Learning to Be a Leader at the Project Management Level

Managing GIS, a column from members of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association

Why did you get into GIS? Were you fascinated by the technology and intrigued by all the cool things it could do to data? I was, and that’s why I settled into this field.

But as my career progressed, I moved from being a staunch techie immersed in the world of technological advancements to managing projects, teams, whole departments, and now an entire company. This required expanding my skill sets beyond just dealing with the data and the technology. I had to scramble to figure out what I needed to do to oversee projects, supervise people, administer budgets, and more. Sadly, too many of my GIS peers have had to do the same.

So what are some of the skills we need to learn to be good managers? Surprisingly, we can learn a lot from when we first got started in GIS, as well as that first project we managed.

Let’s take a look at how those inceptive undertakings can make us better managers—and leaders.

Getting Started

For many GIS professionals, the road down this path begins by going to school and getting a degree or certificate in GIS. In class, students learn about geographic theories, data collection, GIS-based analysis, and creating and editing maps.

Often, this is a person’s initial exposure to the tools used in GIS, such as the ArcGIS platform. More and more, students get to do field collection using GPS and other mobile devices. And, generally, part of this formal education involves participating in an internship, which turns out to be many young people’s introduction to “real-world” uses of GIS.

After completing school (or sometimes concurrently), degree and certificate holders get jobs, ideally in GIS or a related field. If an employer values training, the company may send the new GIS practitioner to classes to stay current on software updates, learn about new technology, get exposed to how other people and organizations use the same tools, and see what’s coming next. Young GIS technicians and analysts tend to be in the know and are constantly improving at what they do.

At some point, someone notices how good the GIS technician is and decides that he or she should be promoted. Suddenly, this person is forced to shift beyond his or her comfortable technical zone and into management.

Moving into a Leadership Role

This transition brings with it a whole new set of challenges that a technical background may not have addressed. It is one thing to know how to administer and manage a database. It is quite another to administer and manage projects, people, meetings, and budgets.

I always say that life would be simple without employees or clients. Of course, without either of those I would not have a wife; a home; food; electricity; a car; cable television; or any other amenities, necessities, and relationships that I enjoy.

To deal well with employees and clients, managers must develop a completely new set of skills outside the technical realm. They have to turn ideas into tasks and results; handle employee issues; write proposals; procure software, equipment, and services; manage and renew software licenses; and do so much more. So how do GIS technicians learn to do this?

Learning from Project Management

Luckily, most people’s first move into the realm of management comes at the project level. A GIS technician is given a small project to carry out and manage, such as overseeing the update of a layer or performing a specific analysis and presenting the results.

Managing simple projects like these may sound easy at first, since the new project manager has undoubtedly been part of project teams in the past. However, it is never as easy as it seems. And this first foray into administration can teach someone with a technical background a lot about what will be needed to succeed in management down the road.

Project management requires paying a lot of attention to things that GIS technicians and analysts are not typically concerned with. Project managers no longer focus solely on production. They also concentrate on the scope of the project, making sure that everyone involved understands the desired outcomes, the project budget, developing workflows, managing personnel, keeping an eye on the schedule, communicating with team members, ensuring that all team members have the resources they need to complete the project, quality control, and delivering the final project.

The first part of this is knowing what the project is—or, in official project management lingo, what is the scope? According to the Project Management Institute (, the scope defines all the work required—and only the work required—to complete the project successfully. While it seems like a project scope would be easy to understand, I have seen many projects hit bumps along the way because either the vendor or the customer did not share a common view of the scope. This seems to happen a lot when the two come from different backgrounds or are at different technical levels. Thus, project managers need to make sure everyone has a complete and identical understanding of the scope.

Projects also have a nasty tendency to take on a life of their own. So project managers need to watch out for scope creep—when elements start getting added or removed from the project. In many cases, this drives up costs, which can bite the team in the backside down the road.

That said, not all scope creep is bad. The project manager may find out new information that was not known before, or new technology comes to market, or the client’s goals change. These are legitimate reasons to change the scope of a project.

To keep all this straight, the project manager must document all the specifics—when and why the project took on a new direction, what changes were made and where—so that this information is available to everyone involved. If costs go up, project managers need to get the proper approval for that as well. All this keeps the project from becoming an eight-legged monster that nobody can control and that will pull the team into the dreaded deep.

Being a Leader, Not a Boss

When a project manager pays attention to project parameters, ensures that everyone understands the scope of a project, and documents all the project’s details, that usually results in a job well done. It also establishes the project manager as a leader.

There is a big difference between being a leader and being the boss. People like to work with and for leaders. They don’t like to work for bosses.

When a management situation seems too far outside your scope of technical training, remember the simple ways in which you managed your first successful project. Repeating those steps—just with more encompassing situations—will put you on the path of leadership.

About the Author

Tripp Corbin is the CEO of Esri partner eGIS Associates, Inc., and the current president elect of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA). He has more than 20 years of geospatial experience and has been in management positions for 15 of them. Corbin holds multiple certifications, including GISP, ArcGIS Desktop Professional, Microsoft Certified Professional, and Certified Floodplain Manager.

Read other articles in the “Managing GIS” series.

About the author

Tripp Corbin

Tripp Corbin, GISP, is the aerial and GIS business development manager at Esri partner SAM, LLC. He has more than 25 years of experience in GIS and is a past president of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA).