The Top Five Skills Needed to Have a Successful GIS Career
Our editors offer their suggestions to those looking to enhance their career in GIS by listing the top five skills they believe those individuals should possess. Editor in Chief Joe Francica and Executive Editor Adena Schutzberg take slightly different approaches to this task and they provide a brief explanation of their top picks here. You may also listen to their podcast. Grateful acknowledgement is extended to Dr. Joseph Kerski at Esri for starting this discussion, as he articulated his top five skills in a recent blog post.
From Adena Schutzberg
Teach yourself new procedures/workflows/software: Even if the organization for which you work uses the same software year to year, it will change. You should be able to learn and take advantage of what's new. More likely, you will be asked to learn new tools to work alongside or replace existing ones. Be ready to learn those too! (Homework to work on this skill: Teach yourself to use an open source GIS product.)
Work in a team: GIS professionals rarely work alone. Even in a "one person" shop you will be working alongside clients and partners as a team. Be ready to use the skills of each team member to ensure everyone contributes. Sometimes the best contribution is simply getting coffee! (Homework: Volunteer to help with a local event like a running race or food drive.)
Act (research/read/learn/explore/contribute) based on your curiosity/responsibility: If a topic or technology related to your current work is interesting, don't just say, "Oh, that's interesting!" Go learn more about it on your own, or if you are lucky, on the company's time. Then, give a lunchtime talk on what you learned. Keep an eye out for resources on the Web, at conferences and local presentations on what interests you. (Homework: Set up an automated search of the Web for topics in which you have an interest.)
Find a/several mentor(s): Part of your job is to continue learning about the field and how to be successful in it. Find individuals who can help you do this. They might be your peers, your supervisors or even other people's supervisors. They may even be people outside your organization. (Homework: Consider the people in the business world that you know and respect. Ask one to be your mentor and meet for coffee or on the phone four times a year to strategize how to be successful in your position or get to the next one.)
Confidently communicate orally, in writing, in graphic form, in front of an audience, on video, via Twitter, etc.: Our field (like many) relies on all kinds of communication. Hone your skills and get comfortable with the new technologies available to share your ideas. (Homework: From the content you found and explored in #3, offer to give a "brown bag" talk to your team or a class, or produce a YouTube video to share.)
Three Basic Skills
Programmatic skills: Prepare your mind for spatial thinking – take a course in basic computer programming. Programming prepares your mind for logical thinking; it prepares you to think through a process that provides an end result. Structured query language (SQL) provides the syntax that underpins spatial queries so that the geospatial analyst can think through the process of creating and producing the expected outcome. That outcome is a map that provides the analyst with a spatial perspective that reveals geospatial information.
Problem solving skills: Take a course in calculus. Math is about problem solving. It’s about arranging parameters in a sequence to answer a question. The geospatial analyst will find it necessary to seek the parameters that apply to his/her particular problem. Choose wisely and the end result will be a satisfying analysis. Calculus prepares the mind to think about the sequential nature of problem solving.
Spatial thinking skills: Understand the spatial perspective by taking a course in photography. Spatial thinking is driven by understanding the juxtaposition of objects to one another. Understanding the elements of photography prepares the mind to see “space.” When a photographer prepares to take a picture, she must compose a shot that includes many spatially-related elements in a manner that will make a good picture. Good photographers do this naturally by building their skills within a variety of constraints: geography, lighting and the confines allowed by the lens all create limitations similar to those within which the geospatial analyst must work.
Two Advanced Skills
Be an expert in one specific discipline: Knowing how to push the right buttons in a GIS software package may win you kudos from your colleagues but nothing replaces the knowledge of a domain expert. Whether it’s environmental science or urban planning, the GIS profession needs people who understand professional disciplines so that “GIS as a tool” can be best applied by the person most knowledgeable about the problem at hand.
Communication skills are essential: Why is it so hard to explain GIS to someone who is unfamiliar with the profession? The successful GIS professional needs to communicate the benefits of his toolbox. Anyone can create a map; the geospatial professional creates understanding and communicates a perspective not readily understood by looking at “data” in another form. You can try to understand data by looking at reams of paper… or you can look at one map. The person who shows the world how to communicate with maps will be successful. Jack Dangermond often says that geography and geospatial information are communication by a new type of language. We must then become fluent in this language to communicate in the geospatial dimension.