Mike Dolbow: “I haven’t always succeeded, but I’ve always been satisfied with the pursuit”

Mike Dolbow
Mike Dolbow

Mike Dolbow is a GIS Coordinator at a small state agency and your classic Jack of All Trades (Master of None).

Mike was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: How did you get into GIS? Would you do it all over again given the chance?

A: Like a decent percentage of my peers, I fell into GIS fairly accidentally. While pursuing a forestry degree at the University of New Hampshire, I took an aerial photography class where the professor gave us each an aerial photo of campus for lab exercises. My mind was blown: here, for the very first time, I was presented with relatable geography. I could see my dorm, class buildings, sidewalks, and shortcuts. It wasn’t the abstract geography of grade school, it was my favorite road map on steroids. That same professor encouraged me to take his GIS course, and I loved that even more, becoming his first TA the following year.

After graduating, I tried to find work in forestry nearby, but couldn’t. I waited tables for 6 months, then got a half-time GIS job at a small regional planning commission, where I met my future wife. That job soon became full time and suddenly a 20+ year career had begun.

Armed with today’s wisdom and a time machine back to my senior year, I might make a few tweaks to my path, but I wouldn’t change the fundamentals. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have worked in three corners of the country, where I’ve benefited from the efforts of amazing teachers and mentors.

Q: Describe your typical day at work (pre-isolation).

A: I like to say that GIS is the perfect endeavor for me, because it lets me exercise both analytical and creative skills, and that keeps boredom forever at bay. That dichotomy exists in other parts of my life: I’m extroverted at work (and play), but introverted at home. I’m a creature of routine for daily activities, but enjoy having each work day be different than the last.

So I don’t really have a typical day at work, and that’s the way I like it. Pre-isolation wasn’t much different than teleworking; turn on the laptop, address email, then plan out my day against my to-do list and the rare meetings I have. I only get tasked on projects once in a while, so I devote most of my time to operational work: keeping data current, maintaining application and database code, and making maps that people need to perform their jobs. However, even though I’ve been in my current job since October, I have a feeling I’m still in a honeymoon period and things will ramp up and down as the year progresses.

Q: You have been a government worker for most of your career. How much room is really there for innovation in government? Is there more room for technological innovation or in process innovation? Asking for a friend.

A: I have definitely felt the pain I imagine “your friend” is having! I can really only speak from my experience, and the answer of course is “it depends”. I’ve been really lucky in that my average job has typically allowed me somewhere between 5 and 20% of my time for “innovation”. I put that in quotes because, lets face it, a typical government worker isn’t going to invent the next Facebook or SpaceX. But we might take some tried-and-true technology and make a process leaner or a service more inclusive.

During the early stages of my career, I spent that 5-20% of time doing outreach, collaboration, or community efforts, which established extremely valuable relationships. When you can build relationships within a culture of sharing data, expertise, and information, it doesn’t take long before you’re applying those shared resources to own your work. And at some point, you’ve got enough experience that “innovating” is just being the first one to make small tweaks that can make big differences.

But I have worked in really large bureaucracies where big budgets and red tape have crushed the appetite for innovation. And I’ve worked in really small organizations where all you can do is keep your head above water from all the operations and projects that need immediate attention. I’ve found the best results in places that are a happy middle, especially where they have flexible customers. Those are the folks that are willing to occasionally sacrifice 10 or 20 percent of “billable hours” in exchange for staying on top of current technologies, constantly improving processes, and retaining the employees who are thereby engaged.

You don’t have to look far to find great examples of folks innovating in government. Let’s take just a few GeoHipster alumni: my Minnesota colleague Kitty Hurley spearheaded a collaborative effort on making maps accessible; Tobin Bradley created one of the few “geoportals” that follows Brian Timoney’s advice; and even though he’s moved to the private sector, Chris Whong is still showing how to innovate with government data. Heck, 18F is even showing how innovation can be done at the federal level!

So I truly believe there is room for innovation in government. If I have a motto, it’s that I love maps and I hate waste. Putting those two together has often made me a “change agent” who strives to make things better with the powers of geography and technology. I haven’t always succeeded, but I’ve always been satisfied with the pursuit.

Q: From your tweets I gather that you love QGIS and Postgres, while firmly planted in the Esri camp. How is that symbiosis working for you? Does it trigger a split personality?

