Mentoring, Leadership, and Building Skills in the Geospatial Community

Mark Altaweel


  • Key skills include coding and database management, but learning about the industry is also important.
  • Finding the right mentorship and people we can learn from helps our careers
  • The community can benefit from embracing diversity.

Being effective as a geospatial specialist requires some key skills, which are both learned and developed with experience. 

In this MapScaping podcast, Todd Barr discusses some of those key skills and how the geospatial community can develop to foster those skills and encourage participation to create a stronger community. 

GIS Essential Skills Have Change

Skills within GIS and what it takes to be effective in one’s role is changing. For instance, ten years ago simply knowing how to use GIS tools was often sufficient for firms. However, in more recent years, employers are also looking for employees who can also learn the domain in which they are working.

Simply doing analysis or making great maps may have been sufficient, but now you also need to know something about the subject you are analyzing as the questions become more focused and domain-specific. In many applications, such as in insurance or business intelligence systems, spatial knowledge and applications are now normalized within tools and not treated as specialist knowledge.

Therefore, knowledge required to be effective in GIS has become more complex for employees and if one is looking to work for a firm then taking the time to learn about an industry could be a very useful skill to have.

What are GIS Employers Looking For? 

For employers, the expectation is that skills one needs to work in an organization, particularly as GIS is normalized, need to be wider and more varied than perhaps a decade ago. Knowledge of tools such as Tableau, ArcGIS, and QGIS can be important.

Additionally, languages such as PythonSQL, including managing databases, .Net, C#, or R are also often expected, even in using these applications as separate from geospatial tools such as QGIS.

Employers want employees to be able to see the bigger picture and understand how varied tools and applications can help solve complex problems. Employers want people with experience and to demonstrate knowledge in specialist areas. In fact, one is likely to get a job as a geospatial specialists even if one does not have a certification in some of the core tools.[1]

Showing and demonstrating experience at different levels, from designing, to developing, and then maintaining tools and application are important and that has to come across a job application in today’s employment market. This has then changed the nature in how one might apply for a job.

When applying for a position, it might be more useful to make your application more comparable to a story. Talk about the projects you have done, the data you collected, how you put an application together, and how was the application maintained. Employers want to see that you can understand a project from inception to final development and maintenance. Seeing the bigger picture is also important.

Presenting your GIS experience visually is a way to show employers the breadth of geospatial experience.  Screenshot from Kate Berg's online GeoPortfolio which highlights her experience and the types of software and tools she has used.  Screenshot captured 2021-Feb-10.
Presenting your GIS experience visually is a way to show employers the breadth of geospatial experience. Screenshot from Kate Berg’s online GeoPortfolio which highlights her experience and the types of software and tools she has used. Screenshot captured 2021-Feb-10.

Demonstrating specialist knowledge in tools can help, such as specific Python libraries, but knowing how to communicate the importance of these tools and why something is needed is key. This also should come across with an often understated skill, which is confidence.

Developing GIS Skills Through Mentorships

Many of us suffer from imposter syndrome or lack confidence. However, having confidence is also key in communicating effectively and coming across as a desirable employee. This can be developed through knowledge obtained and mentorship. This includes so-called super-heroes who are people you look up to and who can inspire you to develop your skills and confidence.

As an employee matures in his or her experience and confidence, then being able to step up to the next level, including in designing and managing others, also requires skills to be developed. You might have to seek out people who are interested in helping you grow, challenging you even as you develop your skills so that you can get what you want.

Employees should be honest and able to talk about what they want and where they want their careers to go. Finding people who can help to get them there could be crucial as part of their development. This goes back to the idea that finding people who are leaders and effective mentors helps the development of career paths. 

Finding GIS Mentors

Finding mentors who are interested in employees might be difficult. This is why one might have to turn to online community sites on Twitter or other platforms. To find effective leaders and mentors, look for someone who is well-established and able to mentor, often demonstrated through enthusiasm for the subject.

Mentors can also become champions who support and help find effective paths for one’s career while building confidence for those being mentored. Realizing one is not alone and connected to a wider community helps one to want to be part of a wider community and helps build excitement.

While the geospatial community is generally a healthy community, it still may need to be better at inclusivity. This includes being open to people with different racial, gender, and sexual orientation backgrounds. The geospatial community could be better at expanding diverse groups which would also help develop its creativity. 

We, as a wider GIS community, should also work to treat each other well and accept diversity. We should ensure people feel comfortable to talk to us and ask questions while embracing different ideas and concepts we might not be accustomed to. This is something we can all work on and help ensure that the wider geospatial community is an inclusive one that embraces diversity. This would make the community stronger and help it to retain great talent to make contributions even more exciting in the future.

Foot Note

[1]    For a useful presentation on core skills to have, see:  Clemmer, G., 2018. The GIS 20: essential skills, Third edition. ed. Esri Press, Redlands, California.


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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

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