Getting to the Finish Line, One Step at a Time

Molly Zurn, a documentation product engineer on the ArcGIS Online (AGOL) team, talks about her life at Esri and on the slopes. She’s been here almost 15 years, the last seven of which have been on the AGOL team.

Before joining the ArcGIS Online team, what was your role?

I’ve always worked on documentation. My degree is in geography, but I was hired because I didn’t have any GIS or technical skills. I came from a teaching background and was brought on to write non-technical documentation to make it friendlier to the non-GIS audience. I started with internet mapping services (ArcIMS), then Geography Network and RouteIMS, and then joined my current team when ArcGIS Online really got going.

Talk a little bit more about what a documentation product engineer does.

Mainly we’re the advocate for Help, and our responsibility is to explain to users how to work with our software. Sometimes it’s nuts and bolts how-to; sometimes it’s conceptual information, for example why they would want to do something and how it fits in to the rest of their work. I also contribute to blogs and other types of messaging. It might be a one-to-one e-mail correspondence with the user, or internal documentation for Support Services and training staff to help them get ready for a new product.

The reason we are part of the product engineering teams is because early on we are involved with defining new product functionality and testing it. That’s really the only way to write something well and, as I said, we’re an advocate for the doc, but of course we’re also an advocate for the user. If we can’t write something because the software doesn’t make sense, then we very quickly go back to the developers or the architects or the product managers and say, “This functionality doesn’t make sense.” So we’re not in a little bubble just writing—for me, that’s what keeps my job interesting.

And are you the only documentation product engineer for ArcGIS Online?

I’m the only full time documentation product engineer, but there are about 10 to 15 other authors who contribute content for their component of the product. For example, the spatial analysis team writes all the topics that relate to the tools in our MapViewer where you can do spatial analysis. We have folks who write the topics that relate to hosted web services. The Zurich team writes about Web Scenes and then we have the team who writes about Web AppBuilder. I’m the publication lead—I make sure all those components are done on time and all get published on the day we release and that all the topics get handed over to the localization team for translation.

What do you think sets Esri apart as an employer?

Esri is very trusting and flexible. In some sense, the only thing that matters is that you do a good job and you get it done on time. We have a lot of collaborative meetings; people on our team are all over the world—Zurich, Beijing, and all across the US—so it’s certainly not a nine-to-five job. And that works so well for me; it just fits into my lifestyle. I have to do a lot of brainstorming and the most success I’ve had with coming up with ideas is when I’m out running or skiing or I’m walking my dogs. So for me, it’s the flexibility and a big reason why I’ve stayed here. And it’s also the people I work with. Everybody is respectful and is interesting and is interested in each other and mostly interested in doing good work for our users. That’s everybody’s driving motivation.

You mentioned the collaboration with Beijing and Zurich. How do you stay connected?

Well, I will say every year I’ve been here collaboration across teams has gotten easier. Esri has spent good energy on making sure we all have the tools we need to get our job done, and for a team like mine that is so dispersed, the tools to communicate with each other really have been essential. So we do a lot of online meetings and while you’re talking to each other on the phone, you all can see each other’s screens and you can be sending each other instant messages. These multi-faceted collaborative tools really have made the conversations easier because then you can focus on the task at hand.

Tell me more about your passion for running and skiing.

For whatever reason, competing has always been a part of my life. I feel like it’s part of who I am. I did triathlons in college but after graduating I didn’t have the time to bike, so running was more efficient. I live in Reno (Nevada), which is made for trail running and all types of skiing. The last 15 years, I’ve focused on long distance trail running, up to 100 miles, but I also enjoy Nordic skiing. Tahoe has a lot of local cross country ski races so I’ve competed in those, but I’ve also gone across the country and even internationally for competitions. The last ten years my husband and I have been doing team events, ski mountaineering, which is when you skin up a hill and then you take your skins off and ski downhill over moguls or backcountry or powder. So it’s been a great way to travel and stay fit, but also meet new people.

I understand you hold some records.

I think it’s been broken by now, but several years ago there was a ski mountaineering race where you had 24 hours to ski as many vertical feet as you could. (In ski mountaineering they calculate how many vertical feet you’ve done, not miles.) So I was combining my long distance running with the ski mountaineering and I broke the world record for women.

Is there anything else you want to add?