A: I think it works just fine, and symbiosis is a decent way to describe it. I love QGIS’s Atlas composer, all the fine-grained options for labeling and cartography, and the fantastically configurable data tables. PostgreSQL taught me a lot about spatial database functions that I still use in my new job (with SQL Server). But I also love working with Esri’s REST API (I even wrote a tutorial around it!), frequently do rapid app prototyping with ArcGIS Online, and rely on their cloud infrastructure for several functions.

As I alluded to earlier, this isn’t the only thing about me that seems contradictory, at least on the surface. But I think it’s my natural resources background that helps me resolve this supposed conflict. I see natural systems as vastly more complex than anything man-made we encounter day-to-day, and so trying to describe them with blanket assumptions or black-and-white decision criteria is folly. 

And that’s how I see my approach to my work: it’s not “Esri vs. FOSS”, it’s both, depending on the situation. It’s not just using the right tool for the job, it’s making sure you know the capabilities, pros, and cons of those tools so you can put the right one in play, at the right time, for the right reasons. Only by maintaining that fundamental knowledge can technologists bring true value to the organizations they support.

Q: You are the GeoHipster CEO. What can GeoHipster fans expect from the publication in the future? Any coming attractions?

A: I wish I had a good answer for this, especially since GeoHipster has opened up so many opportunities for me. Without it, I probably wouldn’t have had the chance to go on the Mapscaping podcast or cover the 2019 State of the Map US conference. And I know I wouldn’t have gotten to know all the cool people I’ve interviewed over the past five years without the work you started back in 2013.

Unfortunately, I’ve never been much of a crystal ball reader or “idea guy”; instead, I’ve been a good steward of someone else’s ideas. That’s pretty much what I’ve done with GeoHipster; taking your brilliant idea and keeping it functioning as a sustainable independent company. But I can tell you that I’m excited by a few things, like transitioning our merchandising to RedBubble and welcoming interviews generated by “newer” authors like Kurt Menke and Natasha Pirani. And I have a few potential “business-to-business” cooperative ventures that might open us to new audiences. But I want to make sure that we keep the elements of independence, contrarian thinking, and self-deprecating humor that have made us a hallmark of the geo-web for over six years. It’s been great fun, and I just want to keep spreading that fun far and wide.

Q: We are doing this interview amid the COVID-19 epidemic, mandated social distancing, and work from home. However, many in the geofield are no strangers to #WFH, having been working from home for years. Do you think that once this epidemic is over it will have proven that WFH is, well… workable?

A: I sure as hell hope so. I myself have never worked from home full time until now, and outside of the general anxiety that comes with living through a global pandemic, I love the change. The commute is easier, I get more sleep and exercise, and I can focus on my work a lot more. I do miss the occasional office chat, but I don’t miss getting into a car (or a bus) five days a week.

Maybe it’s the loner Gen X in me, but I’ve never struggled with the WFH concept. Unless we’re talking about the kind of place where everyone hates their job, I implicitly trust folks to get their work done. Anyone who’s not professional enough to handle working on their own at home isn’t going to be any “more productive” in an office. And what kind of supervisor has the time to constantly look over the shoulders of their employees and “make sure they’re working”? The kind I don’t want to work for, that’s what kind.

I know there’s a lot of prerequisites to making it workable. People need good internet speeds at home, and the organization has to be able to issue employees equipment like a laptop and typically VPN connectivity. But these obstacles are relatively easy to overcome; a lack of fundamental trust between employee and employer is NOT.

I’m lucky I have that trust currently, and I’m hoping I can stay home “permanently” after this pandemic is over. And I hope it becomes a new normal for a lot of the workforce, because the overall benefits to our culture, environment, and society will be worth it. I’ve seen a lot of folks warn leaders not to judge teleworking as a whole based on this experience, because folks aren’t going to be as productive as normal when they’re worried about the pandemic. So I hope managers and supervisors take that into consideration when we’re ready to move on.

Q: You play bass in a band — “j. bell & the Lazy Susan Band”. You make records and play live shows. I have listened to your music on Spotify and YouTube, and I quite like it. How did you get into music, and how did you make bass guitar your axe of choice?

A: Thanks for the compliments and the plug! This is another part of my life where I’m incredibly fortunate; must be because I’m half Irish.

I’ve always loved music, since I was a little kid singing along to everything from “The Gambler” to “Thriller”. My mom recognized that about me early on and pushed me to join the school band in the 5th grade. I took three years of saxophone lessons, which laid a decent foundation of music theory for me. I quit in junior high because I just wasn’t having fun with it. 

