Young GIS Professionals' Perspectives on Professional Organizations


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Welcome to another DirectionsMag podcast. We're honored to bring this valuable resource back to you as we celebrate our twentieth year in the geospatial community. Read more at directionsmag.com. Today, we're welcoming the chair, Tory Elmore, and cabinet members Rachel Rodriguez and Alex Lopez-Rogina from URISA's Vanguard Cabinet for Young Professionals as well as the current President-Elect, Kim McDonough. We're discussing the benefits of professional organizations for young professionals as well as their seasoned colleagues.

Who should join a professional organization and why?

Rachel: Everyone. If there is a professional organization for your profession, you should join it.

Kim: It was kind of by accident, but I joined URISA back in 1988. Quite honestly, if I’ve had any success in my profession, it's because of the interaction and the lessons I’ve learned from so many different leaders in the field that you encounter. If you've got a problem, there's probably somebody that's already approached it, or they are dealing with it. And so, the knowledge base you're tapping into is so much more vast than if you try to do it alone.

Alex: For me, I come from a civil engineering background, and I joined the American Society of Civil Engineers(ASCE) as a college student and started getting involved with the professional chapter. That's how Ingot my current job. I put myself out there. Just with that networking I got a job after graduation. So, once I got into GIS and I found out about URISA, I was like, well, now I need to get in that one, because I’ve gotten so much out of ASCE. It's only been a year for me being part of URISA, but again, I’ve already gotten so much out of it.

Tory: I mean, it seems to me that you get the most out of it when you really, really participate in it, when you reach out to other people and work hard to network. But I also know that folks really encourage me as a young person to get involved. So if even if I’m a little,  , if you're a little shy and not the most go getting person in terms of building a network that you can still find those opportunities. You can still sort of ease way in, in a way that I think makes it accessible to a lot of people. I would say, regardless of what kind of person you are, that there are opportunities that sort of cater themselves to people who really dive into it head first and other people who sort of ease themselves into an organization.

Alex: And one thing that I’ve learned, being introvert, you just fake it until you make it,  . You force yourself out there and it becomes easier. I mean, at the end of every conference that I go to I think, “oh, my gosh, I need to go sit in a dark room by myself.”

Rachel: I think that all GIS professionals do that.

Kim: But if you're going to be successful in your field, you must learn to network with people and the conferences are really important for that part of helping you get over that hump. People may not believe it, but I’ve always been shy and certainly was early on. You get in the midst of all these people, but then you hear somebody talking about something that you really are interested in or you realize it's good information. You overcome that shyness or introversion because you really need to talk to that person. You grow in so many ways, not strictly knowledge. Well it's a matter of it's important to be part of a community of like-minded people. I just am more convinced than ever that it's a mistake to think that you have all the answers by yourself. It's important to get involved with a community that's diverse. You want to hear a wide variety of ideas and solutions. A professional organization that's not vendor specific gives you that.

Barbaree: That's one of the things that I am always telling people that are new to geospatial technologies. Nobody in this profession who does this well, or well enough, does it alone. Nobody does this alone. We all have to work together. It is so collaborative.

Alex: Oh, if you get nothing else out of an organization, being around like minded people… at least you have of other people that you can geek out with, right?

Could you tell us a little more about URISA and your experiences as well as what's available for folks?

Kim: Of course, I’m coming from a bit of a biased view, but this is an organization that I’ve been involved with since 1988. Our most recent Past President Tripp Corbin did a great job of explaining this in a meeting the other day. He said, “if all you're interested in is what's the latest for a version of what software using and how you implement that, this isn’t the organization for you. But, if you want to know how to manage GIS, grow it, sell it, and develop it, then that's what URISA is about. “We delve into things that you just typically will not get in a user conference. A good example is a workshop that I helped teach on data privacy. If you're on the technical level, you don't get into that. Iif you're at the management level, you really have to understand what state and federal laws apply to your work, and that in turn impacts how you utilize the technology. That’s just typically something you won't get at a user confidence, that you will get at URISA.

Tory:   one of the things that I would speak to you about URISA is just the opportunity that that it's presented me as such a young person to really get right to the heart of the organization. I guess I don't have a huge amount of experience with other professional organizations, but I can imagine that not many offer the opportunity for someone to be twenty-six years old and the chair of a major committee. I'm really grateful for that opportunity, but I also think it's so important that if an organization values the diversity of its voices, you have to put people with those different voices in the position to share them. I don’t consider myself to just be a natural leader, but it's definitely helped me step off and fulfill a leadership role that I guess I didn't really know. I would not have felt like it was achievable to me before I found URISA. I was just sort of looking through some of the names of the folks who run the various URISA committees and I thought, well, I recognize a lot of these names. These are former Vanguard Cabinet members and so it's just been a great way that to sort of zoom right into the center of the organization.

