Why I no longer do fun things with Maps

Ed note: Since there has been some concern, I think I should preface this post with this: I think that my employer has a very solid business position and a solid line and business plan around what we *actually do*; I think there’s serious misunderstanding internally about what we do though, which leads to a lot of this. I also don’t see this as an indictment of the team I work for or what I actually do; my day job is productive and adding usefully to our platform. It just isn’t ‘fun’ in the same way as hacking up a demo in a weekend is.

A long time ago, I used to do fun things with maps.

I would make a map of Mario levels. Or build a draggable routing system. Or work on an editable map display on top of Google Maps.

I would plot out my route, or put my photos on a map, or other fun things.

But now, I don’t do those things anymore. I don’t make cool toys, or experiment with maps, or do anything particularly interesting with maps at all. Observant observers would probably (rightly) observe that this started approximately when I started working for my current employer — but probably not for the reasons that most would think (or at least, not the reason I’d have expected when I started working there).

Frankly, working with the rest of the stuff in the world is just depressing when you have to go back to working inside of a giant corporation when the weekend is over. I see experiments like I used to do as having two options: following the company line, or really pushing the envelope and doing something cool in the world.

Neither is as exciting, because frankly, doing something cool — but not using our corporate tools — means that I can’t share it with the people I spend the rest of my week with. “Why are you using Google Maps?” is the canonical question for almost all things — even when its clear that the answer is “Because we doesn’t provide a competitive offering.”

Using our offerings to do cool things is like pulling teeth. In the space of API availability, design, and support, we still living years in the past, and there is no major shift towards the future; as an enterprise-targeted company, our interests really don’t match that of the consumer market, but there’s a lack of acceptance of that, which leads to people thinking that we *should* be competitive.

I feel differently: I feel that we’re a successful enterprise company, and we should capitalize on that. We have an offering which no one can really compete with in that space — Google’s current enterprise story is poor, and their worldwide story is less good than ours — but it’s hard to convince people we shouldn’t try to compete with Google at everything we do.

In either case, I find working with maps a million times more frustrating now than I used to. The idea of making a cool demo is completely tamped down by the knowledge that using OpenStreetMap as a base map — even when it obviously presents a significantly improved experience — is considered disloyal.

In the end, it’s easier just to not bother. While I really enjoy what I do as my day job — to the extent that I spend a lot of off-hours work on it — it’s not a *cool* thing; my job is to make a small portion of the maps experience a tiny percent better. (To me, this is actually pretty exciting — every time we make a problem 1% better, we probably make thousands of people’s lives slightly easier every day, something I couldn’t possibly have said before.) But There’s very little of external interest in what I do on a day to day basis. And the things that I used to do which *were* interesting to others, I no longer do, because I feel stymied by the environment I work in.

It’s also why I seldom am aware of the latest news in the geospatial world. It’s just frustrating; to work for a company which has significant resources, but constantly feel like I’m watching us miss opportunities so that we aren’t competitive; to constantly see questions go by about “why can’t we do X?” when the answer is “Because we have massively misunderstood that market, and don’t want to try to compete.”

Working for a big company is also frustrating in and of itself. As we work on problems, then hand them over to new people whenever one group fails, there is no *learning* process. I watch as we make the same mistakes over and over — and I’m sure that others would say the same about the work that I do, though I feel like we’re at least making progress — and don’t learn from them. I watch as people seriously misunderstand how far ahead in some areas the rest of the geographic data space is, and learn the wrong lessons — and still think that we’re competing in the consumer space, when in reality, we should capitalize on our *successes* instead.

The lesson of OpenStreetMap is not “You should attempt to build your own collaborative mapping platform” — OSM has taken 9 years to build what they have, and there is no practical way that anybody else will be seriously competitive in that space.

The lesson of MapBox is not “People like prettier maps, so we’re going to make our maps be the ultimate in pretty.” The lesson is that people want *different* maps — and they want the process of creating them to be easy, all the way down to adding new data and details to it.

The lesson of the success of the Google Maps API — and later charging for it — is not “Mapping APIs are a valuable distinguishing factor in map data use, and we should charge an arm and a leg for access to the data.” People want data in their own applications, and if you provide a sufficiently compelling service, you may be able to get people to pay for it — so long as they can use it the way they need to.

Watching the company I make for make so many mistakes, to some extent, I just bury my head in the sand. I no longer do fun things with maps because every fun thing will be questioned, and I never liked the questioning part; I just wanted to build something cool.

I loved working at MetaCarta because I had a cool platform by which to create and have some people see the work I’d made. I had a group of coworkers who were interested in similar things, and would comment on them, and I worked in an environment where “anything goes” was the watchword. I always had the support of the company in spending time building a cool demo that used MetaCarta infrastructure to produce something was new and exciting.

I miss that about working for MetaCarta. I miss working in an environment which really was “Anything goes”; I miss working in a place where creativity was rewarded with praise instead of complaint; I miss working in a place where it was accepted that the best tool for the job isn’t always the tool that we have built.

That lack of insight from the rest of the company I work for is disappointing, and leaves me wishing that I had a bit of that magic back. Since I don’t: I don’t do fun things with maps anymore, because it just isn’t as much fun.

7 Responses to “Why I no longer do fun things with Maps”

  1. Kat Says:

    Here via Lynne Baer.

    I’m sorry you’re having this struggle. It’s been sad as a consumer watching Nokia go from being the premier mobile product company to being an also-ran…your words about the experience from the other side are deeply saddening for this bystander.

    I wish you joy again in the rest of things, somehow, and soon.

  2. crschmidt Says:

    It’s worth noting that I don’t actually work for “Nokia” anymore — not really. I work for HERE, which is the mapping side of things (which would have previously been called NAVTEQ). I think NAVTEQ has a reasonably successful business model in the short term and is trying to build a new business model for the long term, and I think it has a reasonable shot at that. The relationships that have been built around using NAVTEQ’s data products are very valuable, and unlikely to go away overnight, and there’s every possibility of leveraging that.

    But “successful business model” and “fun” are not synonymous. My job isn’t *exciting* anymore, and doing exciting things isn’t sufficiently encouraged. That’s what this is really about: not the chances of success of the company, but instead the chances of the company being an exciting place to work.

    But really, if I wanted excitement, I could join a startup. And I really don’t want that much excitement. 🙂 I like stability and predictability; I like what I do, it’s just not the same as it used to be.

  3. Harry Wood Says:

    It’s really a shame you don’t do fun things with maps so much these days.

    Maybe people didn’t say it you often enough, but your efforts towards the open source geo stack have always been massively appreciated. OpenStreetMap wouldn’t have developed the way it did without your help. People are still building on your work in all sorts of fun ways!

  4. Frank Warmerdam Says:


    Nice post. It captures some aspects of what I found frustrating about working at Google. A major reason I’m moving to Planet Labs now is to get some “anything goes” back, and I hope to keep inside technology as close as practical to outside technology (ie. use lots of open source as opposed to some big companies which reinvent so much). I’m luckily at a point where I can afford a less stable environment.

    I particularly liked your point that trying to replicate OSM does not really make sense. 🙂

  5. Fakestevecoast Says:

    You guys should try life at the vole!

  6. Fakestevecoast Says:

    I didn’t mean it.

  7. Mateusz Loskot Says:

    Chris, don’t let the frustration get you mate.
    I’m glad to see Frank’s made pivotal move in time 🙂