I was thinking about talking to you today and how the running and skiing fit into my work and vice versa. I feel the skills for both are so overlapping—the work I’ve done at Esri has really helped my running and my skiing, and the running and skiing have helped my work because the mindset and the day-to-day are the same. So much of it is about the planning and having a goal, and then really staying focused on the goal. When I’m in a competition running 100 miles, there are many points along the way where I want to stop because it’s too hard and I’m in too much pain, or I’m thirsty, or I’m hungry, or I’m cold, and I just have to remember that I really want to get to the finish line. And that’s the same with the work I do here. It can be stressful and at some point in every release it feels like it’s not going to come together. So just like the running and skiing, we all stay focused on the goal of improving the software or coming out with that cool new UI. In running it’s tree to tree, or in skiing ski pole to ski pole—in my role here, it’s getting one little project done then on to the next.


Want to do work like Molly?

We’re hiring documentation product engineers. Learn more about the positions and see if you’re a fit at

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Stretching the Limits of Technology: Systems Administrators at Esri

Whether you work for a small company or a large enterprise, there’s no doubt you rely on a systems administrator to keep your IT network performing at its best. I recently talked with Stephen, a sysadmin in our Information Systems and Technology group, about his role and what keeps him at Esri.

How long have you been with Esri?
I’ve been here 18 years. I didn’t realize when I first joined Esri what opportunities I’d have to continue growing and learning. I started as a desktop technician and grew into a lead position on that team before becoming a systems administrator supporting Product Development. Now I’m team lead for the Compute Team; we support all the backend servers that power Esri’s infrastructure such as Exchange, Lync, SharePoint, and our development environments.

What are some of the cool things about being a sysadmin at Esri?
There’s a lot of variety in what we do; every day can be different. We’re given the opportunity to present ideas and take on new projects, unlike at some other organizations. When you have a good idea, often you will end up leading the effort to carry it through. As a team lead, I find out what people want to do and work with them to get there.

Also, our department is heavily involved in the annual Esri User Conference, attended by about 16,000 customers and partners. Our sysadmins help get 1,200+ machines set up for the conference. We start about two months prior, getting them configured and ready to ship to San Diego, then we go on-site to get them all set up. A lot of organizations use contractors to do the IT setup for their big events, but we do all the work ourselves. It’s an interesting change of venue and pace and a neat thing to be part of every year.

In terms of technology, we’re always looking at the cutting edge. If the industry is moving a certain way, we ask ourselves what we can do to get there. Some of the things we ask of our systems are fairly complex. We tend to stretch things to the limit, sometimes to the point of puzzling the third-party vendor we’re working with. They usually haven’t thought out what we’re asking their system to do. It’s challenging work; you have to come up with unique ways of solving problems. For example, to support our customers running various versions of Esri software, we have an internal cloud that provides 13 different versions of Windows, each available in up to 22 different languages, as well as three different variants of Linux, each with multiple versions. Creating the automation to allow this in a self-service portal is one of the kinds of challenges we come across.

Other than technical skills, describe your ideal candidate.
Someone who loves what they’re working on and has the drive to find solutions. When they see something that’s not working, I don’t want them to just tell me about it—come to me with a solution and the drive to get it resolved. I look for those who have initiative and are willing to find a better way to do things.

What do you like about living in the Redlands area?
I love the small town feel of Redlands. And there are a lot of things to do nearby—it’s less than an hour to the mountains and about an hour to the beach. You can do so many things from here—get away and completely break free from your normal day-to-day in a short period of time.

Final thoughts?
I’ve been at Esri so long because I’ve had enormous opportunities here—Esri provides a huge breadth of technologies and experience. The work might be different if I went somewhere else, but I don’t feel I’ve missed anything by staying here. There’s no reason for me to go somewhere else.

Want to know more?

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Being at the Esri UC: “A Ridiculously Cool Feeling”

By Guest Blogger Rachel, Esri UC Student Assistant

When I got on the plane heading from New York to San Diego, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew there would be a lot of maps, and I knew I would be on my feet a lot, but “student assistant” was still a pretty vague term in my mind. Once I arrived, I quickly learned why – being a student assistant means many different things. From getting a behind-the-scenes look at the conference to learning what a banner stand is (and going on a scavenger hunt throughout the conference center to find them) to meeting thousands of fellow geogeeks, the week was an incredible whirlwind of people, activities, and – of course – maps.

While the first few days helping with set up and pre-registration were exciting, when Monday morning hit there was magic in the air. As the doors to the plenary opened and people started streaming in, all eager for the week ahead, the excitement and anticipation were contagious. Walking around the San Diego Convention Center (which, by the way, is an activity in itself – that building is enormous) and knowing that simply by being there you have something in common with 16,000 other people is a ridiculously cool feeling.