Rachel: Yeah for me, URISA really offers geospatial professionals the workshops, the seminars, the conferences, even the courses in different things that they have available to get to different subject matter experts that you don't think you need at the time. But you may,  , switch jobs like I have in the past, that you go from one professional sector to another, and URISA has something for you and has the personnel with experience and expertise to go ahead and guide you through that transition into a new role you may be taking on. For example, I just took on a role that's with addressing and URISA has the Next Gen 911 and the GIS workflow course that I was able to take and help me build my knowledge base in that role. And I’m able to connect with the professionals that are writing the standards because many of them are URISA’s members.

Kim: Yes, URISA was a leader in developing the national addressing standards. Yeah, there's a couple of good points I was hearing. One is building leadership capabilities. URISA is a great place for you to begin developing and exploring how you can function as leader. We've got committees, new special interest groups and chapters. It's providing opportunities for young professionals to begin fleshing out their skills of leading a group of people towards an objective which, if you're going to progress in your profession, is going to be an essential skill that you probably did not get much experience with in school. So very good in that area, and then, like count Rachel referred to the knowledge base. It's available. When I left, I managed a municipal GIS for many years and that's all that's pretty much parcel-oriented. Then I came to the state DOT and it was bewildering to me. I sent an email out to a lot of the my URISA friends saying, “what's with these people?” Then they came back and began to explain, ”here's why.DOT thinks the way it does. Here’s why their data is organized the way it was.” I understood what I was looking at and what I need and how I needed to change my thinking in terms of how we were managing the system, so I don't know what I would have done without URISA in that case. They were just invaluable.

Tory, you mentioned the Vanguard Cabinet earlier. Could you tell us more about it ?

Tory: Absolutely. The Vanguard Cabinet is the young professional arm of URISA. It is a committee of right now we're about twelve, in the past we've grown slightly larger than that. I think the numbers generally around fourteen young professionals, thirty-five and younger in a geospatial field who apply for a position (you can find the application online) and are selected for a two-year term. We have new Vanguard Cabinet members that come in each year, and then a cohort that leaves each year. The Vanguard Cabinet’s goal is to take those objectives that URISA has at large and figure out how he supports young professionals in each of those each of those aspects, how do we bring more young professionals in the organization. How do you get young professionals involved with,  , growing and strengthening and protecting the profession? And how do we support young professionals in their academic and professional career? We put on a young professional track at the GISpro conference. We have a mentoring program, do a lot of outreach to schools and young professionals, and just getting started with sort of education initiative to get young professionals involved in both K-12 and university level. I’ve had the opportunity to connect one-on-one with all of the folks who are on the Vanguard Cabinet currently, and it's kind of amazing. We have folks in Canada and Trinidad and all over the United States. We've got a variety of different jobs that people do. We've got people in nonprofit organizations and for-profit organizations and government organizations and doing a lot of different kinds of work. It's a great opportunity to not only expand. But also like I was saying earlier and Kim sort of built up… take on a leadership role to make a difference for young professionals and ultimately the sort of springboard your participation and your lifelong commitment to URISA.  , I get this sense not only for my own plans as a second-year member but also from what past members have done and just the way that the cabinet is structured that is it serves as an introduction to URISA. But by no means after two years is it, like, all right I'm not going to be involved in URISA anymore… if anything it's a way to get more deeply involved in URISA in just a short period of time.

We've talked quite a bit about what organizations can give us or provide for us as professionals. But perhaps we could mention a little bit about what you might be looking for in an organization when you are out searching for just the right one.

Kim: I've got the advantage of hindsight, but, for me, joining organizations was stimulated by one, a desire to develop a cohort of colleagues that were dealing with the same issues or maybe had solved problems already that I had. But a lot of it was that I realized pretty quickly that I needed more than one brain helping me to solve problems. I found this organization that had this huge group of great minds. and everybody has approached a common problem a little bit differently. I’ve discovered just tremendous friendships, just been a side benefit, but finding all the professional colleagues just has been the greatest benefit. There have been great sessions, great workshops, but the real benefit is that network of friends and colleagues that I interact with on a constant basis.

