Transitioning to the world of GIS

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04-07-2015 07:07 AM
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New Contributor II

Does anyone have any experience of transitioning from a broad IT (analysis, design, project management) background to a specialist GIS role?

I anticipate the first question that will be asked is "What kind of GIS role" and that's a very valid question. My strengths and areas of interest are the application of GIS tools and techniques (problem solving) and GIS related technology. My vision at this stage would be to develop towards a GIS consultancy type position.

A bit about me... My background is predominantly in Finance (not the most orthodox start!) where I spent 10 year working in various operational, managerial and IT project based roles. My more recent step in my career saw me move from the world of banking to that of engineering, construction and nuclear power where I discovered my interest in GIS whilst taking a leading role on an ArcGIS implementation project. Since I started to understand spatial data and the power of GIS I have found myself absorbed in reams of training material, courses and hands on experience of using ArcGIS - this is typically a no-no in the world I come from where projects are delivered and then we move on to the next challenge.

The difficulty I am having is defining the path which will allow me to develop these skills and give me the exposure to spatial challenges - some questions I have in my head at the moment are: How do I make the sideways step? Do I need to retrain or take an apprenticeship? Is that do-able without making un-manageable sacrifices? How do I show the skills I have developed over the past 10 or so years are of benefit to an employer looking to recruit for a GIS type role?

For the purposes of this question let's assume that my current employer is not in a position to support my personal objectives. I will not openly name or pass comment about my current employer in this thread, so please do not ask.

What are your thoughts? I'm not the first person to try and make this transition, right?

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Occasional Contributor

You are very welcome Chris!

It only takes a the willingness to learn and expand your knowledge in GIS and its functionality.  It really is a great career that hasn't really been pinned down to "formal education" or a slew of certifications yet.  Although there are many college programs and certifications that you can achieve, the real "hands on" experience in GIS is what counts.   If you ever need a good network of professionals to bounce ideas off of or if you have questions related to GIS projects, ESRI staff is very knowledgeable and helpful.  This forum and other forums out there are good resources as well as the ArcGIS Desktop Online Help. 

Take care and good luck with your future endeavors.

Amanda

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Regular Contributor II

I too, as you will find a lot of us, came to GIS through different backgrounds and paths.

My background was and still is Structural Engineering.  I became fascinated with the power of GIS to store data spatially and gain the ability to relate data, then, in impossible magical ways.  I do not believe there is a single path to lead you where you want to go.  Myself and many of my peers who came to GIS from diverse backgrounds had the GIS come find them.

Due to GIS, I learned to manage Database, learn scripting which lead to programming.  Developed and Managed the Design and Constructions of many management systems in which I always found ways of incorporating GIS.  Finally on a whim I put out a small resume on the internet and oh boy! the jobs came looking for me    People, Companies and Business are looking for folks that wear lots of Hats!  In my case, the companies that came to me were interested in my Engineering Background in combination with my IT/GIS skills. They were  looking for that person that "understood" both world and could easily work between them.  Many of my peers found their position in similar ways  -- Archeology --> GIS, Salesman --> GIS  etc...

My advise is to try to implement your interests in all that you do, your case, what ever position you currently hold, find and employ GIS wherever you can.  First you find that you will have to learn and use GIS in many different ways, some unorthodox (These will be your great learning experiences!)  This will greatly enrich your background and skill sets -- Good Companies have a good habit of finding well rounded folks!  They will find you when you least expect it !

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New Contributor II

Thanks Ted. It's reassuring to hear that those with GIS careers aren't all Geography grads! One of my skills throughout my career has been to define a clear career path and carve out my own opportunities - sounds like I need to do more of that here.

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Frequent Contributor II

On the counter of Ted's support. My organization works with a lot of clients and many of them decided they want to have their own GIS person on location.  The big mistake they make is assigning people to the job who have been with their organization for while and think of GIS as a slough job to give them until they retire or they hand it off to someone that barely knows how to turn on a computer.

The  most successful of these "promotions" was however the client who handed it off to an IT Database Manager person.  She got it from one of the people who they gave it to until retirement.

I am not saying you have to have a GIS education to be good at GIS but is good to go through at least the basic training that ESRI offers to help get you up to speed.  Believe, me I must charge and average of 200 hours of tech support every year showing people how to do the most basic of GIS functions, things a grad from Tech College in GIS would know.