The entire conference was an unreal experience, but my favorite part was working at the Esri Store. Now, you may think that’s kind of weird and not really related to the conference. But in the store I got the chance to meet so many people, got to chat about things that may not have come up otherwise (conversations at checkout are the best kind of conversations!), and got to see people geek out over the same things I do (Superman GIS shirt, anyone??).

If you’ve been to the Esri UC you’ll probably nod your head at these, but for anyone who hasn’t been, here are some lessons I learned:

• It’s not the place to break in new shoes – no matter how comfortable they are.
• There is no way you can see everything. Sometimes the best way to choose a session is to go to the room closest to where you are. Eeny-meeny-miny-moe works too.
• It’s probably impossible to meet all 16,000 people at the conference, but social media means you can at least see how much fun they’re having!
• The map gallery is a giant room full of maps. Full. Of. Maps. Spend some time there.
• The student assistantship program is a fantastic way to get to a conference you may not otherwise have the chance to go to.
• If you’ve never been to the Esri UC and you get the chance, do it. Just go. You won’t regret it!

We’ll soon begin accepting applications for the 2015 Esri UC Student Assistantship Program. Stay tuned!

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Doors to Opportunity Opened for Esri UC Student Assistant

By Guest Blogger Lauren, Student at Centre of Geographic Sciences (COGS)

If I could sum up my week in one word, it would be opportunity. The Esri User Conference Student Assistantship Program provided so many opportunities during the conference, and it truly becomes what you make of it. The choices I made during the week will have a long term effect, and seeking every opportunity possible opened many doors.

I first met some other student assistants for breakfast on Friday morning, thanks to the connections made through a Facebook group. Connecting with other students before working together allowed for a more relaxed atmosphere, as we were all a bit more comfortable with each other. After breakfast we made our way to the Convention Center, where we were greeted by our hosts Esri employees Terri, Peter, Noah, and Matt. Each of them were very inviting and informative, which was the perfect first impression of how the User Conference was going to be.

This year, 60 students from six countries were selected to participate in the Student Assistantship Program. Our main tasks involved registration, helping with the Esri Store, and overall conference logistics. Each student worked some full days and some half days. Before and after our shifts we were permitted to do as we pleased, so I spent much of my time at the Expo—startups and larger well-known companies promoting their products and services. I made many professional connections during my time at the Expo, which I felt was very rewarding. I also had the opportunity to take part in technical workshops. These were very informative and helpful, and I recommend anyone who has the opportunity to attend.

If time away from the Convention Center to wind down was needed, San Diego had much to offer. The central location of our hotel allowed for easy walking distance to anything we needed, which allowed time to explore the city. Unfortunately I did not have time to visit some of the attractions I had originally planned, although I was able to experience the relaxed and welcoming atmosphere San Diego offers.

The first piece of advice I would like to offer anyone reading this blog post is to take any opportunity that arises, including applying for this program! I guarantee it will open your eyes and provide a worthwhile perspective on the GIS industry; if not, it will provide useful skills for the future. My second piece of advice is to take time to extend your trip if possible, as it will allow you to focus most of your time on the professional aspects of the conference, and then time after may be spent at leisure. I visited Los Angeles with another student I met during the week and was thrilled with my experience there. My final piece of advice is to treat the entire week as a professional networking opportunity, one that may result in a job offer or interview from an unlikely or surprising source!

Overall, the week of the User Conference was one of the best weeks of my life. I had the chance to make some amazing contacts in the GIS industry and mingle with others who share similar interests. I can also say I have honestly made friends I will remain in contact with for years to come. I hope this post inspires some interest in the program, and I am honored to have been a part of it.

We’ll soon begin accepting applications for the 2015 Esri User Conference Student Assistantship Program. Visit our website this fall for details!

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‘Deep Sea Dawn’ Shares Some Advice for Students

Dawn Wright (a.k.a. “Deepsea Dawn”) is Esri’s Chief Scientist as well as an ocean scientist, geographer, and GIS author. There isn’t much this neat lady doesn’t do! Her work at Esri involves formulating and advancing the intellectual agenda for the environmental, conservation, climate, and ocean sciences aspect of Esri’s work while also representing Esri to the international scientific community.

Although she works full-time for Esri, Dawn continues to maintain professorial status at Oregon State University in the geography and oceanography departments. She has worked with students many years, and as such, has some great advice to share.