Tory: I found myself in my first real job out of college and I was a one-person GIS department. It's kind of daunting,  , when something goes wrong, or you don't know how to do something. There's not somebody in the office to turn around and say like, “hey, do   how to do this or do you not the fixes or what's going on here?” And on the one hand, you can get on the phone with, like a software provider and try to get information from them about how the software works or whatever, but it's not the same as having a network of folks that you can you can reach out to you and say, “ , I’m having a small problem. I'm having a large problem” and really benefit from the fact that probably no problem is new. And so,  , for me, I was really looking for a new organization that not only had that network, but I think that had a network that was local to me as well. I was really excited about the fact that there is a really vibrant Southern California chapter and a growing Central California chapter, which were both in the area where I was working. I just really felt like I could build a relationship. And it was really nice to be able to go to a conference like CalGIS and run into all of these people and get to interact face the face with a lot of people who have really given me a lot of support in my career, probably more than they really knew imagine. Young professionals, especially, find themselves in positions where they're dealing with something for the first time, and I think that insight from someone more experienced is its total is valuable.

Rachel: Yeah, for me, I was actually looking for an organization that wasn't job specific, actually. That it was broader, that I could take with me from one job to another because I knew I wasn't going to say stay at my first GIS job for an extended period of time which ended up being five years, but   that happens. I wanted somewhere, some organization that could help guide me through any avenue I want to go with GIS or any GIS profession. You have no idea how many times I have come, to URISA members, just my networking friends, with a problem and the real problem whether it's being a young professional or being a female in the workforce that they've been able to guide me and counsel me and to have a handle, those situations that I was definitely not prepared for at the time. So, they really helped bring me up to a more professional level on how to deal with certain ethical issues with… oh, my supervisor wants me to do the certain thing with this data and I’m thinking that it’s a little bit off key. They've been able to guide me a little bit better.

Alex: Something that I want out of an organization is a local presence, which you guys have talked about having those local chapters. Getting to know everyone on the national scale is great, but it's having people close by is great. I know that in Alabama on our slack account, somebody posts a question about this or that and there's instantly just “oh try that.” Having a local presence is really big for me and I know URISA has lots of local chapters, so that was really appealing to me.

Kim: Yeah, and actually URISA’s now in the process of implementing a new membership model. Our goal is to make the chapters even more integrated into the organization so that that the local presence will be a direct conduit all the way up to national. You'll very easily have services that you've not had at the local level. A big part of our goal is to make that network even more available than before.

Alex: You might get together on the national level twice a year, but on the local level you can more easily get together and actually see each other once a month and really discuss and then have a little GIS fellowship

Tory: On a slightly different note, one thing that I also think is really important to me. I have a real aversion to the idea, and I’m sure the two other Vanguard Cabinet members on the call of heard me say this probably a million times but that doing things a certain way simply because that's the way they've always been done. Now if that's the best way to do things, and that's fine, but I’m always trying to be really open to new ideas from Vanguard Cabinet members and I found that URISA in turn is very open to doing new things and new ideas. I mean, like my first year on the cabinet, we were planning for GISpro and there was an annual university student competition. I wanted to do a high school competition and it was just sort of like, okay, let's do it. I just thought that was great that it's not a community of people where young voices our shunted to the side or not taken seriously. Essentially as long as you're willing to work towards doing something and that there's a lot of flexibility in what could be done and a lot of openness, that's really important to me.  

We've discussed also that it really is a give and take when it comes to organizations in our relationships with them and with each other. What do you as young professionals or maybe in general, what should we think about in terms of giving or bringing to an organization ?

Tory: I mean, I think it kind of goes back in a way to what I was just saying which is that young professionals often have ideas that may be new or maybe go in a different direction than the way something has always been done. I think it goes back to what Kim said about having a diverse organization. Diversity of age is important, but I think that having young people brings in some of the generational differences whether it's technology or social media or just an idea like a high school student competition that it that it's great to have that the more ideas the better.

Rachel: I think it's really that the young professionals and the people that are still in school, no matter what level, they're able to go ahead and,  , provide the organization not only their time because  , students do have projects that they need to work on and there's no harm in tag team in a project with one of URISA’s initiatives that is actually very helpful. And, you could go ahead and get a lot done for the organization and for your continuing education, goals and provide you a way to test the waters with your potential future colleagues ?

Kim: Oh, absolutely, yes! And speaking from someone that's not allowed into the Vanguard Cabinet now, what I’m excited about is the energy and the ideas that a group of young professionals bring to us. It keeps us from getting settled into doing everything the same away. I personally am really excited about the potential of the Vanguard Cabinet, and I want to find as many ways as possible that we can plug these young professionals into this organization. They are the future not only for URISA but the future for our profession at the future for our world. We need to get these folks involved and Vanguard Cabinet, I think it's kind of the way that lets us do that.

Barbaree: Special thanks to our panel today for sharing their thoughts on professional organizations. We encourage you to visit URISA at urisa.org as well as are many offerings over at directionsmag.com.

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