Emily Jirles: “Embrace failure, and with time, persistence, and humility you’ll eventually grow gills”

Q: Tell us a little about your background. What kinds of things did you work on before your current role?

A: I wanted to be a diplomat or ambassador, travel the world, so I majored in International Relations with a concentration in Peace and Security (what does that mean? I honestly couldn’t tell you anymore). After graduation I moved to D.C. to work for some government bodies. First I had an Admin Assistant position at the National Institutes of Health where I was in charge of travel bookings and office management. The people were nice, but the job was boring.

Later I secured a job at the State Department as a Special Assistant to the Chief Political Officer at the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and Health Diplomacy. Essentially, this meant I was a PA and helped coordinate some projects. I loved my coworkers and my boss, and I even got to travel a bit to places like Durham, South Africa and Geneva, Switzerland. But after a year and a half, I had to face the fact that there were no opportunities for advancement at this position and, moreover, I wasn’t interested in continuing down this particular career path. In fact, I had fallen out of love with my ultimate goal of being a diplomat/ambassador/government worker altogether. 

At this time I started looking at other options, one of which was making the transition to software development. I was heavily leaning toward this option when I heard about a junior analyst position at a firm called Spatial Networks, Inc (SNI). I am a big reader, especially of news publications (my devotion to reading The Economist has spawned numerous inside jokes at my expense among my friends and family). The idea of a career as a domain expert where I could read, learn, and write all day appealed to me.

But like many things in life, what sounded ideal in theory turned out to not be as thrilling in practice. Within a year, I ended up submitting a proposal to make the transition to SNI’s Engineering team as a Junior Software Developer.

Q: What is your current role?

A: Mid-level Software Developer.

 

Q: Like many in the geospatial space, including me, you don’t have a geography background. What has it been like to work at a place so closely identified with geography?

A: It’s been infectious — their enthusiasm and the enthusiasm of our clients makes me want to dig deeper into GIS. In a way, it almost seems like an emerging field in that I’m constantly hearing and reading about new ways people are harnessing geography and spatial data to analyze, optimize, and create. Makes you want to get in on the action.

Q: How do you see geography relating to your background?

A: Considering my background was in political science, history, and economics, I was well aware of the tyranny of geography. Working at a GIS company modernized and atomized the idea of geography for me. No longer was it simply a deterministic factor in a country’s historical and economic development. Now it was how the Department of Transportation was tracking the potholes on my street and how Amazon was going to track me as I peruse the aisles at my local Whole Foods.

 

Q: You started at Spatial Networks as an analyst, but you made a career transition to software development. What motivated you to make this change?

A: Everything that I thought I would like about being an analyst was a component of software development: problem solving, the opportunity for lifelong learning, and the chance to create something. So in one sense, the change wasn’t really a change but a redirection of my interests.

At the time I joined Spatial Networks, we were looking to improve our analytical products and, in addition to hiring analysts, that meant ensuring our data was ready for analytical consumption. Tellingly, I was more interested in the conversations and work surrounding this problem than I was in the analysis of said data. Moreover, I really liked and admired the folks on the Engineering and Data teams. They were knowledgeable, fun, and always happy to help. I knew I wanted to work alongside them.

Q: The transition to development can seem intimidating to some. How did you map out your path? Did you have any previous experience? How did you acquire the skills to become a developer?

A: No prior experience, except maybe some online Intro to Coding/Data Science courses that I never finished.

First, I had a few conversations with supervisors about the transition I wanted to make and the technology stack SNI employed to make sure I was studying technologies and languages that would benefit SNI as well as myself. Then it was a matter of doing some research, seeing what was available online as well as looking into coding bootcamps. I ended up selecting a combination of free and paid options. I found free online courses on relational databases (in general) and an intro to computer science and algorithms, but then paid for a subscription to DataQuest (data cleaning, data science basics, Python, and Postgres) as well as attended the online software development bootcamp at Flatiron (Ruby, Rails, JavaScript, React).

 

Q: Were there any factors that helped ease your transition into development? Were there any that hindered it?

A: What was most helpful in my transition was support from my coworkers and SNI. Everyone was really pushing for me to succeed. They were always willing to answer questions and it was always nice when some of them just asked after how I was doing. Then, soon after I officially joined the Engineering team, I was entrusted to take control of a project to update the Data Events editor for our Fulcrum product. It helped me hit the ground running and gave me a hands-on opportunity to get more familiar with our product.

 

Q: What advice would you have for someone who is contemplating a similar career transition?

A: I’m a big fan of plotting and planning, so I would recommend doing research beforehand. Figure out which area you want to work in and then look into the resources available to make sure they fit your goals, profession and finances. Next, make sure you are consistent with your learning. Like anything else, you get better at coding the more you do it, whether that’s on the job or building an app as a side project. Just keep coding.