Now Chris and Ted you do seem a better fit than most i have had to work with.

The best qualifications for going into GIS are the ability to be out of the box and to be able to figure things out.  As Ted has shown he can.

To me GIS is for the ambitious who WANT to know more and more about the discipline.

I have a 4 year degree in Geography with a GIS Minor.  To be honest the Geography Degree is a lot more valuable to my career than the GIS Minor.  I learned more about GIS in my first 6 months on the job than I did in 2 years in the minor.

The Geography element was a lot more valuable as it taught me map fundamentals, about land and relationships and how the environment works and why things are where they are.

A programming education or experience will be a lot more valuable than a GIS certificate

There is a LOT more to ArcGIS than you can ever learn in the classroom.

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Occasional Contributor

Hello Chris,

First let me say... welcome to the world of GIS!  It is an awesome and rewarding career!  I can tell you that transitioning into the world of GIS is definitely a challenge but not impossible.  The #1 thing you have going for you is that you are already an IT professional and that will be very beneficial for you in GIS.  When I got started in GIS 10 years ago, I was fresh out of college with an A.S. degree in Computer Information Technology.  I was fortunate to get a position with my County's Commissioner Office and get on the job training for GIS.  Although it took me until now (about a year ago) to transition into a title that specifically says I am a GIS professional, it has been a journey to say the least.  My recommendation for you would to go on ESRI's website and sign up for a global account.  Its free.  Then you can browse through their online training catalogs and find free web learning and seminars.  It also helps to attend conferences, volunteer for GIS related activities, and also join groups that are known for supporting GIS users.  For example on groups I mean like "FLURISA" - that is a Florida chapter of URISA and the member fee is $25 yearly.  You can search for groups that are local to you.

I hope this helps and feel free to message me for more help if needed.

Thank you,

Amanda

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New Contributor II

Thank you Amanda - that's very reassuring. As it happens I learnt about the GeoNet forum from an Esri MOOC I am currently enrolled in (and I have just signed up for another). I have also completed various online training courses from the Esri catalogue which I think are very good.

It sounds like I am generally heading in the right direction and I will certainly have a look for some local groups. Thanks for the suggestion.

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Occasional Contributor

You are very welcome Chris!

It only takes a the willingness to learn and expand your knowledge in GIS and its functionality.  It really is a great career that hasn't really been pinned down to "formal education" or a slew of certifications yet.  Although there are many college programs and certifications that you can achieve, the real "hands on" experience in GIS is what counts.   If you ever need a good network of professionals to bounce ideas off of or if you have questions related to GIS projects, ESRI staff is very knowledgeable and helpful.  This forum and other forums out there are good resources as well as the ArcGIS Desktop Online Help. 

Take care and good luck with your future endeavors.

Amanda

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MVP Frequent Contributor

Actually, a surprising percentage of GIS people are not Geography grads.  Most GIS professionals I know have a  Natural Science or Environmental Science background, and transitioned into the field.

I worked in the Environmental Science/Hazardous Materials field for 15 years before switching to GIS.  While doing the transition, I took GIS classes at night at a local community college and most of the GIS students there were likewise middle-aged professionals making the transition from other fields while working full-time.  That can be one option for your transition - picking up a Certificate or Associates in GIS at night.  It can be affordable and might fit your schedule.  Plus, the program required an Internship, which at first seemed intimidating, but ended up being a paid position and led to a first job (they kept me on)!

Keep in mind you can market your existing skills to make the transition.  I got the internship in part because the company was an Environmental firm that needed GIS help.  So if you can locate an organization that needs GIS and does some of what you have done in the past, that can be a step up.

Chris Donohue, GISP

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New Contributor

Wow! Taking night classes while working full time would be so tough. I am in a similar experience but I got a GIS Minor while I was getting my bachelors degree. I have a degree in Biology with an environmental science background. I added on my GIS minor during my 3rd year. The funny part is, I randomly applied to a GIS internship for a city planning department which lead to my full time job for the USGS currently. I have only been in the GIS field for 3 years but I love it!

Internships are powerful!

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Occasional Contributor II

I tried recently to expand into the IT world (Officially), with unfavorable results.  Though I am skilled in IT project/personnel management and IT budgeting, the recruiters wanted very specialized people.  You will have greater luck moving to GIS from IT.  Truthfully, most people I know do not even equate GIS with geography any longer.