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GIS Skills Leadership Mentorship and the Geospatial Community

February 10, 2021 15 min read

GIS Skills, leadership and mentorship in the geospatial community

 

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    Todd Barrs been carrying the geospatial flag ever since the late 90s when working as an economic analyst at a DC nonprofit tracking HIV/AIDS in Africa. His mentor sent him off to NY to learn more about this “stuff.”

     

    He knew how to code but wasn’t a coder. After the training and seeing numbers spring to life on a map (not even an interactive map, a pdf) made him realize the power of GIS.

     

    After 9/11, he was swept up into the defense intelligence community and worked with the DOD, the District of Columbia Emergency Management Agency, as well as FEMA and Homeland Security.

     

    He did contracting before working for a larger architecture engineering firm. He worked on Operation Iraqi Liberation, and he didn’t shy away from spending six months in Louisiana when Katrina hit. There he got to see the power of geospatial and the power of the community.

     

    He later built the National Guard Bureau’s situational awareness application, a baseline Business Intelligence (BI) thing at first, and he was brought in to add geospatial to it.

     

    Todd is currently working in Boston as a geospatial director for a natural catastrophe modeling firm.

     

    HOW DID YOU ADDRESS SUBJECT EXPERTISE WHILE NAVIGATING ALL THESE GEOSPATIAL VERTICALS?

     

    20 years ago, things were easier. Everyone was excited about geo, and few people were doing it so you could just go into a project and say, “Yes, I’ll build this for you, and here’s how it’s going to work.”

     

    In the last decade, people became much more sophisticated and spatially aware of what they require. It’s not just putting things on maps anymore.

     

    It’s about immersing yourself in the subject for a year before you can run analytics and answer those hard questions or add something to a BI system.

     

    You keep reframinyour skill sets.

     

    I’ve had to learn about the insurance industry for my work at the natural catastrophe firm. It’s vast and complex, but it’s crucial to understand how geo fits into it before carrying out financial and risk modeling or detailed loss analysis.

     

    IS GIS STILL SOMETHING SEPARATE FROM WHAT COMPANIES ARE ALREADY DOING? OR IS IT BECOMING INTEGRATED?

     

    In the insurance industry, everything is localized. It’s all about location intelligence. Spatial information is ubiquitous and part of everything they do — analysis, insurance policies, or cyber insurance.

     

    It’s not seen as separate geospatial information.

     

    Across the spectrum, geospatial data sources and analysis are also being picked up by BI tools, such as Tableau, to integrate with Salesforce.

     

    People don’t need things on a map. The map is now expected.

     

    Instead, geospatial experts work hard to bring the information to the surface and find suitable processes.

     

    EXPECTATIONS ARE HIGHER. CAN MY SKILL SETS FOLLOW?

     

    Geospatial experts need to have a wide variety of skills. They have to link up with other systems and understand those other systems, like Tableau.

     

    It’s not enough to know your desktop or application. How will they interface with the other systems and integrate into the greater enterprise system?

     

    It’s not enough to know spatialPython orArcPy. You need to understand raw Python, R, possibly some .NET libraries and how they integrate with other systems.

     

    This is where we need to push ourselves — bringing geospatial to the forefront.

     

    HOW CAN I INCLUDE MY GREATER UNDERSTANDING OF COMPLEX SYSTEMS IN MY CV WHEN APPLYING FOR JOBS?

     

    When you’re applying for a position, make what you bring to the table intoa story you can describe.

     

    Talk about how you collected data. You ran analytics, put together the application, and then maintained it. Talk about how you went with open source instead of an Esri solution, or how you decided on an Esri solution over an open source solution.

     

    Explain why you did all this and how that solved the business problem.

     

    It’s better to condense the technical details in the CV. The same goes for the interview. You can’t really spend an hour talking about libraries and code.

     

    When I interview people, I look for candidates who project confidence. There’s no shortage of people who know desktop applications, code, or databases.

     

    I need to know whether they can confidently project that when I put them in front of clients? Can they confidently assure someone they understood the problem?

     

    You can test people for code, desktop applications, or databases, but you can’t test for confidence. You need to interact with the person.

     

    I look for confidence and the ability to tell a story in a candidate for any position.

     

    WHAT’S THE ONE SKILL YOU LOOK FOR AT AN ENTRY-LEVEL?

     

    For a hard skill set, I’d look for someone who understands SQL to understand databases and data structures. They’d probably need a scripting language — Python, R, .NET or C#.

     

    Plus a desktop application, like QGIS, ArcGIS, or ERDAS.

     

    They don’t have to be an expert in these, but they need the willingness to learn.

     

    They need to be excited about making a map and making data stories. They need to be confident to think for themselves.

