Sophie Willett is a graduate geospatial consultant working for Arcadis (UK) — a design and engineering company — in the engineering sector for highways and infrastructure.
Sophie studied Natural Sciences at university. She then focused on remote sensing in her dissertation, followed by a Master’s in GIS — not quite the typical route most people journey on from natural sciences.
WAS YOUR MASTER’S AN ENTIRE COURSE ON JUST GIS AS A SPECIALIZATION? OR WAS IT WITHIN SOME OTHER FORM OF DISCIPLINE, LIKE AN ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUE?
The Master’s was purely Geographical Information Systems.
For a year, we focused on cartography, had a module on Python scripting, and a module on mobile GIS — to give us a taste of all the different aspects of GIS.
Afterward, some of us went into consultancy and some into Ph.D. and research.
MANY SAY GIS IS NOT A PROFESSION
I’d say it’s like a toolkit; we use and apply it to different industries — a geographer might use it to do a map or analysis, for example.
During my Master’s, thankfully, there was a focus to train people to have their fingers in all the pies. To be skilled and to adapt quickly to the world of analytics and develop and flourish in something else — remote sensing or cartography.
Once you have a toolkit and the skills, you can develop them to be adaptable.
The opportunities in the future are endless. You could do anything you wanted to.
WHAT DOES YOUR DAY-TO-DAY LOOK LIKE AS A GEOSPATIAL CONSULTANT?
Projects can take a week, half a year, or up to two years.
For my day-to-day work, I’m focusing on mobile GIS, using ArcGIS’s Survey123.
I’ve supported the technical side of creating the surveys, getting those out on site, for the engineers and the inspectors to use them. Then, almost full circling it and collecting the data; putting it onto a dashboard and a web app for the analysis by the engineers.
At the start of the project, I’ll plan out what I want to do, but the order is flexible as long as the deliverable is the same.
I enjoy that flexibility.
This way, not every day is the same; as a consultant, I’m in different meetings for various projects.
IS THERE A CROSSOVER BETWEEN THOSE PROJECTS YOU’RE WORKING ON OR ARE THEY UNRELATED?
Last year, I worked mainly on Survey123 and mobile GIS. I can now support other teammates and their crews with Survey123 and get the most out of projects.
I’ve become known for understanding the techniques and the technology behind them.
At the same time, as a graduate, I can talk to my line manager about what I’d like to spend my time doing. For example, I’ve mentioned to her previously, I’d like to do more remote sensing and develop my skill in Python, automating, and a bit of FME.
So far, they’ve been willing to accommodate what I wanted to learn and see if there’s any training I needed to do.
You decide if you want to become a specialist or if you want to keep your skills broad and your toolkit as full as you like.
DO YOU FIND YOU’RE APPLYING YOUR EXPERTISE IN THE SAME DOMAINS? BUILDING SITES AND TRANSPORT?
My work mainly covers highways and rail work in the infrastructure.
In the past, Survey123 worked with a client who is in the river waterways. They used the Survey123 surveys for asset inspections.
From that, they might have wanted photos, to add text, location to be collected, and perhaps apply all that to a different assignment — maybe risk analysis, or inspectors going to check pavements or some council work — there’s always a slight crossover.
HOW WELL DID YOUR MASTER’S IN GIS PREPARE YOU FOR THE TASKS YOU PERFORM TODAY?
I would struggle if I hadn’t done the Master’s with the work I’m doing.
I know many who don’t have Master’s in GIS — perhaps they did geography, or they’ve experimented with coding — that definitely also gives you a head start.
The Master’s provided the opportunity to explore different techniques, topics and themes and work out which one I’d like to do more.
I never thought I would enjoy coding.
I always thought computer science wasn’t me — I like maths.
But it turns out it’s coding and automation that I try to bring to projects to make things easier for people.
The Master’s allowed me to explore new things. We had a module on cartography, one on coding and some simple geo-analytics. One topic a month to experiment and provide deliverables.
I can tell my manager I’ve got some experience in something, I know how to do that. We can start a conversation on whether I want to explore that further and what that means for my work now.
Or perhaps that project is not for me and there’s something else I can work on.
