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The GIS Roundtable: Women in GIS

In October, Esri Canada’s Young Professionals Network (YPN) hosted a roundtable discussion all about women in GIS. This was the second installment of our roundtable discussion series and a recording can be found here. The YPN wanted to create an episode all about empowering young women and any young professionals navigating themselves through the GIS industry.

We were lucky to have four GIS professionals join us: Sabrina Tang, owner, SaFuture Inc; Marikka Williams, professor of GIS at Fleming College; Debbie Verduga, senior data visualization and open data specialist with the Toronto Police Service; and Karen Stewart, chief information officer with the City of Maple Ridge.

We all know GIS is a demanding and evolving industry that requires constant maintenance and upkeep. How are you able to manage and maintain your professional goals while continuing to balance your personal life?

Sabrina noted that she has young children and that striking a balance between work and family life can be challenging. Her advice: “Partner with people where that area is their specialty so each person can focus on their own strengths and interests. Being a freelancer is my dream life because I still have the time to walk down the street with my boys.”

Balancing a career and personal life was something Karen touched on as well: “In the past I really had a hard time balancing my career and personal life […]. I learned how to manage my time, prioritize my work and then save some time for what was really important to me: my friends and family.” Taking time away for yourself is important, even more so now.

“I think making things a routine so you don’t leave yourself out is important,” Marikka says. “I always tell people it’s okay to step away from the computer and take that time for yourself because you’re still working and you’re working through problems and at the end of the day you’ll come up with a better solution because you’ve taken yourself into consideration and it’s important.”

For many organizations, COVID-19 is creating a bigger demand for the type of support needed from analysts, as Debbie noted was the case within the Toronto Police Service. “It took me a while to learn that the organization needs you to be there, but you need to acknowledge when to step away to take time for yourself,” she says. “What I try to do is focus on taking time away and decompressing. Spending the time I did have with my family, and making sure it was quality time.”

In terms of keeping your GIS skills up, Karen tries to focus on continuous improvement and learning: “There’s a lot out there on the internet, so take five to 10 minutes a day to find something new or look at the trends so you can continue to do well at your job.”

What has been the most challenging hurdle/obstacle in your professional career so far?

Answers to this question included everything from finding the right career path, to learning to say no. For example, Debbie never expected herself to end up a seasoned GIS professional: “I never really knew what I wanted to do and I have to say I still don’t know what I want to do. I’ve tried all these different things and I’ve succeeded and failed in different areas—but that doesn’t mean they were failures.” In the GIS industry particularly, there are “so many ways you can go and specialties that knowing where to go can be overwhelming.”

For Sabrina, confidence was one of her major hurdles. “I am very shy. When I first started I was afraid to ask questions because I felt that my questions were not valuable.” Promoting her work and talking to people about what she was doing was also a struggle, as well as a language barrier: “English is not my first language. So for everyone who is watching this, [know that] Canada is a very accepting place and language will not be a barrier, so just open your mouth and ask your question. Lots of times I get really positive feedback and help, and people are very friendly.”

Both Karen and Marikka agree that saying no is a big challenge in the workplace. “It took me a long time to realize that you don’t have to be everything for everyone. And I should be the best I can in that moment, and happy where I am,” says Karen. “I think my biggest challenge was finding that happy spot and thriving in there as long as possible. Then making a decision where to go next and working towards that.” Marikka took a different angle when looking at this question and reflected on the need to prove the value of GIS in an organization. “It was difficult to get people to see that they were still a valuable part of the process, but that technology can help support planning and bring more effectiveness and balance within an organization.” She notes that this is a theme that spans many disciplines, from consulting, to engineering, to teaching: “In a teaching role it’s not just proving the value with students, it’s also the value of GIS that could be realized at the college.”

Who inspired you? Have you had a mentor/mentors in your career? What advice would you give to someone who is actively searching for a mentor?

“When it comes to mentorship, you need [mentors who] support professional, emotional and mental health,” says Debbie. “I couldn’t have done anything I’ve done without my mom. One thing she taught me was to be fearless and not afraid of a challenge […] the tech industry is male dominated, so you have to find that source of encouragement and empowerment that you can do things.”

Karen also cites a parent as being source of inspiration. Her father is a mechanical engineer and throughout his career, Karen saw the value of new technology, continuous improvement and learning, which is highly applicable to GIS. Her first mentor was her manager at the City of Surrey: “He hired me and had this amazing vision for GIS […]. To this day we keep in touch and it’s turned more into a personal connection than business.”

Marikka has had many mentors through her career and education, including Jack Dangermond: “I can’t not mention him. He’s been a virtual mentor to me. I have what I call virtual mentors—people I follow on LinkedIn, people that are top in their field, […] people that are evangelists with regards to GIS.”

Sabrina found many mentors during her first GIS job at Esri Canada in her colleagues, one of whom is Chris North, Esri Canada’s director of technology adoption. “Following his direction, I learned what the life of a freelancer would be […]. He’s always been really patient with suggestions. A lot of products at my company are because he really was always challenging me, always telling me what people are looking for.” For anyone looking for a mentor, Sabrina says this: “Anyone can be your mentor, but it must be someone you trust, think of as a role model and respect.”