     

    HOW IMPORTANT IS CERTIFICATION FOR YOU?

     

    Which one would you choose?

     

    A potential employee with a certificate in X, Y, and Z, versus the other person who built a project and documented the journey?

     

    I take the experience or at least someone who fiddled around with stuff and a decent GitHub over certification any day of the week.

     

    They’re more likely to understand the testing and process.

     

    Academic exams don’t have bad data or security issues with servers. You can’t test someone to figure out why the data is dirty during an exam.

     

    Can they tell if it’s the date that’s sticky? It’s difficult to do within a test.

     

    But when someone’s gone through a project, even a side project, they cleaned data, put it on a server, and put it on a map.

     

    Someone who’s completed a certification would still need to learn how to do stuff in the real world.

     

    DID YOU FIND IT CHALLENGING TO MOVE FROM THE MACHINE ROOM INTO STRATEGIC ROLES?

     

    Very much.

     

    When I first became a program manager in 2011, I was doing everything.

     

    I wrote the code and did the analytics just like a senior developer or senior analyst would. It was difficult to let go.

     

    Almost impossible, actually.

     

    And then… I was awarded primary physical custody of my daughter as a parent.

     

    I suddenly realized what I was doing wrong as a manager.

     

    I wasn’t growing the people. I was doing it all for them, only handing off excess work.

     

    I wasn’t allowing them to succeed. I wasn’t allowing them to learn. I wasn’t allowing my team to grow because I was too busy controlling everything.

     

    I had to let go of that. It became less about me having the latest technical skills and more about growing a garden of individuals and growing their skills — allowing them to flourish, be the rock stars, and do the things they need to grow their careers.

     

    As a manager, or as any kind of leader, you’ve established yourself. You have the skills. Put your troops first because they’re not there yet. Their skill sets, needs, and careers are more important than yours.

     

    Your job isn’t to use them as support — it’s to support them and make them the best person they can be and reach their full potential.

     

    HOW DO YOU FIND OUT WHERE YOUR TROOPS ARE TRYING TO GET TO?

     

    You communicate with them openly and honestly.

     

    Talk to them about their strengths and weaknesses and what they want to do.

     

    Come up with a game plan.

     

    Help them understand who they are.

     

    Some people want to go into management and lead teams. But they can’t stand in front of an audience of 800 people and give a presentation on what the project is. Their emotional intelligence isn’t there to support it.

     

    Other people want to be rock star coders. They have the skill sets, but they can’t see beyond being a senior developer or analyst. It’s your job to figure out how they can continue to progress as they are while respecting their desires — by not shifting them to management but keeping them as high-end technical experts who can also contribute outside of the technical part.

     

    Too many times, technical people are stymied that way. Figuring this all out requires legwork, countless open and honest discussions, and answering questions.

     

    THIS IS A CROSSOVER BETWEEN LEADERSHIP AND MENTORING

     

    As a leader, you’re always mentoring and communicating with people and your team.

     

    We’re supposed to communicate with our team once a quarter. I talk with my team at least once a month individually — managers, product owners, developers, and database experts.

     

    Include the new GIS analysts who just joined, too. Guide them and ask, “Where do you want to go? How do you want to get there?”

     

     The feedback I get from them about how they’re doing is also feedback on how I’m doing.

     

    Do they see a future here? Am I the leader they need? Or do I need to adjust to make your job easier or make your career better?

     

    The running joke I have is that I’m in the third act of my career. I’ll hopefully retire in 12 years and go raise goats in Mexico. But for the 25-year-olds or the people who just switched to GIS, my job is to support them and help them reach their full potential.

     

    There’s nothing worse than wasting potential. Time is the only thing we have. It’s the most precious thing we have. And to waste time is too sad.

     

    WHERE DO I GO TO FIND A MENTOR?

     

    If you’re looking for someone in your organization, because that’s where you want to stay, look for someone outside your team.

     

    Find someone who’s a rock star in their group and invite them to a coffee and for a 15-minute conversation. Get a feel of the relationship by talking to them. If it doesn’t feel right — accept it.

     

    You may have admired this person, but you just don’t have that kind of relationship. Find someone else.

     

    Look for someone who matches with you. Look for someone you can trust and someone authentic.

     

    Accept that not everyone gives good advice all the time — I know I’ve given bad advice.

     

    Your mentor doesn’t have to be a geo person. They could be in data science, IT, or sales and marketing.

     

    You never know who your mentor will be until you find them.

     

    LOOK FOR A SUPERHERO TO ASPIRE TO OR SOMEONE WHO CAN CHAMPION YOU

     

    If you dig deep enough, you can always find someone who’s doing amazing stuff somewhere on Twitter.

     

    99% of the time, they’re completely open about what they’re doing and jazzed to talk to you about it. They’ll be excited that you’re interested in their stuff.

