (well North of the wall). But on any given day a member of the the team could be anywhere and it’s not a big problem. We typically have a check-in meeting, our version of a stand up — except people are on different projects — at 8:30am Pacific. It lasts for 15 minutes max, plus any necessary bonus rounds. People attend it from where they happen to be. It’s “early” for the Pacific timezone because we have some people on Eastern time. Even a remote company has to figure out timezones 🙂

Remote first means that we communicate first using tools like Hangouts and Slack, it means that people are kept in the loop by default, and things don’t get decided “without the remote guy”. If a team is meeting, then everyone on that team is invited, and that meeting will happen on a common set of tools used by people in or out of the office.

This remote culture is critical for us. The first employee I brought on (@gridcell) was remote, and now 40% of our company is remote. The really important bit, however, is how we interact with our clients. Being based up in the frozen wastes of the North and working for organisations in the tech sector means we must be really good at “being remote” because we are always remote to our clients. So independent of whether Sparkgeoers are in the office or not, we are still operating in a remote manner. This must be true for our clients too; they need to be ok with our periodic on-site presence, and our very present nature on IM or videoconferencing. It’s worth noting that with some clients being remote is not a great fit, and that’s fine. I am happy to say that we do have some great clients whom I have never actually met. Likewise, I also know that sometimes I have to hop on a plane and travel 2000 miles to shake a hand. Remote doesn’t mean not having a personal relationship and remote doesn’t mean distant.

Q: How does your company advertise? SEO? Content? Starting up Slack groups…?

A: Sometimes we do little ads in places across the interwebz (for instance on the GeoHipster website), seeing what sticks. Relevant content, however is the most valuable piece of advertising on the web. Good content has a long tail and brings people back and back.

More recently, our Maptiks growth guy (@julienjacques) suggested starting a Slack group. We did that, and now it’s grown to 900 users. The funny thing is it has turned into a real community, and as such we don’t really advertise on it because that would defeat the purpose that has evolved around it. If we (or others) were to advertise crassly on it, then it wouldn’t actually be a useful community 🙂

Q: You follow mapping trends and new technologies in depth. Are there any particular tech companies and/or startups that you follow? Any of them going to be the next big-bang disruptors?

A: I follow all the usual suspects (CartoDB, Mapbox, Esri, Stamen, Google, Boundless…) and do my best to catch up with contacts in each of them on my travels.

I am especially interested in the satellite space (hahaha) right now. The idea of Imagery As A Service seems to be booming. Planet Labs, Digital Globe, Astro Digital, UrtheCast, SkyBox, Spire all being players to some extent. Then there are companies like Orbital Insight who are taking remote sensing and magic-ing it into actionable broad data products. I think the days where someone would go to a website and purchase an image from a marginally navigable image library, then download an enormous file.zip via FTP are numbered… thankfully.

But there are the big players, too. Apple is very interesting right now; Google has always been in the geo sand box. But with the consumerization of geo I think more players will emerge here. Amazon has a location platform and drones…? UPS…?

Then there is the sharing economy: Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, Nextdoor. The quantified & wearable self: Fitbit, Under Armor (who bought MapMyFitness), Strava, RunKeeper. The nature of our industry and the ubiquity of smartphones & wearables is such that good, hard geospatial questions pop up everywhere. As a result of this phenomenon we’ve worked in the tech space, in hospitality, in finance, in conservation, with satellite companies, in hardware, in software, with government. The point isn’t to consider the tools or be confined to a vertical, the point is the pursuit of interesting questions and how we can use geography and technology to answer them. People talk about “thinking outside the box”, I don’t think there is a box anymore, I wonder if there ever was.

Q: Which industry do you see as needing more mapping technologies? Are there one or two fields that seem to be pretty behind the times?

A: Automotive will be the next industrial geospatial leapfrog.

Consider: A driverless car needs to know a great deal of information about its surroundings and virtually every piece of fixed knowledge (i.e., data not detected by vehicle in transit) will be geospatial in nature. Every major automotive vendor will need a data provider, and that data will be constantly updated. In this scenario the 80/20 rule will not suffice. If that vehicle cannot reach its destination because it doesn’t know the way, then the entire vehicle has failed. That failure might simply be a new subdivision not being present, but nevertheless the lack of a street or a misnamed building will result in the vehicle not being able to drive itself, thus failure. A driverless vehicle needs to have a complete and constantly updating map of navigable routes.

Automotive will drive (hahaha) efforts in open data, in data pipelines, in ETL, in base map production, in data storage, in connectivity, in routing. For the driverless future to happen geospatial needs to be a lot better.

Q: What is your current method for skiing on a mountain you do not know well? Do you use the paper maps that they provide, or a new app (Have you heard of fatmap.com?)

A: I ski a DPS Wailer 99. I love the backcountry, but with a young family I find myself on a ski hill more often these days. That said, my 7- & 9-year-olds are on double diamonds now, so we’ll be hitting some family backcountry soon. We are also lucky enough to have many kilometers of groomed & floodlit XC skiing within city limits (Prince George, BC) so that is a common after-work activity.

The interesting thing about backcountry skiing around central British Columbia is the lack of documentation; every trip is a little bit exploratory. That, combined with relatively poor and out-of-date maps (Canada is big and largely empty) leaves me doing a lot of navigation by feel. It can get pretty cold, too; devices and batteries tend to become less reliable below -20.

I do, of course, appreciate the irony in the mapping guy navigating largely by instinct.  

Q: It must be fascinating to compare the world you grew up in with the one that your daughters are growing up in. Do you mind sharing a little insight you have as a parent and geographer/technologists. Can they read maps? What routing technology do they use to get to a new place?

A: My girls love maps. They have been completely brainwashed by me; they know exactly how important good maps are. Their navigational abilities are somewhat untested, but they do have a good sense of direction; we test that on the trails a lot. Their use of technology is interesting; we keep screen time to a minimum, but the way they interact with touch interfaces is fearless. I think we will see great advances in industrial design as interface designers embrace touch and haptic technologies. We are also trying to expose our girls to what it means to write code; their lives will take them in many different directions, but having some exposure to the discipline of code is valuable.

Which do you prefer when it comes to maps?
Data or design - Both
Functionality or beauty - Again, both. But wait, “functionality” doesn’t mean lots of buttons -- it means fit for purpose. As a community we need to de-couple features from functionality.
Historical or futuristic - Neither; it’s the story that compels 
Markers or pins - These are the same thing 🙂
Clusters or heatmaps - Clusters (unless it’s a weather map) 
Markdown or Handlebars  - Markdown
And other things…?
Black and local coffee or pour-over with butter - Black Americano, no pollution, and lots of it
Fitbit or Strava - Fitbit & MapMyFitness (Fitbit have an interesting geo conundrum presently - Strides or GPS for distance https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/your-device-can-too-smart-will-cadell ). Strava has done an amazing job of socializing athletic pursuit; I started using MMF first though, and most of my data now gets piped into Fitbit.
Twitter or Facebook - Twitter
Commuter or road bike - Both & MTB too
Nordic, alpine, or telemark skiing - Mountain Touring, Skate Skiing, Classic Skiing. Tele is cool but you have to be really talented to ski anything big, and I’m not 🙂

Q: Any closing comments for the GeoHipster readers?

A: Thanks for the opportunity to tell you a little about Sparkgeo. Also, thanks to the geohipster community for keeping things sufficiently geo-weird.


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