DO YOU FIND IT EASY TO HAVE THESE CONVERSATIONS WITH YOUR LINE MANAGER?
You need to have an open relationship with your line manager. Mine is fantastic; she’s got my back in anything I want to do.
When you start out after university, you feel you can’t ask questions; you can’t give your preference or priority on projects or the work.
As long as you approach it respectfully and say you’ve had experience with this and you don’t think it’s your cup of tea, most employers will listen to that.
When I was looking for a job, I wanted a people-focused company. I didn’t just want a 9-5 job. I wanted to enjoy the work.
I actively put effort into my personal development and it’s encouraged where I work. I look and ask for different opportunities if I need to.
I don’t want to be here in five years with no progress. There’s no harm in asking.
HOW DID YOU GET THIS JOB? WHAT WAS THE PROCESS LIKE?
Looking for a job is a stressful and difficult process.
When I was rejected from the jobs I applied to (probably half a dozen to a dozen), I took the rejection personally.
Then I stepped back and made each application personal to the company I was applying for, ensuring I covered their values.
Most companies have their values and goals on their websites. Use those as a tick box during your application and interview. Bring them up and show how you care about sustainability, for example, or how you’re people-driven and focus on what clients want.
Mold yourself to what they’re looking for.
Companies get a range of applicants. It can be disheartening when you don’t even get to the interview stage.
I was lucky with Arcadis; I got through to the assessment stage.
I believe it was the assessment, not my interview or my application, that allowed me to get the job where I am.
For the assessment day, we traveled down to London — quite a few of us. We were given the task of building a site with Lego, working together. What they were looking for is how candidates interact with everyone:
Did they talk to the assessors at lunchtime? Were they open-minded?
These were what I focused on that day.
Once you pass the questions in the interview stage, people know you’re qualified — now they want to know who you are.
You are also assessing whether the people on your assessment day and in the interview are the people you want to work with.
It’s entirely possible that you feel that’s not the environment you want to work in after the day.
Luckily for me, this has worked out well.
ASSESSMENT DAY CAN FEEL LIKE A ONE-WAY STREET. HOW DID YOU APPROACH THAT?
My interview was with someone I now work with. During the assessment day, there were a few interviews, a group activity, and a luncheon.
I got the standard interview questions, such as where you see yourself in five years time, what is GIS, and what sort of work you see yourself going into?
I tried to be relaxed and asked my own questions, too.
What does your day look like?
What sort of things can I expect to be working on?
Can you give me examples?
These were things I wanted to know. Plus:
If I got this job, what would I be doing in a month?
What are the client’s locations? Would I meet them often?
These questions are hardly ever covered in the job description that usually goes:
“You’ll be working on these sorts of projects…”
… well, can you give me an example?
When I asked specific questions, like an example of a project I might work on, or how many other graduates are there, what’s the team like?
I was interviewed by assessors who were part of the GIS team, so I got a good idea of what the existing team was like.
From their answers to these questions, I could tell how much people from the GIS department were passionate about their jobs.
And I was trying to establish if I would fit nicely into that.
WHAT ARE YOUR KEY SKILLS TODAY?
For technical skills they are automation and data management.
For soft skills, which are just as important, if not more, I’ve learned to be as open-minded and as flexible as possible.
I cover a variety of GIS skill types. I need to switch between tasks quickly, whether it’s Python, R, FME or automation.
GIS and geospatial are still not part of the discussion at the start of a project. You’ve got to build that relationship to help people understand what GIS stands for.
So many acronyms.
Why is it even suitable for their project?
The soft skills help you bring yourself, your skillset and GIS to the forefront of people’s minds — this is worth your time; let me do this for you.
ARE YOU A RESOURCE OR ARE YOU ALSO SELLING YOUR SKILLS FOR PROJECTS?
I’m a resource at the beginning of each project.
People work out that they need a GIS consultant. But what I’m seeing is that there are more opportunities out there than we’re working on.
Many clients, team leaders, product managers and business directors don’t know what they’re missing.
I try to get involved in that internal initiative of making GIS a topic of conversation because what’s a minor task to us can change and help the project.
