The GIS Career, Revisioned

Caitlin Dempsey


GIS tools and software applications are becoming more intuitive, more user friendly.  There is a mindset that is slowly being unraveled that GIS should only be done by “GIS professionals”. A mindset, that is outdated and puts those that adhere to it blindly in a career path dead end.   Esri, one of the leading GIS software makers, states very clearly that its 10.1 release of ArcGIS, is intended to make “it simpler to put mapping and geospatial analytics into the hands of more people without requiring that they be GIS experts.” The popularity of open source QGIS has taken off in part because of its reputation as being easy to use.  So what does this trend mean for those building a GIS career?

The reality is that the majority of GIS needs simply don’t reach beyond a select subset of data management, basic analysis (buffers, anyone?), and mapping needs.  The proportion of GIS positions that require a higher understanding of the more complex GIS applications is relatively small.  Those jobs tend to be mostly restricted to academic and some federal agencies.  In addition, most of that spatial analytical work is done by research scientists armed with PhDs.

The traditional GIS career mindset is to gain an entry level position in order to become adept at creating and managing GIS data, performing some spatial analysis, and making maps.   Then the more experienced GIS professional moves into a higher level position creating and managing GIS data, performing some spatial analysis, and making maps.  The reality these days is that those higher level GIS positions (usually involving a title with Analyst or Senior Analyst) are increasingly demanding programming skills.

The New GIS Career Path

So where does this leave the GIS professional looking to grow their technical skills into a long term career?  Two pathways: specialize or hybridize.  The first option is to become an expert at geospatial customization, that is, learn to program.  The second option is to become an expert in the application within a specific industry of GIS tools and technology, for example, a planner with a side of heavy duty GIS knowledge.  In other words, you must either specialize in developing spatial customizations or become an industry specialist who has an in depth understanding of how to apply GIS .

I spent years at a local government agencies doing exactly this: creating and managing GIS data, performing some spatial analysis, and making maps.  I can remember two specific instances when I felt that what I was producing really reached deeper into the capabilities of what GIS is always touted as being special for.  The first was taking my minimal development skills and cobbling together a ArcIMS based parcel map viewer that was used consistently for over ten years before it was finally replaced by an ArcGIS server app.  The second was being the GIS point person on a general plan update.  It was finally during this project (and after more than six years) that I was able to use my GIS skills to step into the mindset of a planner and apply geographic concepts to analyze land use issues.  Both of these examples point to the reality of the usefulness of a GIS career: program or adapt within an industry.

While GIS industry reports paint a rosy picture for the growth of GIS jobs, most of the positions that are non-programming or non-industry specialist specific are markedly entry level, with entry level salary potential.  Those looking to move their GIS career beyond a GIS technician or specialist level position either need to pick up programming skills or pick up industry specific knowledge.  On, the job listings site for GIS Lounge, jobs requiring programming skills on average occupy about 75% of the analyst level positions (often carrying a title similar to GIS analyst/programmer) as opposed to analyst positions not requiring those skills.

A typical entry level GIS positions might typically list the following:

  • Degree in geography, geographic information systems, urban planning, or related field.
  • Strong experience with ArcGIS.
  • Strong background producing map products.
  • Strong background using and producing GIS data sets.
  • Strong data management skills.
  • Strong ability to work effectively in a team structure.
  • Strong ability to complete tasks in a timely fashion.

An analyst position not requiring programming would expand on those skills and might typically require:

  • Intermediate to advanced proficiency using ArcGIS products, including ArcGIS Desktop and Server
  • Possess working knowledge of Microsoft products (including, but not limited to, Word, Excel, and Access)
  • Possess working knowledge of the principles and practices of GIS analysis
  • Possess working knowledge of the methods and techniques of designing and maintaining GIS databases
  • Possess working knowledge of cartographic practices
  • Possess working knowledge in transforming various types of data into georeferenced layers in ArcGIS (e.g., raster data, CAD files)
  • Possess working knowledge in creating and updating metadata in ArcCatalog
  • Possess working knowledge in the research, creation, manipulation and maintenance of spatial data to support geospatial analysis of database information related to the <insert specialized industry knowledge here>
  • Possess working knowledge in interpreting database information by utilizing spatial analysis and other evaluation tools
  • Possess working knowledge with <database engine>
  • Possess working knowledge in writing and executing database queries using SQL