     

    To dovetail into the whole superhero thing, another thing is to have a champion — someone at your work or in your life who will stand up for you when you’re at certain points.

     

    Someone who believes you’re fantastic and they should collaborate with you. That comes back and goes around your network. Have champions you interact with and network with every champion you’ve worked with.

     

    It really advances your career if you have a champion, someone who can set the runway for you. All you have to do is land it. Then give back by pushing others forward and making sure their landing is easy.

     

    This makes progression easy. If it’s prepared, they’re set up for success.

     

    When I used to land a project, I’d come in hot with two engines out. There wasn’t a runway prepared. I had to make that myself before I landed.

     

    I don’t want people to go through that process; there’s no reason to have that stress anymore.

     

    HOW CAN WE ADDRESS IMPOSTER SYNDROME?

     

    Everyone suffers from it. The stats say 70% does, but I think it’s deeper than that.

     

    Personally, imposter syndrome gets heavy when I feel trapped or isolated. I get stuck in my head.

     

    And that feedback loop with those voices…you’re not good enough, you’re not smart

     

    I come from a poor area of the US — the middle of nowhere, Kansas. When I was in DC, I couldn’t help but always wonder why others have better jobs, more connections, better education.

     

    How am I even here? What am I doing here? I should just go back and become a Kansas City financial advisor.

     

    It was difficult to break down those walls, but I realized I wasn’t alone when other people said similar things.

     

    When you’re not alone, that means there’s a community. Other people are experiencing the same. It’s not just you — other people you admire experience it too.

     

     Start talking about it — imposter syndrome can’t survive a good conversation.

     

    We all get frustrated writing code or doing analytics — you may think you don’t need to do this right now, you can’t do it, or it’s not workable.

     

    Just have a conversation with someone — it’ll calm you down. Talk it through and you’ll realize that you’re good enough. You’re smart and capable.

     

    If you stay isolated with your head down at the back office doing a project… That’s when imposter syndrome can cast a shadow across you.

     

    WHERE DO YOU NETWORK AND BUILD COMMUNITY?

     

    When I was in DC, there was always an event. There were so many things happening, I was tired of going out.

     

    But now, with the pandemic, it’s obviously Twitter.

     

    Not everyone’s on it, but you’ll find all sorts of people. People you can learn from. People who are interested in all aspects of geospatial and come up with things you didn’t even think about. They are the ones pushing geospatial forward.

     

    The other thing I get from Twitter is the excitement from students who discovered GIS for the first time.

     

    That’s another reason I teach remote sensing and other things at Northeastern University (Boston, MA). The passion from the students feeds my passion beast.

     

    Twitter is the best place to ask a question. Don’t be embarrassed. If you have a problem, just ask away.  Someone’s going to respond to you because of the hashtags. Create a relationship and a network node — now you have more access to their network.

     

    Organically grow it from there.

     

    MENTORSHIP IS A TWO-WAY STREET

     

    I’m old and jaded — about some things. Students bring something to me in a new light with their raw energy about geospatial.

     

    I’m teaching an automated feature extraction class right now. Students can do all sorts of stuff with it — count cars and parking lots, oil drums, and things like that.

     

    One of my students wanted to find playgrounds. She wanted to know if what she was learning was feasible to find playgrounds.

     

    It’s totally feasible to find playgrounds, and it’d be an interesting use for this technology. I would have never thought of it.

     

    My answer to her? “That’s amazing. Let’s get on a Zoom call and talk this out.”

     

    Let’s plan this because it’s not straight forward. Let’s extract playgrounds from aerial photography and imagery, and determine if your house is close to a playground.

     

    Let’s put that into Zillow as part of the analysis and see how close you are to a local playground or park?

     

    INDUSTRY OUTSIDERS JUST HAVE A WAY OF GETTING RIGHT TO THE PROBLEM

     

    It’s all new to them. There aren’t any barriers. They look at a piece of technology and wonder if they can extract parks, figure out the best places to go sledding, and how far away public transportation is.

     

    They’re not hindered by experience.

     

    WHAT’S YOUR GEOSPATIAL COMMUNITY EXPERIENCE?

     

    Overall, it’s a happy one.

     

    Geospatial is part and parcel of IT.

     

    We’re healthier than the greater technology community — a bit more inclusive and diverse than the technology community.

     

    There’s still a lot of work to do.

     

    About a year and a half ago, Icame out as trans publicly. I’m nonbinary.

     

    Until then, I just kept it in. I never had the room to breathe; I was busy.

     

    At some point, I had to deal with it. When I came out, the geospatial community extended its support. I lost a few people and a few connections on LinkedIn, but I felt comfortable enough to come out in the end.

