Outside of work, in my non-technical Clark Kent life, whenever I tell people about the Esri User Conference, the first thing they say is: “That doesn’t sound like any conference I’ve ever been to.” They typically follow that comment with something like: “What is GIS?” Over the years, I’ve been perfecting my responses to both of these statements, but I wanted to take this opportunity to truly do the topic justice.
First off, GIS is like post-modern cartography. What people once did with quills and sextants is now done on computers and in clouds. Actually, GIS probably began about one million years ago when early humans began to recognize the best hunting and gathering locations in their domain.
Second, the Esri User Conference is unlike any conference anyone has ever been to before… ever. It can be thought of in many ways - the best place for technical training, the ultimate spot for collaborative and networking opportunities, or, as my wife affectionately refers to it, GIS Gone Wild. I just call it awesome.
Let’s step back to 2012, when I was a young Student Assistant arriving in San Diego for the first time from graduate school in Chicago. I was one of 60 lucky students from around the world who were selected to attend and work at the conference. The Student Assistants are seen as the next generation of GIS, and Esri empowers them through this conference to connect with their future.
Understandably, this was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I was overwhelmed by the excitement and knowledge of so many GIS professionals converging in one place. I don’t think my feet touched the ground all week. We were all on the same level, gorging on new technologies, meeting with new people, and buzzing through the exhibit halls and corridors in a constant state of GIS euphoria. Putting faces to names; learning how products worked; seeing what are going to be the next big things in the industry - the smile never left my face.
Fast forward to 2014, where I am a proud Esri employee working in Support Services, and I once again attend the User Conference. This time, I arrive as a staff member working with the Student Assistants. I am so excited for them. I remember what this conference meant to me then, and it still means the same to me now. Even as I write these words, I am glancing at the calendar, marking off the days until next year’s conference.
This year’s group of students are as strong and promising as I remember my group being. They are hungry, curious, and (relatively speaking) young. I try to explain how amazing this opportunity is for them at the User Conference, both personally and professionally. Luckily for them, I’m not the only Esri staff member on hand. We have an incredible team that works with the students. Terri B. has been working with the Student Assistants for five years, and has been at Esri for over 20 years. Terri probably knows everyone by name and is liked by every single Esri employee.
Pete H. is one of the nicest and most sincere human beings I’ve ever met, not to mention extremely competent. Melissa Q. is new to the team, but threw herself into the mix with the same interest and excitement that I felt two short years ago. Michael J. works on the HR side in recruitment, and is a tireless “miracle worker” who ensures that high-caliber students are brought into our professional family. Matt P. is a fellow Support Analyst and veteran User Conference student leader, whose sharp dress and quick wit are surpassed only by his critical thinking and managerial abilities. And me? I just feel grateful to have the chance to work with these amazing people.
Now back to our regularly scheduled blog post, where people who have never attended the conference have trouble understanding what it feels like to be there. There are three main reasons that the Esri User Conference stands apart from other conferences. The first reason is the location of the conference. San Diego is a beautiful city full of unique attractions, great food, and great weather. In one day you can attend a technical workshop, get your picture taken with Jack Dangermond, grab a coffee, go to the beach, tour an aircraft carrier, grab another coffee on your way to catch a baseball game, and then meet up with your colleagues at one of the many fabulous restaurants and/or bars. And, if you brought your passport, you can even spend an afternoon in Mexico using public transportation.
The second reason, which is even more important than easy-breezy San Diego, is Esri. I wrote a blog post back in the day about what it feels like to work at Esri, and that feeling has remained unchanged after 1.5 years. Forget about the fact that I love GIS, and that Esri is all about GIS. Forget about the fact that I get to live in a mountain community with snow and bears and I can still carpool to work with my wife every day. Forget about the fact that I am constantly challenged with and trained on the latest and greatest technologies - both hardware and software. The truth remains that Esri has attracted and retained some of the most amazing people I have ever had the pleasure of working with in my life. It is these same people that come to the conference. They work, they present, they socialize. They make this conference amazing.
However, better than Esri, cooler than San Diego, and undoubtedly the best part of the conference… is you. The customer, the presenter, the collaborator, the vendor – even the family and friends that come with you and hang out at the pool or Kids Camp during the conference. I met and talked with you in sessions, in line at Starbucks, in the Exhibit Hall, in the elevator, then again at the bars. We sat on the floor at Registration and watched the World Cup together. We held doors open and gave directions to each other. We laughed and ate tasty food together in the Map Gallery. There was so much joy and camaraderie in you all. This is the magic beyond planning and plenaries. This is the feeling that is greater than the sum of every button worn or selfie taken. This is why no one has ever been to a conference like the User Conference.
Now the conference is over. In this rare quiet moment, after I leave San Diego and return to my haven in the mountains, I sit and reflect on what the conference looked like through the eyes of the Student Assistants. To be honest, it’s very much the same as what you and I experienced. It’s like the first years of college or summer camp, when everything is new and possible, and everyone can be your friend. It’s like the best thing ever. I hope to share this experience with you again next year.
Until then, let’s get some rest.
For more information on the Esri User Conference Student Assistantship Program, see: http://www.esri.com/careers/students/user-conference-student-assistants
Noah S. – SDK Support Analyst