What Does It Mean to be a Youthful and Active GIS Professional These Days?

March 6, 2019
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If you’re entering the geospatial field in the almost-2020’s, now that it’s had a few decades to mature and become established, are there implications, opportunities, or challenges that may be different from what the previous generations experienced? To explore ideas about youthful activity in the GIS professional world, Directions posed some questions to a few members of URISA’s Vanguard Cabinet, individuals who have been recognized for their commitment to “engage young practitioners, increase their numbers in the organization, and better understand the concerns facing these future leaders of the geospatial community.” We also had a chance to speak with Tory Elmore, recently selected as URISA’s Young Professional of the Year.

With few exceptions, typical places where GIS professionals work will have employees that span the age spectrum, and whether you’re the sole GIS person or you toil among dozens of other geospatial experts, you’re likely to be interacting with people of many different ages. Think local, state, or federal government agencies, non-profit organizations, commercial enterprises, consulting companies, etc. Given the popularity of GIS as a skill set that working adults add to their suite, it’s not uncommon to encounter individuals who already have 30+ years of experience working in a particular field and yet are brand new to GIS. This could result in supervisors and managers being significantly younger than those whom they direct, a dynamic that can be wonderfully successful or professionally prickly, and everything in between.

Operations within a group are obviously affected by interpersonal exchanges. When asked whether being a (more youthful) member of a team had ever presented a challenge for them, the responses were varied.

“I'm 30 years old and on my fifth GIS job, and I've never worked with someone younger than me, so age difference is almost always a factor that colors my interactions with coworkers, stakeholders, and project partners. Our society expects younger workers to show deference and respect to older colleagues, which I believe is a good thing. My impression is that new colleagues quickly decide that my age is either positive, negative, or neutral and stick with that decision going forward. The majority of my colleagues view it in a neutral fashion, although I've had problems with coworkers who view my age negatively or treat age as a proxy for qualification and skill.”
“… I do think it's especially challenging when you are young, because people just look at you and see CHANGE. I don't know if it's fear of the unknown or what exactly, but I encountered a lot of hostility in that office that nearly broke me. At the end of the day you have to remember that it's not you- it's them- and you just have to keep doing what you were hired to do.”

Equating age as having a persistently linear relationship with qualifications and skills is a problematic assumption in all professional situations. As another respondent noted,

“First getting started in a field, being new, not having (yet) much wisdom or foundation in a field will always be disadvantageous initially. It’s not only because of age, and it’s not unique to the geospatial field. New nurses would be in the same situation. At the same time, I did grow up with Google Maps and Google Earth, and using my cell phone for navigation, so working with technology may be a benefit to me (at my age).”

What essentials are needed in today’s geospatial offices?

What about the skills brought to the table? In the increasingly interconnected geospatial world in which we operate, it is not possible (or useful, or helpful) to identify one single set of “technical” skills that a geospatial professional should acquire and maintain. “Geospatial” and “professional” are wildly diverse terms, and when prompted again in 12 months, something else may be at the top of the list.

Nevertheless, enduring and persistently desirable qualities of employees always include confidence and competence with problem-solving. Along with that, what else is essential for today’s geospatial students and new employees? Unanimously, this group cited communication skills.

“Communication skills (specifically, oratory and explanatory). Knowing how to effectively lead a conversation, deliver a presentation, propose a solution, or give constructive criticism to/in front of your boss, co-workers, public citizens, consultants, or other senior experts in the field will take you so, so, so far.”
“Communicating concisely is important because of the information overload that everyone experiences in the workplace. I like the Too Long; Didn't Read (TL;DR) approach - write out your thoughts fully in an email and then imagine you are the recipient. Are you going to read this email? No, of course not. It's too long. With that in mind, what does your recipient need to know? If you can boil that down to a sentence or two, place it at the top of the message, and then say, "For more details..." or "For a fuller explanation, read on...". This shows that you value the recipient's time and care about communicating the right information to get the job done.”
“Perhaps the lesson is actually less about managing expectations and more about learning to talk to non-GIS people about GIS: how to explain what it does, what [its] strengths are, and, of course, what [its] limitations are. We often forget that not everyone knows this stuff the way we do, and being able to communicate about GIS is vital for bridging that gap.” 

Being clear and succinct matters, while confidence and sensitivity are also key.