     

    I’d been established in the geo community — I was a known commodity, so to speak. People understood what I was about, and this was just adding to that — just another thing about Todd.

     

    But as younger people, trans, women, or people of color come into GIS they don’t have an established background. They often leave the community because of, lack of a better term, toxic masculinity.

     

    WE’RE VERY PALE AND MALE IN THE GEOSPATIAL COMMUNITY

     

    Women tend to move away from the community in their 30s. People of color move away from the community. Many LGBTQ alphabet mafia folks stay in the closet because of how they perceive geospatial.

     

    Not everybody feels awful, but they don’t feel comfortable coming out.

     

    There are movements to address this now, especially for Women in Geospatial or Black Geographers. Nothing for LGBTQ — yet — because it’s a small subject, almost a subsect.

     

    It’s hard for these people to come out and remain and be their authentic selves. The fact is we probably lose about 30% of our members when people reach their 30s. This takes away so much creativity and diversity in this field.

     

    Creativity is everything for thinking through problems and coming up with solutions or coming up with a better solution than the one before. If we lose that creativity, we become stagnant. The technology becomes stagnant. We release applications and spend our days with stale work — doing the same things we did 10 years ago.

     

    That’s not good for anyone. That stifles creativity and innovation.

     

    Without creativity and innovation, the geospatial community is just a bunch of people making maps. We need to double down and think about how we treat each other.

     

    How can we support a person in our community if they are different, be it a person of color, gay, trans, and women?

     

    How can we take that person in and allow them to be their authentic selves and reach their full potential?

     

    BUT… I AM PALE. I AM MALE. GIVE ME SOME POINTERS HERE.

     

    Often, if you’re standing on the other side of the fence, it feels overwhelming, and doing nothing seems like the best course of action. Maybe you’re afraid, or you don’t know what to do. What do you say? How can people like me help make things better?

     

    Ally-ship is hard.

     

    Sometimes you want to help, but you don’t know what to do. Sprinkle some imposter syndrome into the feedback loop, and you won’t know what to do, so you just stand there.

     

    The first and foremost thing everyone can do right away is when you’re asked to be on a panel, or you’re asked to present at a conference, ensure that there’s diversity.

     

    Refuse to speak at a conference if there’s not at least 40% women speakers. Even better at 50%. Refuse to be on a panel unless it’s representative.

     

    If you’re invited to be on a panel, consider taking a step back and allowing someone else, a person of color or a woman, to take that place. It’s hard to do because we all feel important and entitled and love people paying attention to us. I completely get how that gets our serotonin pumping.

     

    But we have to take a step back from that. Others may not be as experienced as you, or maybe they’re more experienced than you. They have as much right to speak for their concepts and how they see things as you do.

     

    In the geospatial community, with our panels and applications, we interact with those we network with. The people like us.

     

    Take the Women in Geospatial+ Speaker Database. When you don’t know someone, it’s a brilliant tool to find women who understand precision agriculture, as an example.

     

    You can search the database and instantly find 10 women who understand that. Some have PhDs, and some are professors, just like you. They understand it at a level other people won’t.

     

    See if they’re free and invite them to your panel. If they can’t, ask them if you can get access to their network of other women who may be able to be on this panel.

     

    Take a step back. Understand you’re good enough and you’ve succeeded. Your voice has been heard.

     

    Allow someone else’s voice to be heard.

     

     

     

    Todd mentioned one resource I use all the time for this podcast — the Women in Geospatial Speakers Database.

     

    It’s an incredible speakers' database filled with women doing amazing stuff and willing to speak on topics.

     

    It’s a fantastic resource if you’re organizing a panel or looking to create media around geospatial.

     

    I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had imposter syndrome show up. You think you’re not good enough when you do something for the first time. You’re unsure if this will work at all. It erodes your confidence. And once that’s eroded, we wait for someone else to come along and validate that we are good enough and what we’re doing is right and worthwhile.

     

    The problem is, questions that have never been asked will never be answered. So go ahead and ask them. Don’t wait around for someone to come and ask for you.

     

    I get it — putting your hand up is scary. Enough to make you want to put on your invisible cloak and hide.

     

    What if you stand up, put your idea forward, and it doesn’t work out?

     

    If you don’t, you put your progress and your future in the hands of someone else to ask that question or wait for someone to come and find you and answer the question you never asked. Just thinking about it sounds absurd.

     

    You’ll also let your community down by not asking. They need your ideas and voice. No community can build off ideas they didn’t have in the first place. No one can extend pieces of software that were never built.

     

    It’s not easy to put yourself out there, and it doesn’t work out all the time.

     

    For the sake of the geospatial community’s diversity, I’m asking this: put yourself out there and contribute.

     

     

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