Dawn Wright speaking on the plenary stage at the 2012 Esri User Conference

As someone who has worked with students for a while, why do you think an internship is so important to a student’s success?

Despite the best efforts of professors there are just some things we’ll never be able to replicate in the classroom, so that’s why an internship experience is so valuable. There is nothing like having the opportunity to interact with people in the real-world setting of a company or agency, to extend one’s GIS skills while working on projects with that organization, or certainly to pick up some completely new skills. I think an internship is also a great way for students to experience some of the different “time frames” that exist in working environments outside of the school environment. It’s one thing to be under pressure to get a term paper in on time, and yet another to see some of the other kinds of pressure that are associated with getting out the next major release of commercial software, generating results for a consulting project that may affect how and where people live, or meeting deadlines for a major conference or trade show.

If someone’s interests or career path changes while they’re in school, what would be your advice to them?

Great question! My advice would be to go with that flow and learn as much as you can about that new career path you’re interested in. Find someone in that area who is willing to give you some advice, or do the requisite Internet research to find out about blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter streams, local and regional conferences in that particular area. Talk to other students who are currently on that particular career path. And … get an internship in that area too!

What are some “mistakes” you have seen students make in terms of finding their future career?

One mistake I’ve seen students make is to get discouraged if their expectations are not fulfilled immediately. I’ve seen some expect a high-salaried position in their area of choice to be available soon after graduation, and failing that (especially in today’s economy), they want to give up. It is so worth it to be patient and stay with a particular area, especially if that’s your passion. On the flip side, I’ve also seen students take on a position that may be related to their chosen career before they are finished with their degree. I’m a real strong proponent of students finishing their entire degree program before taking on full-time employment toward a career. Not only does finishing the degree lend the full complement of knowledge available to them through coursework, thesis work, and yes, internship work, but there is little to compare with the maturity gained by a student who has seen the degree through to its ultimate completion. I’m also against college athletes entering the draft before they can finish school, but that’s a huge conversation for another day!

What is your #1 tip for a new graduate starting their career?

Be a sponge – learn all you can from the people around you. Seek out a mentor in your workplace (hopefully it’s your supervisor but oftentimes it’s an experienced co-worker). Be humble.

What is one thing you wished someone had told you back when you were in college?

Watch out for the “freshman fifteen” weight gain (in my day it was only “the freshman ten,” but it’s weight gain nonetheless)! Seriously though, I do wish someone had told me about the importance of an internship! In my day, internships were not as prevalent, nor were they as valued, but it is wonderful to see that change almost completely, especially with companies and other kinds of organizations offering such excellent internship programs. Another thought, especially for undergraduates, is that an internship does not necessarily mean you have to leave campus. There are some Esri interns who may still have a way to go before finishing their degrees, and thus additional internship opportunities may be great for them. The Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs on many university campuses is one great example.

What drew you to Esri? What’s your favorite part about Redlands?

I was very fortunate in that Jack Dangermond and Scott Morehouse asked me to come work at Esri (and the deal included the requirement that I come here to headquarters). They also asked at a perfect time in my professional life when I needed a major change. My favorite part about Redlands is the people. I love the friendly, down-to-Earth nature of the folks here in the Redlands community, which I think is a breath of fresh air in Southern California culture. The friendliness of Redlands people reminds me a lot of Oregon, which is where I moved here from.

Thank you, Dawn, for sharing your wisdom!

Students: If you want to see more from Dawn, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @deepseadawn

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Esri UC 2014 and the Beautiful City of San Diego

By Guest Blogger Swatantra, 2014 UC Student Assistant

The Esri User Conference is a Place for Unity, Enthusiasm, Entertainment, Awesomeness, Friendships, Interactions, Relationships, Learning, and Understanding.

Swatantra poses with Esri President Jack Dangermond

My first visit to San Diego, California was outstanding and I think I made the most out of it. It was my first participation in the Esri User Conference and I feel honored to have had the opportunity. Acquiring a student assistantship position is very competitive and I feel lucky to have been one of 60 student assistants in 2014. The week was all about geography, geographic information systems (GIS), and understanding our world. A conference assistantship is an exclusive opportunity for students who have an interest in GIS. We were a union of students from across the globe. A team of friendly and generous Esri staff members guided us for the whole week. All the assistants were assigned a set of tasks to help Esri staff during conference events. Our overall job was to make sure that the conference logistics ran smoothly. We worked all weekend and half days during the week. This schedule allowed me to participate in technical workshops and interact with attendees during our leisure time.

