36. Geospatial Friday - You just got your GIS Certificate, what now?


When thinking about innovation it's easy to forget about the people who work behind the scenes to allow the process to occur smoothly.

This week we're in the tech capital of the world to gain some insights on building a career in the geospatial field. Tim Hayes is GIS Manager at City of San Jose local authority in California. He and his colleagues serve over 1 million residents and help ensure that Silicon Valley remains the innovation powerhouse that it is.


This previously unpublished article is a must read for GIS newbies who are preparing to enter this diverse and exciting profession.

Over to Tim.


Expect that you are still woefully unprepared to deal with the realities of a career in the GIS profession. Given the near infinite variety of answers to the eternal question of what is GIS? It has the dubious distinction of being around for almost 50 years and still is one of the most misunderstood professions. You can expect to hear endless debate about is GIS a tool, technology, or a business process? Is it worthy of being referred to as a “profession”? Adding to the conundrum is that there is no right or wrong answer to these questions. Welcome to the world of GIS!


If you can work your way past these infernal questions, you will find there are many career opportunities in GIS. 

As a first step, before you start hunting for that dream GIS job, you must ask yourself what sort of GIS Professional you wish to be: Sales, Technical Support, Software Application Training, Application Development (Programmer), Project Management, Databases, or a mix of all the above. 

Second, to prepare you further for that dream GIS job, you need to up your skillset with some additional certifications. On the software side, you should consider obtaining one or more ESRI Technical Certifications (ESRI software is the majority of the GIS market). On the management side, you should consider at a minimum obtaining a Project Management Professional (PMP) Certificate from the Project Management Institute. On the professional side, you should consider obtaining your GISP Certificate from the GIS Certification Institute.

So, now that you have obtained the right to place an alphabet soup after your signature, you have to think about what type of organization you wish to work for. You will be faced with basically 3 choices: government, consulting, and utilities. One is not better than the other, it all depends on your professional goals.


Should I choose a GIS career in Government?


There are many facets to this genre for the aspiring GIS Professional. But, there are some basics that any aspiring GIS’er needs be aware of before making this choice. Most people choose to work in government because they are civic minded and enjoy the job security. For GIS, government can provide you the greatest variety of opportunities one can imagine. A simple Google search will lead you down the path of discovery. What can you expect if you choose to work for government? Most everyone knows you can expect a relatively high degree of job security, a decent salary, and a good retirement pension. But, there are three aspects that few outside of government consider: funding, people, and innovation. These three facets play a critical role in determining the career satisfaction of the aspiring GIS Professional. The first bit of research you need to do is find the answers to how the GIS is funded, is there a budget for the GIS Program? If yes, how much is it? How is the position funded? Is it funded through property/sales taxes, grants, or special fees? The funding for the position is the key. If it is funded using property/sales taxes then it will be subject to economic volatility with the risk of layoff higher relative to other positions which do not use this fund source. Grants? Need I say more? These only last from a few months or years then you will be kicked to the curb. Special Fees? Now this is where it gets real interesting, if the position is funded using utility fees (water, sewer, electric, gas, park, etc…) odds are it is safe and secure with enough money for GIS to flourish. The second facet is the people. Here is where you can expect to find varying levels of frustration and satisfaction; most of the people you will work with have no plans to leave unless they retire. This means it is not uncommon that you will be forced to get along with people who you would normally not get along with. Consider it like living with that roommate you always disliked and then kicked out, except in government you cannot kick them out; you are forced to live together for years. You have to find a way to get along with one another. It is nearly impossible to fire anyone in government except if they break the law, and even then it depends on what law was broken. Generally speaking, a government employee cannot be fired for incompetence or indolence. In addition, again generally speaking, managers are promoted based on patronage, not their abilities or skills; this will result in the not uncommon situation of you being supervised by someone who has no clue about what you do, or simply does not care. In government, despite the ubiquity of GIS, oddly, if you are supervised by someone who knows about GIS and its potential, consider yourself lucky. Finally, we reach the third facet, innovation resistance. Working in government, the status quo is the order of the day, the antithesis of innovation. This is counter to the philosophy of GIS, which thrives on innovation and being led by innovative people. If you choose a career in government you will deal with the pushback on anything that disrupts the status quo. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it is simply reality. As the GIS Professional, it will be up to you to develop anti-status quo and pro-innovation agendas that will effect positive change in the organization. Despite the dichotomies, a GIS career in government can be very rewarding; most of the people will greatly appreciate what you are able to do for them and will be sure to let you know. Because of the low employee turnover you will build positive relationships that will span your entire career and prove extremely useful to your endeavors in the GIS realm. GIS in government offers excellent growth potential from the professional and technical aspect; there is a good chance you will be involved in improving business processes, working with large Enterprise GIS Databases, and participating in web mapping development, and everything else GIS has to offer.


Should I choose a GIS career in Consulting?


First, if you seek job security, there is none in the world of consulting; Second, if you truly wish to forever tackle high-angle professional challenges , then consulting is your gig; Third, if you wish to do what GIS’ers like to refer to as “real GIS”, then be wary as there are many flavors of consulting. Remember consultants are in the business of making money. What does this mean for GIS? Unless the consulting firm is marketing a specific GIS software application or providing services for a specific business process that will make money for the company, GIS does not make money. GIS takes money to operate and run. It is absolutely critical to wrap your head around this concept. Given this reality, in the consulting world, there is a high likelihood that you, as a GIS Professional, will be stuck making “pretty” maps/pictures and basically serving in the function as a glorified graphic artist with people around you who have little or no understanding or appreciation of GIS other than it makes nice pictures for their report. However, the greatest opportunities for the GIS professional in consulting reside in Application Development and improving Business Processes. GIS App Development is in the realm of programming/coding, a good gig if that is your thing. Business Processes are tied most closely with Systems Integration and Analysis. This includes building/designing elaborate Enterprise GIS Databases and integrating GIS into, for example Asset Management and Computerized Maintenance Management Systems. Of course, there is also Location Analytics (Retail Site Selection, etc…) which combines a little bit of everything GIS with a heavy dose of geostatistics. If you are not a programmer, but have all that alphabet soup I mentioned earlier, then these are the realms of consulting that will benefit you the most professionally.


Should I choose a GIS career with a Utility?


GIS and utilities go hand in hand. They both need each other. In the world of utilities, GIS is not a luxury, it is a necessity from the operational and regulatory standpoints. Whether it is a private or government utility, it offers tremendous growth potential for the GIS Professional. All utilities have physical assets that can include wires, pipelines, valves, reservoirs, wires/cables, Industrial Plants, etc… All are ripe for picking with a GIS! You can expect to be involved in Asset Management, Maintenance Management Systems, Hydraulic Modeling, Systems Integration, Mobile GIS, Web GIS, and much more. Utilities are the biggest supporters of GIS. Generally speaking, they see the true potential it offers. Funding, job security, and professional challenges remain highly satisfactory. If you choose a career in utilities, you can expect to work with a variety of people: engineers, operators, electricians, instrumentation techs, and maintenance folks. All, by and large, will greatly appreciate what you do since they will recognize that GIS does make their jobs easier and safer.

Odds are you will not get wealthy working in the GIS profession; there are opportunities to make and save money by leveraging the technology itself. As a GIS Professional of over 20 years’ experience, if you make the right choices you will find it a rewarding and challenging career that is ripe for innovation.