Do the Right Thing with GIS
By Christopher Thomas, Esri Government Solutions Manager
Managers sometimes have a funny way of providing direction. I don't think managers mean to be vague, but I know I have presented ideas to my staff and assumed they knew what I was talking about. Afterwards, I would scratch my head and wonder why I received such strange looks from them. When I think about those looks, I reflect on how important it is for managers to remember what it was like moving through the ranks and take advantage of mentoring opportunities.
As a young professional just starting government work, I was the new hire for a newly created position in a city planning department. I was somewhat nervous but the job's duties appeared similar to the work I had performed while working at the county. To justify this newly created title, my job description drew from activities then going on in the community. (Oh, and by the way, I was supposed to implement this new computer mapping system the city purchased.)
I came to work each day waiting for that golden moment when someone would come and ask me to develop an earth-shattering application for a city project. Or maybe they would send me to training so I could learn about the mapping system they purchased. Frankly, that day never came. However, one day I had one of those epiphanies that come when a manager decides to convey words of wisdom. Guidance is what I think they call it.
I was sitting in the office of Joyce Babicz, who was then the city planner, after a fairly successful meeting on the general plan update. We were having one of those afterglow discussions that come after a good meeting that might have been a disaster. It was then she decided to spring it on me: words of wisdom that seemed unrelated to anything we were discussing but words that would stick with me for the rest of my life.
Ms. Babicz was looking out her window into the distance. Out of the blue, she said, "You know, if I were technical, I would do whatever the heck I wanted and show the results."
That was it! That is all she said! As usual, I searched for something intelligent to say. I acknowledged her remarks, used some fancy computer words, and promptly excused myself. After all, I had important work on the computer to complete.
Instead of taking the opportunity to ask Ms. Babicz to elaborate on her comment or begging her to mentor me, I stewed on her comments for more than a week. Perhaps, this reaction was part of her plan all along. Then it dawned on me what she was really saying. The city saw the need to place a request before the city council to approve the purchase of a computer mapping system (they didn't refer to it as a GIS then). They saw the need to develop a parcel basemap and create a job position to run the system (even though the incumbent might be required to carry out other duties initially). City departments had all bought into the program with the understanding that the mapping system would eventually become a foundation for driving their operations. They simply weren't quite sure how to go about it.
I took her comments to mean "Don't look for management to provide more than the initial vision to initiate the program. We have hired you to take us down this path." This was a nice way of saying, "If we could have done it ourselves, we would have." After all, I had already convinced them I was the right person for the job. I further interpreted these comments to mean "If you ask me if we can use the GIS on a project, the answer is probably no." Not because she or other department heads were unsupportive but because they had absolutely no idea what would be involved.
Armed with this secret information, I worked to develop data and maps that could be used on existing city projects. In other words, I didn't make up things for GIS to do—I applied the GIS to the department's current projects. I applied the GIS to everything I could think of from the city council district study to the city's response to the census review process to the general plan amendment and the housing element.
Each day I beamed as I provided much-needed statistics for a public hearing or produced a map as an exhibit. I finally received those important words of praise from Ms. Babicz when she said, loud enough for everyone to hear, "Now this was always the vision we had for the use of computer mapping on our city projects."
Perhaps there is an ongoing lesson for everyone in this story. Managers, please take the time to foster new ideas. And young professionals, don't be afraid to step up to the job you were hired to do!