A New Network for Budding GIS Professionals

By Citabria Stevens, ArcNews editor

There are countless ways to enter the field of GIS and, with a bit of imagination and creativity, even more ways to use the technology.

This notion of limitless possibilities was the overarching theme of a series of events put on by the Young Professionals Network (YPN) at the 2015 Esri User Conference in San Diego, California. The YPN, in its inaugural year, offers budding GIS professionals—of any age—the opportunity to network with peers and meet some of the most dynamic and influential people in GIS.

Following two well-attended social events and two panel discussions—one on promoting the value of GIS and one on the GIS professional of tomorrow—the YPN rounded out the weeklong conference with a question-and-answer session with Esri founder Jack Dangermond and three quite distinct, and relatively new, Esri leaders.

The session began with the three Esri directors—Andrew Turner, chief technology officer of Esri’s research and development office in Washington, DC; Robin Jones, director of Esri’s tech sector; and David DiBiase, Esri’s education team leader—explaining how they got into GIS and ended up at Esri.

The diverse panel then fielded questions from an even more heterogeneous audience—GIS degree-holders and self-taught practitioners; GIS managers and undergraduate students; people working for local US governments and others from abroad.

The audience asked for advice about education and work experience: Why is GIS largely only available as a subject of study rather than a major? Is it more important to get work experience or receive a master’s degree? They inquired about how to reveal the power of GIS to those who don’t know about it and wondered the best ways to mentor others: How can we educate our managers on the usefulness of GIS? What are the most practical ways to mentor people with varying levels of GIS knowledge?

Answers from the panel were candid and encouraging. Interest in GIS is growing, said DiBiase, so he expects to see a dozen bachelor’s degree programs in GIS within the next decade. Jones encouraged young GIS professionals to actually show their managers how GIS solves problems. “A demo is worth a million words,” she added. And Turner said that listening is as much a part of mentoring as teaching, urging members of the audience to engender an environment of trust around their work.

When Dangermond entered the room, the conversation shifted to the YPN itself and how it can grow.

“Fundamentally, good friendship is most important in life,” Dangermond told the audience, recounting what an elderly man in Japan once told him. “I want to see a great network occur,” he continued, “where you get together again and again and you have fun, actually, and you learn from your friends.”

Dangermond believes that people learn things in the context of good friendship because trust comes through camaraderie. “There’s nothing like hearing from your friends because they actually share . . . experience to experience,” he said.

And a solid network is what fuels career growth. As Turner said, finding and showing your managers and coworkers that they can have confidence in you is what gets young GIS professionals more projects—whether they’re working as the lone GIS technician in a company or building a startup from scratch.

Dangermond gave some perspective from his own career as well. As someone who was trying to use computers to fix problems when computers were still relatively obscure, he said everyone thought he was nuts. So he found out what people needed—became interested in what they wanted rather than a guy with interesting ideas—and then he did it.

“That’s the secret to your success,” Dangermond said. “Figure out what the world needs and wants.” And then do it. “Get the work, do the work, make sure you get paid,” he advised. Those are Dangermond’s three principles for pursuing any endeavor in GIS.

He also believes that people need to follow their own curiosities. “You guys all chose this field, didn’t you?” Dangermond asked. He then inquired if members of the audience remembered the moment they decided that GIS was what they wanted to do.

Dangermond’s moment was on November 7, 1968. That’s when he realized that “this is it,” as he put it—that he had ambitions to make a difference with this technology. “You’ve chosen the love of my life,” he stated to a rapt audience.

Even through the ensuing laughter, everyone’s respect for the love of Dangermond’s life—the field of GIS—was evident. As the field continues to grow, it seems that so will this community of young GIS professionals.

Some YPN participants will likely take DiBiase’s advice and pursue GIS Professional (GISP) recognition and Esri Technical Certifications, which he says will help formalize expertise and a community of practice. Some will continue breaking the rules and creating new ones, as Jones advocated, to keep raising the bar of what GIS professionals do.

Regardless of how members of the YPN develop their careers, the field of GIS will continue to attract people from all over the world with a myriad of interests and professional aspirations. And that will allow the Esri YPN to become increasingly indispensable.

To become part of this journey, join the YPN community.

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