The Great Debate: To Certify or not to Certify, That Is an Absurd Question

By Becky Shumate, GISP

Ed. note: This article first appeared in the GISCI newsletter, and is reprinted here with permission.

The announcement of the Esri Technical Certification program in December 2010 spurred a fury of discussion among the geospatial community. Even though Esri's news release stated, "The Esri Technical Certification Program complements the geographic information system professional (GISP) certification available in the United States through the GIS Certification Institute..." many members of the geospatial profession have found themselves wondering whether to get the Esri certification or the GISP certification. I say "get both".
Getting down to the "nitty-gritty", the Esri Technical Certification is essentially a software certification not unlike a Microsoft software certification. A GISP certification is a professional certification illustrating an individual's professional credentials. The Esri ArcGIS software is a tool that is used to solve geospatial problems. The GISP certification is an indicator that an individual has the knowledge and experience in geospatial technologies to discover new solutions or methods for solving traditional and non-traditional spatial problems using those Esri software tools. Back in my early days when I was in graduate school, I recall asking my GIS Professor, Dr. Ken Morgan of Texas Christian University, why we weren't learning how to use the GIS software. He responded, "If you don't understand the concepts and applications of GIS, the GIS software is irrelevant." And I believe that was the most valuable lesson that he taught me. If you know the concepts, you can solve the problem regardless of the brand of tools.
I have heard and read many comments suggesting that the GISP certification is a glorified club, and admittance is all about who you know. While respecting the opinions of others, I beg to differ. The facts are plain as day. The GISP certification has nothing to do with "who" you know and everything to do with "what" you know.
Our numbers are not huge, but they are growing every day. Our greatest obstacles are penetrating other industries, being recognized by employers, and instilling an understanding of what those four little letters mean for an individual in our profession. As a manager responsible for hiring new employees, had I not completed the GISP certification application myself, I would have no idea what it represents on a resume. So, we are left with the quest to simplify our message for "non-industry professionals" and other department managers, specifically the HR representatives who are on the front lines of hiring and filling vacant positions. Simplify. Simplify. Simplify. It's not as easy as it sounds, but I'll take a stab at it.
Officially "GISP" stands for "Geographic Information SystemsProfessional". But what does that really mean? On the surface and to the untrained eye, from the "GISP" letters, one could surmise that an individual is 1) a "Professional" by unknown declaration, and is 2) familiar with GIS technologies. It falls upon the whole GISP community to educate the "untrained eye" to recognize the significance of the GISP certification. We all know the party line, so to speak- "The GISP certification illustrates that an individual has a minimum level of experience, education, and professional involvement and follows a code of professional ethics". "Minimum level" - the use of the term "minimum" implies that a quantitative measurement is involved. So what is it? Seriously, can any of you put the GISP certification requirements into quantitative words? I doubt it, so here I go again into unknown territory with just a map and a compass. But is it really unknown? No. It is just not well-known.
Now, we are talking numbers. And after four years of higher education specifically to teach me the art of counting on my fingers (B.A. in Mathematics), numbers are my game. After carefully studying the GISP application and point equations for each section, this is the closest I could come to a general quantitative description of what the GISP represents. The four little letters "GISP" following a name describe an individual as having at least four years experience working in the geospatial industry, at least 1,200 hours of either formal or supplemental education specifically for the geospatial field, as well as, a significant presence and participation in the field through publications, association involvement, and conference participation. A valid GISP certification means that the individual has met the requirements specified in their field by fellow geospatial colleagues.
But for those that are not already GISPs or well versed in the qualifications of a GISP, I offer this as a simpler description - "GISP" could also stand for "GIS Activities and Contributions", "Integrity and Ethics", "Specialized Education", and "Professional Experience". The real issue is getting a simpler and easier to understand message out to those who may not know what the GISP means. I challenge you, the current GISPs, to talk to and encourage your fellow colleagues to send in their applications, educate your management, and even your HR departments on what a GISP certification means and signifies. Until the GISP certification is fully embraced within our own community, how can we ever expect it to be fully recognized outside of our community?
After meandering through the topic like a slow flowing stream, I have finally arrived back to the original question. To those who ask, "Which certification should I get?" I reply in kind with, "Why wouldn't you get both?" The GISP certification proves that you have the ability to conceive of a solution to a problem, while the Esri Technical Certification proves that you can actually apply that knowledge to derive the solution. These two certifications are like two sides of the same coin. Why wouldn't you want to showcase all of your knowledge, not just one side or the other? 
Essentially, the burden of spreading the certification message is on us, the current GISPs. We have already embraced the certification, spent many hours filling out the application, and paid the application fee. That act alone makes you an advocate of the cause. Why would you not do everything you could to make your time spent acquiring the application materials and submitting an acceptable application worth your while. So with that I encourage all of you to speak out and "fly the organization colors". Go out to the GISP online store and buy yourself a T-shirt, coffee mug, or even a fancy water bottle. Be proud of your accomplishments and encourage others to do the same. So, that is the long, short, and the straight of it.


Published Monday, April 11th, 2011

Written by Becky Shumate, GISP

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