Joseph Kerski

Education Manager, Esri

Education: Ph.D. in Geography (University of Colorado Boulder), M.A. in Geography (University of Kansas), B.A. in Geography (University of Colorado Boulder)

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Describe your job. What are some of the most important tasks or duties for which you are responsible?
I focus on GIS-based curriculum development, research in the effectiveness of GIS in education, professional development for educators, communication about the need for geographic skills, tools, and perspectives through keynote addresses, articles, social media, and workshops, and fostering partnerships to support GIS in education.  I am active in creating and teaching online courses in spatial thinking and geotechnologies.  I teach online and face-to-face courses at primary and secondary schools, through MOOCs, and universities such as Sinte Gleska University, Penn State, and the University of Denver.  I am active in educational nonprofit organizations, including NAAEE, AAG, NCSS, and I served as president of the National Council for Geographic Education.  Since 2006, I have served as Education Manager for Esri, on a team that emphasis thought leadership in geospatial technologies in formal and informal education at all levels, internationally.

I have written books such as Interpreting Our WorldSpatial MathematicsInternational Perspectives on Teaching and Learning with GIS in Secondary SchoolsThe Essentials of the EnvironmentTribal GIS, and The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data.  I am on work travel about 1/3 of the time, to regional, national, and international conferences to speak about geotechnologies in education and to learn from others, and to university campuses and even some primary and secondary schools.

What attracted you to geography?
First, I grew up in a motel that my parents ran, so instead of having a yard like other kids, I had a parking lot.  But I loved it, especially meeting guests from a wide variety of backgrounds, ages, and ethnicities staying at the motel and hearing about their travels far and wide.  Second, my childhood was spent exploring western Colorado—the canyons, the mesas, the badlands, the river bottoms.  I loved being outside and visiting even ordinary places—railroad yards, vacant lots, all of the places that Richard Louv says are important in his book Last Child in the Woods.   Third, much of my indoor time was spent reading.  One book I read was The Last Great Auk. When the auks go extinct at the end of the book, I was greatly saddened and became committed to working in an environmental field.  Fourth, I spent a lot of time, into my mid-teen years, reading and making maps. I was the family navigator with the map on my lap on vacations.  I also made enormous maps on large poster board of made-up places, complete with urban renewal districts, harbors, freeways, and each street with a name and – pretty geeky, I realize – address ranges.  Fifth, an experience after a field trip in Grade 7 taught me an important lesson.  My classmates and I were sitting with our backs against the bricks of the middle school building in Colorado, listening to the teacher. While some of the other kids were complaining that they were too hot and wanted to go inside, I was truly enjoying the moment. What’s more, I realized for that moment and into the future that I didn’t have to ‘go along with the crowd,’ but that it was perfectly fine to value experiences that not everyone else valued.

How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position?
I served for 22 years as geographer and cartographer at NOAA, the US Census Bureau, and the US Geological Survey.  These opportunities, as well as teaching since 1994 at the university level, and since 1991 giving workshops at the K-12 level, prepared me for my current positions.  I have three degrees in geography so you might say I’m rather passionate about the subject—geomorphology, population change, natural hazards, water, ecoregion studies, and geography education and GIS.  I also have nearly 4,000 geo-related videos on   But I’m also keenly interested in spreading geographic skills, content knowledge, and perspectives to other disciplines—business, language arts, history, mathematics, biology, hydrology, sociology, and others. I believe that geography provides me with the abilities to be able to speak a common analysis language amongst other disciplines which resonates with many faculty and students outside my own discipline.

What geographic skills and information do you use most often in your work? What general skills and information do you use most often i your work?
I most often use:  Spatial thinking, examining patterns, relationships, and trends. I use critical thinking, assessing the quality of my data, and my methods. I use oral and written communications skills on a daily basis.  I also use skills in learning from others, listening, decision making, and working as a team member.

Are there any skills or information you need for your work that you did not obtain through your academic training? If so, how/where did you obtain them?
Yes, the skills in presenting and teaching and much of my work in GIS, I did not obtain through my academic training. I obtained this—and am still learning—on the job. I also gain these skills through reading books, blogs, guidelines, and lessons, and by interacting with others, at conferences, via courses, in webinars, and via other means.

Do you participate in hiring, screening, or training of new employees? If so, what qualities and/or skills do you look for?
I advise our hiring team that is active in working with universities, even though I do not hire them myself.  We refer qualified people that we meet at events and other means to our university human resources team, and they follow up with those people.  At Esri, we look for people with vision, communication skills, teaching skills, technical skills (spatial analysis, Web APIs, mobile apps, coding, writing curriculum; and so on), motivation, ethics, and energy.  I did have a large role in hiring people at the U.S. Census Bureau, in the past, and have a great deal of respect for those in Human Resources!

What advice would you give someone interested in a job like yours?
I have posted other career advice on:  and on the Green Guru Career blog:

I encourage you to identify your interests and career first and foremost, then think about what organization would best help you to achieve your goals.  Equally important, think about what organization you would most like to contribute to in order to help meet their goals, because, of course, it’s not all just about you.  The two most important qualities I believe for all of you looking for a career or job position is:  Be Yourself, and Be Curious.  What do I mean?

