The death of the GIS guy?

Late last week Esri released their responses to user questions collected from the pre-conference survey.  James Fee has a good response to a number of the questions that Esri posted.  I particularly like his response to FGDC metadata support…

One question from the Esri User Conference Q&A caught my particular attention and it is something that I have been thinking about for a while now.  The question, “Do you see Esri software becoming so easy to use that professional GIS people are edged out?”  The folks at Esri answered that the GIS professional, a.k.a. the GIS guy, will be more important than ever because they will be the ones who connect a variety users to spatial data, applications, and analysis.  I agree with that point, and I understand Esri’s goal of making their software and the concept of GIS as appealing to the masses as possible.  Think about it, would you like to have a potential customer base of a couple hundred thousand, or a few million…

I believe the GIS guy isn’t going anywhere, in fact, if there is a greater demand for the use of GIS then there should be a greater need for GIS experts.  However, to remain relevant in the workplace the GIS guy will need to become a well rounded technical GIS expert.

The profession is changing. No longer is the GIS guy just downloading data sets from a few GIS data warehouses, creating some metadata, doing some basic analysis, and creating a few nice maps for display.  With a variety of web-based mapping and analysis sites and collaborative data analysis and collection sites anybody can collect, visualize, and share spatial data.  And they do.  From Google Maps to GeoCommons a growing number of individuals and organizations who are not trained in the classical arts of GIS are using tools and techniques that at one point were exclusively used by the GIS guy.

How does the GIS guy stay relevant in the office and not be replaced by someone who can develop a slick web-map using a data feed from Twitter?  The GIS guy needs to become a technical expert in a number GIS related of fields they probably never had any training on in college (that’s another blog post).  They need to demonstrate their value by having a solid set of technical and analytical skills as well as a flair data visualization.

The following is a list of skills that I believe that the GIS guy will need to not only be productive, but to stay relevant.  I’ve thought about this list for a while.  I base this list on my own experiences in searching for jobs in the past, being on GIS analyst hiring committees, reading GIS blogs, talking with friends and colleagues, and viewing GIS job posting.  Here it is, in no particular order:

  • The GIS guy needs to be well versed in relational databases.  Data sets are getting larger and larger and the well worn methods of GIS data storage won’t cut it when you have millions of points, lines or polygons to analyze.  Whether it is SQL Server, Oracle, PostGres, or SpatialLite, the GIS guy needs to understand the value of the relational database within GIS.  This is especially true as relational databases become have increasing spatial capabilities and are easily connectable to both GIS and web-based tools.
  • The GIS guy needs to be able to programPython, C#, C++, SQL, pick your poison…  No matter your daily workflow or GIS software you probably have a number of processes that either don’t exist as an out-of-the-box tool, or would greatly benefit from automation.  Every, and I mean every, GIS professional has to be able to program.  No excuses.
  • The GIS guy needs to know geospatial analysis. I know this sounds a little silly at first but I have met a number of GISPs who couldn’t properly tell me the difference between a union and an intersect, what the Moran’s I measures, or how an IDW works.  As the need for “geospatial” increases so will the need for advanced analysis. This is where the GIS guy can be of real value.  GIS guys need to have training in the art of geospatial analysis and its applications in GIS.
  • The GIS guy needs to know how to integrate web-based technologies into their GIS technology.  The GIS guy has to be able to show value in their work and one of the quickest ways to do this is to share those valuable data sets that they have developed through web-based technologies.  Whether it is a mash-up through Bing, EsriGoogle, or OpenLayers the GIS guy needs to understand the benefits and challenges of developing tools in this framework.
  • The GIS guy needs to be a GIS expert. This is related to a prior bullet.  The GIS guy needs to understand raster and vector GIS analysis, proper data editing procedures, the differences between data formats, how projections impact analysis (do you know what a datum is?), the MAUP, and so much more.  Why does the GIS guy need to know all of this?  Well, if the GIS guy is working with geo-enabled individuals who may not be trained in the arts of GIS they have to be able to provide support for any question that may arise.  If the GIS guy can’t or won’t provide this support then the their value and relevance will rapidly deteriorate.
  • The GIS guy needs to continue to learn.  I’ve heard “I didn’t have to do it in my job so I never learned it” one to many times from GIS guys.  If you work with technology you need an evolving set of technical skills.  The skill set I had five years ago isn’t the skill set I have today and the skill set I’ll have five years from now won’t be what I have today.  Be proactive in your learning!
  • The GIS guy needs to know that there is more to GIS than Esri. Go download Quantum, read up on ERDAS, learn about Cadcorp.  The GIS industry is bigger than you think.
  • And finally, the GIS guy needs to know how to make a web-map using a data feed from twitter…Know and understand the trends in the field and be able to communicate in the lingo of what is “next”.

By no means is this list complete, but if you are a GIS professional or an aspiring GIS professional this list might help you get ahead or stay ahead.  Am I calling some GIS professionals out?  Sure, but I do it because I don’t want to see a GIS professional lose out on a job to someone who has more technical training, but not geospatial skills.  The set of skills I just described are attainable, and you don’t need to get a GIS certificate or have to go back to school to get them.

Do you think I’m crazy?  Let me know.   I’d be glad to discuss the list.


16 Replies to “The death of the GIS guy?”

  1. The advent of ubiquitous and powerful statistical software sure made it easy for the guy on the street to print out correlation coefficients, but that doesn’t replace, I think, the expertise offered by stat professionals in crafting, collecting, organizing and interpreting data.

    I see the same with the GIS world. In the current world there is a low bar to producing maps, but the value added for many industries is about so much more than this tip of the iceberg.

    Also, there is probably a distinction to be made between all the fancy web 2.0 maps of where you and your cousin had pizza last week and the enterprise needs. Where the former adds mapping to heaps of data where this didn’t happen before, the enterprise needs are probably only growing commensurate with the need for geographic and locally relevant information.

  2. Please add that the “GIS Guy” needs to acknowledge that there women in the GIS industry and workplace!


  3. Most Important – The GIS Guy should know when and where to listen to “How-to” Lists, and not take them for granted…

  4. Just to add, keep on upgrading the skills but when you think you know you have learnt everything in GIS; its time to research…..

  5. Remote sensing will overtake GIS as GIS will move toward, if not already, towards reading and displaying sensor data. For example Lidar is not a GIS trend but rather a remote sensing trend combining ground truthing of surveying. While GIS can read the formats and analyze but so can too the Lidar industry in a greater capacity of reliability. All too often an idiot operating a GIS system, unsupervised and under understood, is very likly to get idiot results, too often the GIS industry is publicised more often and in greater detail than remote sensing even though they are complimentary. The GIS Doctor missed the competitor of Erdas which is Excelis.

  6. I disagree with ESRI, the number of posting for all non programming/database GIS skill sets are getting fewer & far between. The vast majority of GIS is business is data processing which is more on the side of low-level IT position being done less & less by GIS people. Also state,local, defense & most goverment related GIS are less b/c of budget cuts or the already hired that 1 GIS guy they need to fill brand new roll.but its not brand new anymore & the number of university students graduating is only increasing.

    Solution: GIS is just a tool, so diversify your knowledge & skill set to be able to use it in a unique way related to your other field!

    1. I agree with Ken. GIS is simply a tool, and it is only as useful as its applications.

  7. Nice post, but I think you forgot one important point which could be lumped into one of the other topics I guess, but this one .

    The GIS guy needs to have a solid knowledge of metadata and advanced knowledge of designing report products. A very important skill for map products that will for sure have several years of lineage. This skill is important for maintaining the integrity of both individual GIS Analysts and the company/agency they work for.

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