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A Creative Island Within Esri

By Guest Blogger Melanie, Story Maps Team Intern

Open Spaces, Open Collaboration

When I first stepped into the Washington, DC R&D Center, I was struck by the space. Wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling windows opened up a magnificent panoramic view of the capital with a spotlight on the Washington Monument. I spent many moments throughout my summer observing the city’s pulse. “It’s so alive,” I thought as I watched cars crossing the Potomac River via 6 separate bridges, planes passing above on their way to/from Reagan International Airport, cyclists and people moving along the ground in a bustle, and of course the daily flock of kayakers, boaters, and paddle-boarders that floated around Theodore Roosevelt Island. This was a creative space.

I settled into my office in June. In the Story Maps team it was hard to tell who was “boss” and who was “intern.” I learned very quickly that there was no sense of “hierarchy” or “bureaucracy” here. We all worked together in a laissez-faire style. It felt strange at first, but I adapted easily and quickly learned that everyone was there to help me.

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Tech-Geek Turned #Geogeek

Esri’s Technical Support team is vital to the company’s success. They work with users daily on solving small problems and finding solutions. Scott Harris is a member of the team and says he’s finally found a job he loves.

Tell me about yourself. What is your background?

I took my first GIS class when I was pursuing my bachelor’s degree at Keystone College in Pennsylvania. I did a few projects while I was there, one of which was making some campus maps using ArcView 3.2 (which seems primitive today). I ended up getting my degree in Environmental Resource Management and then spent a bit of time out of the GIS field doing environmental testing. After that I became a GIS tech for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where again I was using Esri software. Later I went back for my master’s degree in geoenvironmental studies and then I ended up at Esri.

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See What Esri Interns Have Been Up To This Summer

Although it feels like the summer just began, many of Esri’s summer interns are packing up and getting ready to go back to school or move on to the next phase of their lives (me included!). Over the last few weeks, interns have been getting up in front of their peers and presenting their work. So far there have been nine presentations and more will be happening over the next couple of weeks.

Here are some of the presentations we’ve seen so far. Hopefully these projects will give you a better idea of what Esri interns work on and where you might fit in next year’s program:

  • Greg M., Technical Marketing: Worked to develop multiple model organizations and scenarios including energy companies and a tornado scenario.
  • William I. & Victor B., Software Products, Geocoding Team: Built an app that allows users to request fixes or replacements to locations. For example, if a restaurant comes up on a map but it has actually been shut down for years, a user can make a request for the location or name to be changed.
  • Dan M., Technical Marketing: Worked on developing demos and illustrations for the public safety sector, in particular a model national security and model law enforcement organization as well as a chemical spill and park security scenarios.
  • Talisa T., Information Systems: Provided support in Esri conference rooms, making sure the technology was set up, working properly, and up-to-date. A lot of the Esri Conference Center’s work is done behind the scenes, but it is a vital part of keeping things running smoothly.
  • Rami A., Solution Engineering, Geoplanner Team: Developed the Qaraoun Project that looked at issues with the lake and factored in zoning issues in Lebanon.
  • Jennifer B., Software Products, Content Team: Worked on Esri’s Urban Observatory as well as two story maps about national poverty and the World Cup (read her guest blog here!).
  • Katherine D. (Me), Strategic Marketing: Developed various content for careers materials, administrated the Esri Student Connection Facebook page, helped develop the campus ambassador program, and acted as the sole writer for the Esri Careers blog.
  • Hector T-P., Database Services: Worked with Esri’s 3D software, CityEngine, to build content for the state of Oregon and create new rules to be added to the program.
  • Randy H., Rebecca B., Chris F., and Eric D., Support Services: Working together, this team analyzed data referring to who watched the World Cup in relation to who plays soccer. They created and analyzed web maps, heat maps, and others to find their answers.

Really cool stuff, right? I hope the other interns have enjoyed working at Esri as much as I have. Wherever our futures take us, we will always have this summer and our experiences. Thank you to everyone who was a part of it!

Already thinking about what you want to do next summer? Esri is too! Check the website this fall for information on how to apply for a summer 2015 internship.

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‘Round the Table with Esri Recruiters

Recently the interns sat in on two presentations and interactive sessions with some of Esri’s HR partners (recruiters). Although interns have a good understanding of Esri’s departmental structure, these recruiter roundtable events helped give us a better idea of the opportunities we may have to work for Esri full time. This is especially helpful since the summer is winding down quickly!

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