“In my experience, my GIS friends and colleagues tend to be introverted. [Frankly], we are comfortable with data-driven activities and not naturally extroverted. We are comfortable working behind screens and not always the first people who want to walk up to others for new conversations. That said, we need these soft skills, the interpersonal ones, for communication in general.”
“Giving and receiving feedback sounds simple but it actually involves a lot of trust. The person giving feedback has to trust that the recipient will actually consider it. The person receiving feedback has to trust that the person giving feedback will do it honestly. I recommend practicing phrases like, "How could I do a better job at XYZ?" and "I get the sense that our last deliverable didn't quite hit the mark. How can we do a better job next time?"
“You can be the smartest person in the room, you can be the most qualified candidate in a stash of resumes, but if you don't know how to explain information in a manner that facilitates understanding, or if you don't know how to build a meaningful and influential rapport with others, and if you don't know how to remain professional, friendly, open-minded and tactful while doing so...someone else will. And it will make it more difficult for you to grow, or worse yet: devalue your geospatial skills in the job setting.”

What is exciting about the future in geospatial technology?

Speaking of explaining things, we will need to do that more and more in the future of geospatial. The more options we have – for data, platforms, applications, workflows – the more interacting infrastructure will be required, and these aren’t easy to align. Having an aptitude for handling interactive digital systems is a modern phenomenon. Personally speaking, I’m pretty good with selecting a proper horizontal datum, performing raster algebra, or picking the most suitable satellite image for a land cover classification. But in the evening, too often I sit stymied in front of my aging television box, consistently unable able to operate the multiple remote controls when I want to make a movie appear on the screen. Why do I have to coordinate between Chromecasting, Netflixing, Huluing, Slinging, YouTubing, or Amazon Priming, just to watch a &$#(@?)~ movie from the comfort of my own couch? I’m irritated and annoyed more than embarrassed; it shouldn’t have to be this hard. Or maybe it’s just middle-aged me that is a little uncertain and anxious about how much more we’ll have to coordinate in the future. Youthful geospatialists are displaying less trepidation and more positive anticipation.

“I'm excited for real-time GIS and Internet of Things to broaden the horizons of what organizations accomplish with geospatial technology. From my perspective, the public sector has lagged in their adoption of these technologies, but Esri and other industry players are doing their best to show how much value can be gained by using these concepts. Monitoring compliance (on mining operations or grazing allotments, for example), prioritizing asset maintenance, and enhancing employee safety are important application areas where organizations I've worked at recently could benefit from real-time GIS and IoT.”
“In the longer-term, I am excited for my generation and the one behind me to take more senior positions in the industry and enhance collaboration between GIS, IT, surveying, project management, and other communities of interest. Younger generations have a great curiosity for how complex systems work and we like to get information quickly, even if it avoids the traditional channels through which information flows.”

Expecting to be regularly interacting with others during work or as a member of a professional organization, whether professional counterparts or members of the public, is another way that the future is envisioned, and this excites our group.   

“Citizen science and crowd-sourced projects are already common and they’ll just become more so. It’s exciting that these will become even more mainstream. I’m also excited about how many universities are creating GIS-based learning opportunities. The more [GIS] is integrated across fields, the more it will trickle down into the projects and people with whom we work.”
“I'm most excited about k-12 GIS education, which is something I'm really passionate about… When I talk to other GIS people, one of the most common things that I hear is "I wish I had known about GIS sooner!" Heck, I feel that way, too, having only "discovered" during the junior year of my undergraduate program. Seeing GIS in the hands of such young people gets me so excited not only for what they will create with it but also how they will shape it into a new set of tools for the future.” 
“Joining professional organizations is optimal for networking, knowing about resources for training, or figuring out what the best practices are that others are using. This is a great way to find your tribe, especially important when you find yourself being the only GIS person in your department or organization.”
“I believe that right now there are more qualified GIS professionals than available jobs. However, geographic information science and its multi-faceted capabilities are quickly expanding onto various business frameworks and capturing the attention of leaders that recognize the importance of location-based data, analytics, and asset management--which is creating an explosion of job growth in this field that we all love so much. For us young GIS professionals, I think we just have to continue doing what we're doing: continue educating ourselves (whether through higher education or free online tutorials); staying involved in organizations by engaging, collaborating, networking, and promoting what we do; and most importantly, continuing to build and harness our leadership skills so that when the time comes we're ready to guide and mentor the next generation.”

It’s possible to be reflective about how others may be perceiving you without falling prey to overly broad generalizations about employment attitudes or managerial styles. The tent is plenty big enough for everyone, young and old, and life-long learning can keep us all youthful and humble. Meanwhile, could one of you whipper snappers please help me turn on my frickin’ TV.

Special thanks go to Daniela Sabillón, Meredith DiMattina, Micah Babinski, and Tory Elmore for their thoughtful responses. 

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