Senior Lead GIS Analyst, Department of Public Property, City of Philadelphia
Education: M.A. in Geography (SUNY Buffalo), B.A. in Geography (SUNY Buffalo)
Describe your job. What are some of the most important tasks or duties for which you are responsible?
My job literally varies day to day, which suits my personality and abilities. One day, I may be generating specialty maps and reports covering public investment. The next day, I may be managing an RFI for specialty geospatial analysis tools. A third day, I may be working on 5G rollout plans or helping with COVID-19 response. With over 3,000 assets and 900 buildings owned by the city that may need a special map or analysis for any number of government agencies, political institutions or other members of the public.
What attracted you to this career path?
I’ve always said that a geographer needs to first love mapping something. It could be trains, or environmental facts, or firefighting. If you have a passion for a subject and a passion for mapping it, then you can be a geographer. I love transportation – buses, trains, etc. – so I would look at maps of transportation all day. When I learned I could turn that love into a career, I majored in it, graduated in it, and spent the majority of my career in it.
How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position?
Certainly having multiple degrees in geography helps. But degrees are just paper unless you find an application that you want to do in life. And you then should seek every reasonable opportunity to bring geographic perspectives to whatever work you have. Resiliency and ability to solve problems are very important early on, and even after you’re more secure in your career path, they’re handy. Finally, clear and cogent communication, both spoken and written, are a must. You don’t need to be a native English speaker, but being clear with your language is important. Practice with friends and colleagues to become more skilled at presenting, writing and business communication. I was involved in student politics at university – talk about how to deal with people who don’t like you and learning how to communicate!
What geographic skills and information do you use most often in your work? What general skills and information do you use most often?
The first skill I use is the geographic organization of data. Almost all data in civil service has some kind of geographic component to it. That data should be clearly organized in a proper geodatabase and displayed in feature classes or tools that are accurate and timely. It doesn’t sound sexy, but good data, in my view, is so important. The second is the ability to be geographically holistic: public buildings are not separate from roadways are not separate from parks are not separate from public health! It is a mistake to not consider geographic interconnections and context.
Be good at evaluating geographic tools – whether you using them or buying them via a Request for Proposal (RFP) – your judgment and discretion in spending money gets you a good (or bad) reputation when looking at the bottom line. If you have not done this yet, look for a committee to join that purchases GIS application software, sit in, listen and learn.
Last but not least, always be learning new skills that are relevant and timely to your job. Find ways to solve problems and take on new tasks that are adjacent to your current ones. Willingness to expand yourself beyond just the job’s basic description gets you a reputation as a doer. Conversely, don’t take on too much – when you’re branching out, keep focused on the next achievable thing.
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?
I barely had any GIS in college; my academic background is in economic and transportation geography. So, first, I had to be able to learn GIS for my Master’s degree, and then I had to apply it at work. I also learned Visual Basic and Python. But more importantly, I learned when to use my hard skills, and when to work with others’ skillsets. GIS is like having a bucket of awesome toys, but as you advance in your career, use only the toys you like the best, and pass the bucket to others – whether working with other colleagues and departments or hiring others with complementary skills. The project is important – and it’s more important that the project gets done than who used what tool to get the credit.
Do you participate in hiring, screening, or training of new employees? If so, what qualities and/or skills do you look for?
I have been hiring for over a decade and currently supervise GIS staff. We have three possible positions, of which one is filled, and we hope to fill at least one more after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. In addition to good knowledge of GIS, I look for adaptability, problem solving, and good interpersonal communication skills – make eye contact, be polite, and be clear and cogent. Also, be willing to learn – no one has all the skills a job might need, so it’s willingness to learn that shows me you want to be a productive employee.
What advice would you give to someone interested in a job like yours?
My job is mid-career, so it involves a little bit of experience in analysis and reporting, plus use of tools and other skills like managing a Request for Proposal (RFP) – being on a team that buys or hires is really important! Always be adaptable and look for opportunities to help a team shine. Accomplishment matters – carry a portfolio of accomplishments when you interview. Don’t just tell people on a resume, show them you deliver!
What is the occupational outlook for career opportunities in your field/organization, esp. for geographers?
The city has recently hired a number of public safety analysts with GIS backgrounds. While COVID-19 has slowed many hiring efforts, and will likely impact hiring in the near future, I see a long-term growth trend. GIS that focuses on redevelopment of urban spaces, asset management, public safety, water and sewer upgrades and climate change mitigation will all be in demand. Also, don’t be afraid to apply for government jobs that don’t have geography in the title but can use geographic skills. I broke into government as an economist, and eventually found my way up the GIS ranks. It’s all about solving a problem, and we’re always looking for problem solvers.