I was in a meeting and someone said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could map this data and look at it?”
Well, that’s quite simple.
You have point data; we’ll pop it on a map, give you a dashboard, an approval process, and do the symbology.
You’d be surprised how little people think of symbology and mapping when they look at data.
That allows people to visually see the data for apparent problems. Maybe it’s something they haven’t thought of because they’ve not seen it in this way before.
GIS and geospatial work still need to be sold, not for monetary value, but for why it’s worth the time and the effort to hire geospatial and GIS consultants.
I lost count of the times I have to explain what I do.
“A geospatial consultant… hm… what does that mean?”
So I start from the ground up. It’s our job to sell it to everyone who doesn’t know what it means and what it can do for them.
I’m a resource now, but I also want to actively make GIS part of the conversation from the start because GIS has potential.
YOU’RE A CONSULTANT. HOW DOES IT FEEL TO CHARGE BY THE HOUR?
We bill our time because our time is our knowledge.
That’s the value we give to projects and clients.
How many hours do you work? What can you do within these hours?
You need to be realistic with your time. If a client turns around and asks if you can make all these maps, applications, and code within a day, you have to know your skills.
You may have to say you can do something like that… but you need more time.
You’ve got to be good at understanding if it’s going to take you a little longer and is the client even being reasonable?
You can’t say yes to everyone. Know where to draw the line and how to tell people what you can do for them.
My salary isn’t calculated off my billables; it’s not like recruiting. A lot of planning effort goes into each billable hour by everyone on the team.
Who is working on what? For how long? How many people on the team will work on this? Is this request reasonable? Are we being asked too much? Can the team be upskilled? Do they need more training in this?
It’s a business and you’ve got to make money.
BEING ON THE HOOK FOR THE HOURS YOU BILL CAN BE INTIMIDATING
When you start, you have to fill out your timesheet for the first time.
How many hours did I spend on this? I spent too many hours — I really need to improve on this.
You get used to it quickly.
You realize it’s not a battle. No one’s out there to get you. Clients need to understand where they’re spending their budget and if it’s even worth it for the solution they need.
You’ll get better at it and your productivity improves. It’s doable.
WHAT’S THE MOST EXCITING THING FOR YOUR CAREER RIGHT NOW?
I’m still in the early stages.
I want to try everything.
My GIS life started with remote sensing and it’s something I want to come back to. I want to incorporate sustainability and work on projects which have that as a priority.
I don’t have a ten-year plan — maybe just a two-year plan, but I know the next steps and what I need to do to get there.
And it’s not necessarily moving upwards. I can expand by working with initiatives internally and with the local community. It’s working out how I can enjoy the work and make it as beneficial to the company as possible.
There were a couple of things that really impressed me about Sophie.
The first one was how proactive she is. Here’s a person who’s really taking responsibility for their own learning and progression.
There’s her positive productivity as well. You never get the feeling when you’re talking to her that this is something she has been forced to do.
This is something she wants to do.
She’s driven by curiosity and wants to learn these skills. She’s not waiting for somebody to come along, say,
“Hey, it’s your time.”
She’s not waiting to be picked — she’s picking herself.
She’s doing that by introducing people to GIS, telling her story, working as an ambassador for herself, for her skills, and what GIS can do for the people on the other side of the table.
At no point during the conversation did Sophie refer to herself as an expert, but I am sure that she understands that she’s expert enough to meet the expectations to solve the problems — not to perfection but good enough in a way that meets spec.
She’s also expert enough to provide things the project wasn’t necessarily asking for. She talked about using Python to automate processes and how her skills learned on one project could benefit another project.
She’s expert enough to see the overlap there.
And she’s expert enough to take the time to experiment. This is one of the notable pieces of advice that John Nielsen gave us in a previous episode about communicating with maps. His advice to young professionals was to make that time to experiment, to ask yourself the question like,
Is there another way? What would happen?
One thing that helps me to understand whether something is worth trying is asking three questions
Who is it for?
What is it for?
If it fails, do I get to try again?
Once you’ve answered those three questions, you’ll have a great understanding of whether this is something that you should experiment with.