Be Yourself means being honest about your own job and personal strengths and your own weaknesses, or areas that you are seeking to improve.  Don’t pretend in an interview to be anything you’re not.  Be Curious means asking questions.  This means to ask questions at the interview, of course.  But beyond the interview, on the job and while you are still in school, ask lots of questions. Be curious about the world.  Good questions lead to good investigations. Investigate and solve problems. If you don’t have some of the skills needed to solve those problems, acquire and practice those skills.

About 6,000 people work at my company, Esri (Environmental Systems Research Institute).   Our headquarters is in southern California (Redlands), we have 10 regional offices in the USA and some smaller satellite offices, and more than 80 worldwide distributor offices.   We are the largest Geographic Information Systems (GIS) organization in the world and as such receive a lot of applications for every job we post.  If you are serious about making a positive difference on our planet with GIS, I encourage you to gain those skills and apply at Esri!

What are the five most important skills that a successful professional in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) should have? I have recorded a three-part video series (Part 1Part 2, and Part 3) wherein I address these skills.  I begin the video series by presenting two ways of thinking about GIS in your career:  (1) As a toolset that you use in your career as an environmental researcher, planner, biologist, public safety officer, marketing analyst, or in another career where GIS is listed only as a required or advised set of skills; and (2) As a GIS manager, technician, analyst, or another career where GIS or a variant is a part of the title and primary job duties.

I see GIS as a three-legged stool, one that incorporates content knowledge, skills, and the geographic perspective.  In other words, the skills alone will not guarantee success, but are a fundamental part of it.  Equally important is the content knowledge–whether in GIScience, meteorology, energy, water resources, planning, or another field.  Finally, don’t be discouraged by my mention of the geographic perspective if you feel inadequate here.  It is one of the most interesting parts of the stool, and one that might take years to develop.  Indeed, as most things in GIS, it is a lifelong endeavor, which leads me to my #1 top skill:  Be curious.  But also:  Understand geographic foundations, and geotechnologies.  Be flexible and adaptable.  Know how to communicate and teach.  Be a lifelong learner.  But the most important is:  Be curious.

On Staying Motivated. Throughout my career, four things have kept me motivated.  First and foremost, choose something that you feel passionate about.  Then, every day at work, you don’t just have a job, you have a career.  You are working not just for a paycheck, or for quitting time, but for larger goals that can make long-term positive impacts on people and the planet.  In my field of geotechnology education, I feel that I am having a positive influence on research, partnerships, curriculum, educators, policymakers, and students, and that in itself keeps me motivated on a daily basis.

That’s not to say, though, that I don’t experience times when I need to work actively at staying motivated.  These times often occur for me at the start of a long project, such as a book I am committed to writing or a public relations campaign to universities.  So, the second thing that has kept me motivated, particularly during these times, is to keep an eye on the long-term goal, and think of the long-term impact and benefits that the project will have.  Thinking specifically on who will benefit and why and how they will do so can also provide energy.   Third, think of the project in smaller components, in weeks, days, or even just a few hours:  What can you accomplish by, say, noontime, today, on this project?  How will you measure that you have accomplished it?  Breaking up large projects into smaller pieces has helped me stay motivated.  Along with that, the fourth recommendation I have is to just start.  Sometimes, thinking about a project is more daunting than diving in and starting on it.  Just do it!  Yes, planning is important, but working hard and putting some tasks behind you can provide motivation to go on to the next steps.

Final Words:  Don’t Toss Your Brain. In my work in environmental education and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), I have seen many computer technologies and methods come and go.  In one of my videos, I discuss some of them, including punch cards, floppy disks, and CD-ROMs.  Yet one tool has remained vitally important in analyzing our world–your brain!  Making sense of our world through maps and spatial data is more important than ever.  As the deluge of data increases, it will be important in your career to think critically about data, understanding if and when to use it, evaluating its quality, managing error, and making decisions based on data.  Keep thinking! The point is:  Toss some tools, but don’t toss your brain!

What is the occupational outlook for career opportunities in your field/organization, esp. for geographers?
First, I would say that there is no time better than the present to get into a career in GIS or geography—no matter whether you are 20 years old or a mid-career person looking for a change and an opportunity to make a positive difference on our planet.  We have more pressing issues in need of the geospatial perspective than ever before—global issues are becoming more pervasive, complex, and increasingly affecting our everyday lives.  We also have more spatial data, and more powerful, mobile, and easy-to-use tools for you to learn and begin using GIS and applying geography to solve problems.  What’s more, you don’t have to slog through the “old clunky days” of GIS that many of us went through when it was frankly more difficult to do GIS work.  Lastly, be willing to go international!  There are many exciting opportunities out there but you do still need to market yourself and also market what GIS is and what it can bring to organizations—making them more sustainable, efficient, profitable, and able to meet their goals.