Karen echoes this thought: “Mentorship can’t just be take take take. I’ve learned a lot being a mentor because mentees can teach you a lot as well. Don’t underestimate the power of mentorship and that collaboration between people.”

Volunteering in an area that interests you can be a great way to find a mentor. However, our activities are currently somewhat limited due to COVID-19. “Right now, LinkedIn is a great resource,” Debbie says. “You want to reach out to people whose career sparks your interest. Ask how they got there. I would see women in management roles and ask questions about what they would do to get where they are.”

Networking when you’re a new immigrant to Canada or a new professional can be challenging. COVID-19 has made it even more difficult, as in-person networking opportunities have been put on pause.

How do you recommend establishing meaningful connections to grow your professional community?

All our panelists agreed that in order to network, you must be fearless, especially during COVID-19. “I think as a new immigrant or professional in this industry, the best place to network is within professional associations,” Karen says. “Typically in the past the conferences would be face to face [and] it’s been challenging for any of these associations like MISA, URISA [and the] Public Works Association in BC—there’s so many associations out there you need to find one that fits with you and your beliefs and career paths.”

If this feels intimidating, Marikka recommends simply showing interest: “Even talking to venders at conferences and asking what their product is. Connect by tweeting, and eventually you build rapport. Show up to virtual conferences, [and] when face-to-face returns in the future just show up, be engaged and be interested. I saw a GIS success with Jack Dangermond and something he said [he] learned was to be ‘interested vs. be interesting.’”

Another approach you can take is searching for opportunities closer to home. “There are certain opportunities within your organization that will come up that you should take advantage of,” Debbie says. “For example, conferences where you can volunteer to present on behalf of the organization. Putting myself out there was very frightening; the first few presentations I did were terrifying. But that’s how you get yourself out there unfortunately. People are not going to come and look for you, so you have to put yourself out there and volunteer to run a workshop or create a training.”

If that still feels a little too intimidating, Sabrina recommends trying something online: “One of the tools I use is LinkedIn. There are a lot of great people in GIS on LinkedIn waiting to connect and help. [From there you can get] ideas and things you can do together.” Overall, the biggest tip she gives is to just show up. “I’m signing myself up to be a volunteer for the next Esri User Conference. I also encourage more people to volunteer for different organizations or associations.”

What is the most appropriate way to approach a professional like yourself on any networking platform, and what platform do you prefer to use for your professional connections?

Other than real-life opportunities offered by organizations like professional associations, the panelists all agreed that LinkedIn is the best platform to use to reach out to a professional connection. “I like to use LinkedIn in my daily life—a half hour every day […] looking around and talking to people,” says Sabrina.

Debbie agreed with this and adds that the way you reach out should be well thought out. “If you were to reach out to someone on that platform, do a little bit of research before you do so [that] when you do you can have thought-out reasons and questions when reaching out. I have personally not reached out but have responded when people posted job postings or articles that were happening in the organization that sort of spark conversations more naturally.”

A technique Karen suggested was to look for a mutual connection who can reach out on your behalf. “A lot of times I get a lot of requests on LinkedIn but if someone reaches out to me on behalf of someone else then I’m going to say yes because there was such a nice kind introduction,” she says.

Marikka agrees. “Time is limited, and so doing the research, doing the why, making it meaningful is an important part. LinkedIn is my recommended professional platform, but I do like to follow people on Twitter and retweet their tweets. I probably do that more frequently. Twitter is sort of my me time while I’m still kind of doing work. But if I really like it, I’ll share it on my LinkedIn.”

What piece of advice do you have for women who have just entered the GIS industry and want to make a positive impact within their organization?

“Be positive, be patient, be proactive,” says Marikka. “Be patient with that process. Positive impact does not happen overnight, it takes time, it takes patience, it takes proactive presence. So being present, showing up, sharing that positivity, doing workshops to make that impact so people can see what GIS can do, and that can evolve into more positive manifestations.”

Sabrina also speaks to the effects of a positive attitude: “I think if you want to make a positive impact to an organization or life surrounding you, [the] most important thing is a positive attitude. As long as you show this and willingness to grow and help the opportunity will be around you,” she says.

“I can sum up my advice into three things,” Debbie says: “One, diversify your skillset. What’s been helpful for me is learning about innovation and design thinking. It just puts you in this position where you are the person to go to for a lot of things. Two, seek discomfort. I think that you get to a point where you’re comfortable in your role and you’re safe. The learning only happens when you’re challenged. And three, be fearless. Fearless of seeking discomfort, fearless of learning new terminology, how things work. And for that you have to be less afraid of showing up and asking questions.”

Lastly, Karen’s biggest message is to “find your own way, but don’t ever underestimate the power of you. Most of us don’t realize the impact we have on others on a daily basis.” To newcomers to the GIS field, she recommends taking all you have learned and finding ways to improve upon workflows. “It may take a little longer developing a script, but it will be worth it […]. As Thomas Edison said: ‘There’s a way to do it better, find it.’”

To listen to other GIS Roundtables facilitated by Esri Canada’s YPN, check out the Esri Canada YouTube channel.

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here