Sean O’Brien

GIS Analyst, U.S. Bank

Education: Master’s in Geographic Information Science (University of Minnesota), B.S. in Geography (University of Minnesota)

Describe your job. What are some of the most important tasks or duties for which you are responsible?
I work in the Enterprise Research and Analytics group. The foundation of my job involves creating and maintaining our geographic datasets, as well as creating self-service mapping applications where our employees can go to explore and export maps, data, and reports. The main responsibilities of my job involve supporting our business lines with their geographic analysis needs. Going along with that, I do a lot of in-depth analysis for specific projects. I do things such as analyzing branch usage, and where customers who use branches are coming from. I also support the team that decides where to put new assets such as branches and ATMs.

What attracted you to this career path?
I discovered GIS when I was in college. I had an interest in geography, but I was also interested in statistics. I talked to an advisor who told me about GIS, so I decided to take a class to check it out. On the first day of class we all got a sheet of paper and rulers, and were instructed to draw points on a blank sheet of paper, and then draw these lines and points in a specific manor around those initial seed points. After doing this for about fifteen minutes I was instructed to erase some of the lines, and the instructor informed us that we had created a Voronoi Diagram (also known as Thiessen Polygons). This diagram creates polygons around each seed point, and any point within that polygon is closest to that seed point compared to the other seed points. The real-life example the instructor used was plotting points for a chain restaurant on a map. He then drew the polygons and explained that this is how I could find the closest restaurant from wherever I was in the city. After all that we were told that there was GIS software that could do what we just did in a matter of seconds, and that was just the tip of the iceberg for what that software was capable of. At that point I knew I wanted to learn much more about GIS. Once I started to learn more, I knew this is what I wanted to do for a career.

How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position?
Taking geography classes as an undergraduate student was very helpful to prepare me for my future jobs. Understanding geography is a critical foundation to a GIS career path. Things like surveying, GPS, projections, and coordinate systems were required knowledge for all of my positions. Cultural geography also plays a role in my current position. Ideas such as demographics, cultural movements, and Tobler’s First Law of Geography (near things are more related than distant things) is all useful knowledge in my current role. Why do people live in certain places? What tendencies do people in specific regions have? How does the geography of a place impact people’s behaviors? Understanding people as it relates to geography is critical in a GIS/Geography business.

What geographic skills and information do you use most often in your work? What general skills and information do you use most often?
For geographic skills and information: Understanding projections and coordinate systems is always needed in a GIS line of work. It is the foundation to most GIS operations. The other most useful geographic skill is understanding the geographic software. I use it all day every day, so being familiar with the software and the geographic functions inside of it is critical. Census and related demographic datasets are used frequently in my line of work. It is very useful to be able to take tabular data, attach it to a geography, and then parse that data out by other geographies. Most geographic data is useful in business. Data such as geographic boundaries, road networks, addresses, and demographics are all used on a regular basis.

For general skills: In my work, understanding basic statistics and math is needed on a regular basis. I deal with a lot of tabular information, so having a grasp of regression, correlation, and statistical and geographic patterns is key to being able to analyze data. Related to tabular data, knowledge of Excel is required. Many things I do require me to deliver data in an Excel format. The other skill I use frequently is coding with Python. I automate geographic tasks using the code which is a critical part of being a GIS Analyst as it allows me to free up my time from doing monotonous and repetitive tasks. The final general skill I use most often is understanding and working with databases. U.S. Bank has tons of data, so understanding how databases are structured, and how to query that data is key to getting my job done.

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?
Most of the skills I need were at least touched on during academic training. However, there are two skills that I’ve learned that were never touched on in school. The first one is how to present analysis to executives. This is something that isn’t brought up in school, but it’s very important to be able to craft a succinct story that an executive can understand. I cannot just dump data, create a chart, or regurgitate a bunch of stats and expect executives to understand what I’m trying to say. There are a couple good books that go over the main concepts of how to present data. I’ve also learned a lot from my peers and how they’ve presented things in the past.

The other skill that I did not learn in school was networking. Networking is very important both when looking for a job, and while working in a large company. Sometimes our GIS team needs to sell ourselves to others in the company. We find the right people, explain how we can help them out, and then deliver great work. If this process works, we can become a trusted partner for many business lines, and we can become respected by more business lines and executives.

Do you participate in hiring, screening, or training of new employees? If so, what qualities and/or skills do you look for?
In my current and previous jobs I have read through resumes and interviewed prospects. When reading through resumes, there are a few key things I like. One is concise information. For me and others in my position, reading through resumes is a pain because it’s tedious and it takes away from my main work. If I have to read through dozens of resumes and I come across a four-page resume, I’m likely to skim through in hopes that I find relevant information. In my opinion a good resume would be one page. I would start by listing your current job, and then list projects you’ve done that are directly related to the top qualifications and/or skills listed in the job posting. Try to use the exact verbiage used in the posting. This is what I’m looking for.

When interviewing, be sure to dress nicely. I personally don’t look for a suit and tie, but I would recommend a dress shirt and dress pants at a minimum. When I am interviewing for a position, I try to follow the STAR method of answering questions – “Situation,” “Task,” “Action,” and “Result.” When I’m interviewing, I’m not necessarily looking for that format of an answer, but that method makes sure you hit the main points when answering a question, and it allows you to not go off on an irrelevant tangent.

And of course, try to be nice. The people who are interviewing you will most likely be your manager or peer. They’re looking for people who will be easy to work with.

What advice would you give to someone interested in a job like yours?
First I would recommend getting at least an associate’s degree in geography or GIS. Learning the base theory is integral to understanding how to do things in the main GIS software. Second, I would become as familiar as possible with GIS software. Almost every GIS job looks for experience in ArcGIS. I think the future of GIS involves more coding than one might think. Learning something like Python, which is one of the easiest languages to learn, is a really good start. Once you get a good foundation you can try to branch out from there if needed. Finally, I think having at least a little exposure to things like statistics, IT infrastructure, and database management is beneficial. Once you get your foot in the door you can learn more about those as the job requires.

What is the occupational outlook for career opportunities in your field/organization, esp. for geographers?
Overall, I think the outlook is good. GIS spans across so many different professional fields, and more industries and entities are discovering the benefits of it. Even small cities and counties are investing in resources to improve their geographic analysis capabilities. Furthermore, more data has become available for consumption, allowing more analysis to be done. On that point, the demand for geographic data has grown to the point where there are entire companies dedicated to gathering and maintaining it.

I’ve had three GIS jobs – One in city government, one in consulting, and now one in private business. Currently, all three of those teams I was on have more people working with GIS today versus the day I started. There were also people within the consulting firm whose jobs were not related to GIS, but they were learning GIS on the job because it helped them with their work.

At U.S. Bank, I think we’re showing other business lines and executives what we’re capable of, and so the demand for our services has grown. I believe in the future that even smaller businesses will think of GIS as less of a luxury, and more of a necessity.