UBC Magicians

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Today I was invited to talk with grad students in a course on Information Visualization and Visual Analytics  as part of  the Magic program at the University of British Columbia (UBC).  I had met the Director of the program (and CiFER Researrch), Dr. Vicki Lemieux, at the Tableau 8 Roadshow here in Vancouver in the spring and she had asked if I would come speak to her class about working in this field.  Vicki is one of those truly precious professors who are not only experts in their field and love it, but also love teaching and are brilliant at it.  She explained how the class runs; she usually presents some new information and then the students work in groups to further explore and share their new found knowledge.

Magic stands for Media and Graphics Interdisciplinary Centre.  This is a great program which also offers students the opportunity to work with local business and government organizations:

(MAGIC) was established in 1991 to foster research in media technology that will support economic development in the Province of British Columbia. These goals are achieved through training of highly qualified personnel and transfer of knowledge and technology for media, graphics, visualization, human-computer interaction and communication technologies to the community.
 We also offer a Graduate Sub-Specialization in Human Computer Interaction MAGIC research extends across a range of disciplines. We have collaborated in projects involving biomedical imaging, cloud computing, robotics, scientific, engineering and financial visualization, installation and performance art, and interfaces for musical expression.

At this point in the semester they were talking about the future of visualization and Vicki had suggested I could tell them how bright it was.  So, I talked about my path; the training, jobs, Tableau, etc.  But the future?  The future is in rooms like that one, in their imaginations, and I can't wait to see what they come up with.

I can't imagine though, how much more concerned they are about finding appropriate work when they graduate, than I was in 2001.  The work world is different from when I graduated, but even then my job didn't really exist.  I was just lucky that I had a boss who knew that she wanted my skills and we'd build the job (I've written the job descriptions for the many of my positions).

Right now there are few pure 'Data Visualization' jobs.  It's an add-on skill in a multi-disciplinary work world.  But more and more organizations are realizing that this is a skill-set that they need desperately and are looking to bring in people with this expertise to add to and advance their current teams' skills.  Andy Kriebel has that kind of job Facebook.  I think his title is 'Data Guru'.  How cool is that?

Lynn Cherny at Ghostweather has written a terrific and exhaustive post Data Vis Consulting:  Advice for Newbies that provides terrific advice not only for freelance work, but also applies to job interviews for full-time work:
Kim Rees says to beware of the client saying, “We’re really excited to do some datavis! But we’re not sure how to get started.” “These people have no idea what datavis is. Conversations will be confusing, nebulous, and full of far more questions than answers.
Tiffany Farrant-Gonzalez notes that “lots of clients are attracted to heavily visual infographics that have become popular, and it’s sometimes hard work to educate them about good visualization practices.” She says, they sometimes want you to “simply make their data ‘look cool’ or ‘more interesting’ without really understanding what this means or the process involved.” Certainly even in development jobs, I have to explain that there is a data exploration, analysis, and design phase BEFORE the building starts -- just as in other design spaces. 
Lynn also provides an extensive list of resources for freelances at the bottom of the post, including job boards, experts, twitter groups, linked-in groups, inspirations, etc.  I would also recommend you check out Ramon Martinez's Resources at Health Intelligence - he covers tools, data, databases, readings, bloggers, etc.  It's impressive.

My advice?

Follow what you love.  Have plan A, B, C, D, E, & F in activation and take all the opportunities that come about as a result of those plan paths.

Collaborate.  Earn your rewards through the value of what you contribute.  Don't compete.  That's short-term gain guaranteed to bite you in the ass someday.

Believe in your skill and value it even when others don't understand it and try to de-value it.