Programmer positions require an additional knowledge base of various programming languages, depending on the type of job and whether the positions requires desktop GIS customizations, web development, or both:

  • Python
  • AJAX
  • JSON
  • Silverlight
  • Flash
  • Flex
  • HTML, PHP, CSS, JavaScript

Those at the start of a GIS career so carefully consider which path to take and position themselves accordingly to pick up the necessary next step skills.  Start by looking at the job descriptions for GIS jobs that you would be interested in moving up to and make sure that you pick up the critcial skills needed to position yourself to be promoted.

Further GIS Career Resources

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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6 thoughts on “The GIS Career, Revisioned”

  1. Many people can just through together some data and make a map. That is great, but someone that focus’s on doing that all the time will create a more accurate and valuable product. I’ve seen people that think they can analyze an image and make huge mistakes. I’ve seen people try to create an image mosaic and layer the older images on top. I’ve seen people that think they understand a GIS and produce a product in the wrong projection and lives where cost. Now imagine that happening all the time. Imagine large quantities of data that is not QC’d, not well understood and not well displayed. Removing the ‘analyst’ from the GIS will mean a quality may be lost. Don’t get me wrong, the technicians, specialists, and programmers are all essential, but removing the analyst could be a big mistake.

  2. A swing and… a miss!

    The discipline is geospatial engineering. One of the tool sets we use to perform our job are geospatial information systems. But GIS tools like ArcGIS are nothing more than a content management, analysis and visualization tool. Until we get beyond defining ourselves in relation to the software we use we will never be a recognized profession.

    I can hire generic programmers by the busload and it takes about a week to get them up to speed on the ‘uniqueness’ of spatial data and map interfaces but web map development and driving a desktop software package (a-la ArcGIS) are not geospatial engineering.

    Helping an organization collect, manage, understand and leverage the unique characteristics and inherent decision support capabilities of spatial data is geospatial engineering.

    Ask yourself this – if the power went out at work today could you still provide unique and valuable geospatial support to your organization or clients? If the answer is ‘no’ or even ‘I’m not sure’ then you are not a geospatial engineer. You are a button pushing monkey.

    If we continue to allow our profession to be defined by the software we use then we are on the fast track to obsolescence.

  3. As someone who started making maps before he could read and write, and who has an entire lifetime of geographic knowledge and experience in his head, and who has become a noted expert at what he does, I know that my time in this career is limited and that I’ll be forced to make a career change to something much less fulfilling and rewarding for me. This article touches precisely on the fact that the industry does not really value geographical knowledge, spatial problem solving and applications, nor highly refined expertise. It values programming skills. Of course, I have never ever been good at programming, and I have no interest in programming, and it’s a bad fit for my abilities. I know this and admit it. It’s why I didn’t study programming as a degree field. I don’t know why these jobs just don’t advertise for “programmers” instead of “geographic analysts”. I’m still puzzling over that one.

  4. While I generally agree with the sentiments expressed above, I think the writer of the original article is simply expressing current reality. “What ought to be” oftentimes is not the way things are. I think there is a place for ‘pure’ analysis and those who practice this, but the economic reality is that employers are trying to get the most production out of the fewest personnel. My son recently earned a degree in network engineering and is trying to get his foot in the door in this field. He says that so many openings want someone who can do network maintenance AND website development/maintenance AND programming AND blah blah blah… The point is they want a one-person IT department. This mentality is taking over in GIS, and indeed in many fields unrelated to IT. This is a frustrating situation, but nonetheless reflects the realities of the current job market. I’m having to make the transition myself, and am trying to decide between content specialist and programming……

  5. Perfect Jeff DeWitt. Your words can be applied in my reality, here in Brazil. Doing more with less. International and national companies are adopting this “modus operandi”. You should know HTML, java, SQL and Phyton.. And now its taking over in geography.
    I think that there is an why. The popularity of GoogleMaps and NokiaMaps API’s are forcing this new mentality in geographic jobs for example. Even ESRI is offering ArcGis online, some applications in the cloud.
    I believe in specialization, in my case, geomarketing science. I must understand this science and apply using appropriated tools.

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