My mom kept buying me cheap little keyboards that I would goof around on, but I still hadn’t discovered an instrument that I loved. That changed when I found a classical guitar in my basement that had been left behind by a family friend. I brought it to several buddies who knew how to play and asked each of them to show me some chords and explain the tuning. I wrote my first “song” within a week, and then I was hooked. 

I continued to learn, write songs, and get better for several years, even starting a few crummy bands in college, but I never really excelled as a guitarist. My senior year I started a band called “The Roadies” with two other guitar players, and we all agreed that one of us should just play bass. We each tried it, and I had the best feel for it, so I stuck with it.

I consider that a stroke of luck, because I don’t think I was ever going to have the chops to be a lead guitarist for a band I liked. In contrast, to be a “good enough” rock bassist, you really don’t have to be flashy or virtuosic. You just have to play the root note of the chord in time with the drummer, and that’s never been too difficult for me. Of course, to be a really good rock bassist, you have to live and breathe “in the pocket”, and serve as the glue for your band. At that level, it’s a completely different instrument than a six string guitar. I’m not there yet, but I’ve steadily improved at the craft to the point where my bandmates are noticing. I’m really proud of that, because I’m easily the least talented guy in my current band! I feel super lucky to be part of a group that makes music I enjoy listening to, and that we get to share it with the world.

At least, when there’s not a pandemic going on! We picked a really bad day – April 4th – to release our latest record, so we’re struggling to recover our costs right now. If our readers wouldn’t mind taking a listen to our new record in iTunes or maybe even buying it directly from us, I would love it.

Q: You are a beer aficionado, which is a common trait among geofolk. Do you brew your own? What is your favorite local brew? How do you explain the fascination of geogeeks with microbrews?

A: I could talk way too long about beer! I’ve never brewed my own, but my roommate in college did, and that’s when I first started appreciating craft brews. My tastes have evolved over the years, but now I pretty much know that there’s only a handful of styles I don’t enjoy. Minnesota is blessed with a ton of amazing brewers, so it’s hard to name a favorite. My favorite style is an IPA, so let’s just pick Surly’s “Wet”, a fresh-hopped beer that only comes out in the fall and I find simply delicious.

I don’t know why geogeeks in general are fascinated with micro brews. I think some of it is coincident demographics: our industry is dominated by white dudes and what do white dudes like, if not craft beer? But that’s just playing the numbers. It’s more fun to guess: I think geographers have an appreciation for nuance, attention to detail, craftsmanship, locally-made products, small businesses, and products that are appealing in multiple ways. For me, that adds up to craft beer, indie music, and Korean street tacos. For someone else, that might be a handmade canoe paddle or an acrylic painted trail map. But our era has been blessed with an abundance of brewers putting their work out there, and for that I’m grateful.

Q: Last but not least, you are a family man. You wear many hats — government worker, GeoHipster CEO, musician, family man… How do you manage to keep all the balls up in the air? Do you even sleep?

A: Actually I’ve never slept very well, so I have to put a big priority on it to even function. I typically dedicate about 8 hours to it every day, but because that’s not solid sleep, it’s probably the equivalent of 6 or 7 for someone else. If I get less than 6 for more than a few nights in a row I become useless.

The rest of my life is just about setting priorities. Obviously, family comes first. Then, the day job that pays the bills and keeps that family fed. After that, it’s the side gigs like GeoHipster and the Lazy Susan Band. I feel like I’m not giving either of those as much effort as I’d like, but that’s just reality. I do try to focus on only one of those at a time: right now, I’m all about the band because we have the new album out. In the fall each year, I spend a lot of time making sure the GeoHipster calendar gets compiled and loaded up so that folks can order it for holiday gifts. In between, it’s whatever bubbles up in priority at that moment.

And of course, we have to reveal the real secret: my wife is the “Household CEO” and she takes care of a boatload of things that keep my home running and my kids happy. We might as well be Ward and June Cleaver with the way we’ve split up the duties…except I do the dishes every night. But that’s peanuts compared to the work she does daily, and I am a very lucky man to have her in my corner. We’re also lucky that our kids are older and generally entertain themselves enough that we can have some time for our own interests.

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?

A: If someone does a favor for you in your career journey, don’t try to pay them back. It sounds corny, but all they want from you is to see you pay it forward. I myself am trying extra hard lately to pay it forward to those with less privilege than I have, and I sincerely hope that makes a difference. How cool would it be if, 20 years from now, people were asking why geogeeks were fascinated with ugali instead of microbrews?

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