And if you get stuck on something, don’t give up. I’ve talked to others who have completed bootcamp programs and their observation on who finishes and who drops out is a matter of persistence. Even when the solution to their problem wasn’t immediately clear, and maybe took hours to figure out, those who graduated were those who kept with it. If you feel like you’re drowning when you first start, that’s normal. Embrace failure, and with time, persistence, and humility you’ll eventually grow gills. At least that was my experience.

 

Q: You recently ran your first marathon. (Congratulations!) Please tell us about it. Have you always been interested in athletics? How did you go about training for your race?

A: Thanks. Technically, I won (because I finished), but the marathon put up a good fight. My joints are still recovering.

I’ve always been into athletics, I played volleyball and basketball as long as I can remember, but I was never a runner. In fact, it was well known — by coaches, fellow players, my family — that I was awful at endurance. I needed multiple subs during a basketball game, for example. In fact, the main reason I adopted running last year was to prove younger me (and everyone else) wrong — I could run for a long time without stopping. I just needed to work at it. 

The other reason was that it was cheap. That was very important to me.

To train for the marathon, I joined a training group at a local running store. They gave us a training plan to follow and hosted group runs twice a week. Probably the hardest thing about marathon training, besides all the running, is finding time to do all the running. On my weekend long run I was running for 3+ hours every Saturday morning, in addition to making sure I was running during the week in the morning. But the payoff was worth it — I got a beer and a nice medal at the finish line. 

Next year, I’m going to focus on getting better at the half marathon distance, improving my speed and aerobic base. But the year after that I’m going to focus on the marathon again, this time to break 4 hours (~9:09 min/mi).

 

Q: You also foster dogs. How did you get into that and are you currently fostering any? (Pictures of dogs are completely acceptable and encouraged here.)

A: I had always wanted a dog and fostering looked like a great way to test drive dog ownership, so to speak. Unfortunately, my cat never really got with the program. I’ve since taken a break from fostering, but I may look into fostering again in the future. Maybe some smaller breeds so she doesn’t feel so intimidated.

 

Q: What are you currently reading?

A: The Firecracker Boys (recommendation from a fellow engineer at SNI)

Educated

Q: What does the term “geohipster” mean to you?

A: That you all were into geography before it was cool.

 

 

Belle Tissott to GeoHipster: Data Science and Teenage Bird Angst

Belle Tissott
Belle Tissott

Belle Tissott is an Assistant Director of Product Development at Digital Earth Australia, where she works to develop new methods to process and analyse satellite imagery in order to map and better understand Australia’s land and water. She is a programmer and mathematician, with a strong drive to do what she can to make a positive impact in the world.

Belle was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith.

Q: You came to spatial from IT, does that mean you have geo-imposter syndrome as well as programmer-imposter syndrome?

A: Yes, yes and a little bit more yes!

One of the things which has been both amazing and confronting working at Geoscience Australia is just how many insanely smart people there are here. And whilst it’s incredible to work with and learn from such talented peers, it is almost impossible not to doubt whether you’re good enough to be a part of this, and (for me) to wonder just when everyone will realise you’re a fraud.

I recently started opening up with peers about my self-doubt, and to my surprise, it didn’t make them think I’m incompetent. They were understanding, supportive and tended to share their own doubts and fears in return. Realising that imposter syndrome is a pretty universal thing certainly hasn’t removed the feelings entirely, but I find it has made them easier to ignore.

Q: I’ve heard you describe yourself as a hippy. Can you elaborate?

A: My parents moved to a hippy commune near Nimbin in New South Wales in the 70s, and built a beautiful house in the forest. We had limited power, no mains water and an outside toilet. I grew up there as a ‘free range’ kid, playing in the mud, swimming in the creek and adventuring in the forest. It was fantastic, but very different to your average suburban upbringing. I distinctly remember being shocked when I was to start high school and we were expected to wear shoes EVERY day!

Interestingly whilst I feel like a hippy here, I feel pretty conservative when I go home to Nimbin. I think identifying as a hippy comes from what I see as important and noticing how it’s different from the norm. I feel like ‘normal’ society trains people to put a very high value on wealth and reputation, whereas these things are extremely unimportant to me. I just want to be happy, have a positive impact on the world and those around me.

Q: As a hippy, how did you get into IT?

A: Very much by accident.

I dropped out of school after year 10 and went to TAFE (Australian vocational training) and did a Diploma in Apparel Manufacturing. Throughout my studies I struggled with the way the fashion industry treated young girls, and realised by the end of it that I couldn’t comfortably be part of this toxic world. I was lost. My boyfriend at the time was applying to do Bachelor of Information Technology at university the following year, and, very much as a joke, I applied too. It sounded interesting enough, I liked computer games and problem solving, but an IT-based profession wasn’t something that had ever crossed my mind, plus I didn’t finish school! To my utter shock I got in and loved the programming side of it. I could lose myself in learning languages and creating something from nothing.

