I recently had the opportunity to contribute to a discussion on Women in IT, with a spotlight on GIS. We had a set of questions to choose from, and I chose to answer “How is GIS different or the same as IT?” and “What would you say to help encourage/mentor women if they were considering the IT profession?”
Last summer, a retired acquaintance and I were hanging out in the parking lot of our mutual avian vet, waiting to get in. We’d been talking parrots for a while when she said, “I know you work for the county, but what exactly do you do?”
I gave her my stock answer. “I do GIS. Databases and programming mostly.”
I waited for the inevitable “What’s GIS?” but instead she said, “I’ve heard of it, but don’t know anything about it.”
Now, I’d been having a bit of a stressful time at work. Big project, looming deadline, things not going like they should, and why aren’t you working right you silly script, you’re killing me here! We all have those days and weeks.
And that day my GIS world was a narrow focus of problem, and I was so far down in the weeds that problem was all I saw and I wasn’t terribly happy with, well, anything at the moment.
I started with the six-word explanation that I use for my non-technical friends—“data that knows where it lives,” and she was very interested and asked questions. So I expanded, talking about how GIS works, and using examples of what I do for King County’s Transit department to illustrate.
I found myself getting more and more excited and animated, and at one point I was waving my hands around to demonstrate how overlays work, basically convincing her that she should have been in GIS.
So let’s shift a bit and talk about what I’d tell someone considering an IT career.
This is what I’d say: GIS is everywhere, and the world is finally figuring that out.
At its core, GIS answers “Where?”
An object that knows where it is has an instant relationship with every other object that also knows where it is. They don’t even need to be in the same frame of reference, because GIS can take care of that.
Straightforward, right? It is, but check this out.
Through GIS, a tagged box of bolts, sitting deep in a massive automated warehouse, knows not only its precise location in the world, but it can find how many trucks are sitting at the loading dock, what voting district the warehouse is in, the closest aquifer, where that aquifer’s water originates, how many people live within ten miles of the aquifer, the routes their children’s school buses take, and whether a geo-tagged Golden Eagle has flown overhead in the last three days.
The answer to any “where” question that our little box of bolts can think to ask is probably out there, and it’s all powered by GIS.
Every IT field is inherently conducive to a GIS component. Every IT client has the possibility of using GIS for their benefit. And this opens up a galloping multitude of career possibilities.
And what GIS does, more so than any other IT field, is let us explore our passions, and turn those into a career.
Are you fascinated by water? Want to further Equity and Social Justice? Track art thieves? Map migratory patterns of Yellow Warblers? Or maybe you geek out over data and building cool apps.
My advice is to start with your passions. Don’t just go for “a GIS career” (unless your passion is the science of location and GIS, then yeah, start there). Go with your passions, and make a GIS career out of them, because somewhere, someone out there is applying GIS to what you love. And if they’re not already, they’re just waiting for you and they don’t know it.
So back to the parking lot. My acquaintance was an appreciative and informed audience, because as it turned out, she’d been a COBOL programmer in the 80’s, working on mainframes.
She was the only woman on any team she worked on, she had to prove herself over and over (and did). She talked about not having any women peers, especially as she advanced and ran teams of her own, and how difficult that was and how alone she felt.
We talked about how things were different for me. I have women peers in the technical trenches, women in GIS and IT leadership.
Things aren’t perfect, but they’re better, and improving all the time.
And the big difference is that as a woman, I don’t feel alone.
And standing there in that parking lot under the sunshine, I remember thinking, I am so lucky. I have a job that I love in an amazing industry. I work with strong, smart women every day. And together we’re making a difference in the world.
One thought on “GIS is everywhere (and everything, all at once)”
Pingback: Women in GIS – March 8, 2023 | GIS & You