Q: As an “IT gurl”, how did you get into Geoscience Australia (GA)?

A: I had a friend working as a contractor at GA and she was aware of them looking for more developer staff and thought I would be a perfect fit. I didn’t think I had the skills they were after (that good old self-doubt messing with ability to push forward), however she encouraged me to apply anyway. I was offered an initial contract of just 6 weeks working on their metadata catalogue. With only 6 weeks guaranteed and being the primary income earner for my family, I couldn’t leave my existing job, or relocate my family to Canberra, so this made for a very challenging period. I moved to Canberra alone, worked for GA during the day and did my other work over evenings & weekends, and went home to see my partner and kids every 2 weeks for just a couple of days.

All went well and I was offered a 6 month contract continuation, I left my other job and we packed up our life and made the move from sunny, warm, beachy Byron Bay, to freezing cold Canberra. Later in the year a lead dev position became available and I scored that to become a permanent part of the GA family!

Q: As a GA staff member, how did you get to work in Earth observation?

A: Ah, I think this goes back to when I was out of work for a while when my kids were young. I decided I should go back to university so I would be more employable after the time off. I chose a BSc majoring in mathematics and statistics (because I thought studying maths would be fun!). It was, and it wasn’t… I loved the maths, but got a full-time job part way through, so ended up working & studying with two young kids, which is not great for your sanity!

Anyways, how does this relate to EO? So, working at GA I was doing web development, which is what I’d always done. However, some fabulous managers saw that my maths/stats background could be good for scientific development work, so I got the opportunity to learn Python and work within the Digital Earth Australia team creating products from satellite imagery. I realised pretty quickly that this was where I was meant to be. I didn’t even know it was what I was looking for in a job, but I love everything about it now!

Q: You moved to Canberra, the center of bureaucracy, from Byron Bay, the center of… non-bureaucracy. Tell us about the two cities.

A: The two places are so vastly different, but both amazing in their own way. Byron Bay is full of natural beauty. It has the most amazing beaches in the world as well as lush rain forests and crystal clear creeks. Working in Byron I would pop to the beach for a dip during my lunch break over summer — it’s hard to imagine why anyone would leave such an idyllic place, particularly for Canberra. Before spending time in Canberra my view of it was dull, grey, and full of boring public servants. We moved for work. It has FAR surpassed my expectations (though maybe not hard given what I thought of it!).

Belle with household animals

Primarily it’s the people I’ve met who have made me feel so happy to live here. My love of science at times made me feel a little out of place in Byron Bay, where conspiracy theories and alternative remedies are so popular. Now, I’m surrounded by kind, passionate, science-loving, fun people. But I miss the beach and lush forests. I miss moisture in general, I struggle with how dry Canberra is, and the sun in summer is like napalm, so I’m failing at growing veggies. But there are going to be ups and downs of all places, I like to stay focused on the ups of where I currently am — amazing, fabulous people!

Q: What you do is data science, so what does data science mean to you?

A: Data science to me is two-fold. It’s the fun in the challenge of finding new and wonderful ways to process, analyse and interpret insane amounts of data to extrapolate meaning and understanding. But it also is a way I feel I can connect my love of tech and programming, with my passion to do something positive for the world.

Q: I hear you like cosplay, what is your ultimate cosplay character?

A: The character I’ve done most is Harley Quinn. I like the happy/crazy combo, and the black/red is always fun to play with. More recently I however, if I were to have time, I would love to make some Twi’lek costumes as I think making the lekku (long fleshy head tail things) would be a fun challenge.

Q: Tell us about your parrot and teenage angst

A: Ooh our parrot was amazing. During a family weekend walk up Black Mountain we came across an injured fledgling crimson rosella. Despite being warned that it would give a solid bite (it was so tiny I thought it’d be ok), I swooped in to save the day. One bleeding finger later we were heading home with a new little baby. After a check from a vet we were told that it had a poorly healed broken wing and that it would likely never be able to fly so “I can put it down, or you now have a pet bird” — the kids were there, so we now had a pet bird (Pippin).

Surprisingly, the cat was fantastic about it and would lay there while Pip groomed him. At first all was fabulous, and he (I think) gradually learned to fly a little, from head-to-head. As he grew into a teen however he became a jerk and we were suddenly living in a house tormented by an erratically aggressive, but beautiful, sky rat. Pip’s flying got stronger and stronger. Amazingly, at the same time we began to get visits from a rosella family who would sit on our deck and chat to him through the window. One day we opened the door to take washing out and he swooped out to join the family. They all flew off together. It was beautiful to see. We would occasionally see them all at the local park, all very close to each other and him being watched over by the adults in the group.

Q: I found this fantastic picture of you and your kids in Nepal, how was that journey with young kids?

Nepalese mountains

A: It was absolutely amazing for a number of reasons, with the story behind why and how we organised this trip being just as big a part as the incredible adventures we had.

This was a bit of a mental health trip for me. I was unexpectedly made redundant and really struggled to deal with the emotions around it all. I felt rejected and like a failure. I didn’t know how to find the confidence to step back out and look for more work. I just wanted to run away and take some time to process my feelings without the stressors of normal life. The support from my family was what got me through.

Me: “I think I need to walk into the mountains in Nepal”
Matt (my partner): books tickets for the end of the week.

I have a soft spot for Nepal, the people are so friendly and the mountains are breathtaking. This was my second trip there, the first one being 12 years earlier with a 7 month old baby in a backpack. The kids weren’t that young this time (9 & 12), so very capable of walking decent distances. We spent 6 weeks wandering in the mountains and exploring new places together, it was an incredible bonding experience for us as a family and I would definitely recommend it. Also, I came back grounded, calm, at peace with what happened, and confident to get out there and work again.

Interviewer’s note: Belle has booked another trip to Nepal for December 2019 and I take full credit for re-inspiring her!

Q: And lastly, what about you makes you a geohipster?

A: I don’t know if I am. I don’t drink beer and I’m REALLY bad at growing a beard. The only time I wear a flannel is when I’m staying with my parents and wear my Dad’s. I am however a decent coffee snob. Firstly, instant coffee is NOT real coffee. Coffee which has been reheated time and time again is NOT real coffee. Plunger coffee is rough, but in desperation I could consume. But really, espresso latte with properly heated (not burnt) milk is my go to.  Or, if I’m channeling my inner hippy, a soy dandy latte (I know, not coffee – but fabulous nonetheless).

Welcome to our new site…

A picture of the GeoHipster sticker in Southern California
Our #geohipster stickers get around, even to sunny Southern California. Photo Credit: Jason J. Benedict.

Hello GeoHipster fans! It’s Mike D. here, checking in from Minnesota. Whether it’s hot or cold here, I like to think of this photo Jason Benedict shared with us via Twitter! I’m always excited to see our stickers making their way around the world.

But enough about the weather! In case you missed it in our post this past weekend, we’ve officially migrated all of our content here to this brand-spanking new WordPress site, complete with a new header image, mobile-friendlier design, and a spiffy SSL cert that hopefully keeps your network admins from blocking us.

Why now? Well, when I incorporated GeoHipster as an independent business back in 2017, the “OG” Atanas Entchev transferred most of the GeoHipster assets and operational responsibilities to me. One of the things that was left behind was the WordPress site he started (way back in 2013!) on the geohipster.com domain. To be frank, I just wasn’t ready to take over that part of the GeoHipster enterprise.

But now that I’ve got a few good years under my belt running the business, it seemed like the right time to make a transfer. Atanas and I have settled into our respective roles along with chief designer Jonah Adkins, and we’ve got all kinds of ways for you to support our work, including of course our 2020 Calendar. And we’ll continue publishing long-form, in-depth interviews with the most interesting characters in the geospatial world. To me, it’s amazing to see how far we’ve come since late 2013, when Will Skora transferred the @geohipster Twitter account to Atanas and Glenn Latham suggested the poll about what defines the GeoHipster.

We hope you like our new design and the benefits that come along with it! See you out there in the interwebs, or on Null Island…

Celebrating six years with a new site, and a new poll

On December 7, 2013, the “OG” Atanas Entchev posted a poll on geohipster.com entitled “What defines the GeoHipster?” Little did he know at the time that he would be launching a movement (or something) that would be filled with hundreds of interviews, opinion pieces, stickers, calendars, and t-shirts. Well, six years in, we’re still going strong, with more volunteers, a brand new 2020 calendar, and now, this newly designed website. So what better way to celebrate our six-year anniversary than with a reboot of the poll that started it all?

Update on the 2020 calendar

On November 26th, we at GeoHipster were informed of a dispute regarding potentially incomplete credits for one of the maps in our 2020 calendar. In the following days, we entered into discussions with the involved parties in an attempt to reach a satisfactory resolution. As a result of these discussions, on December 2nd we created a Second Edition of the 2020 calendar by substituting a map from Miguel Marques. Miguel’s map ranked highly among the original submissions, and will be included in all calendars ordered after our update. The Second Edition also includes an updated cover with Miguel’s name listed among the authors.

Please join us in congratulating Miguel for becoming part of this amazing product!