I have been lucky enough to organize a GIS Day ’09 career event at the university of Washington, joined by Harvey Arnone of city of Seattle, Marty Balikov of ESRI Olympia and Dane Springmeyer, freelance geospatial developer. The discussion was titled “What are the essential skills to succeed as a GIS Analyst”, and I have compiled some notes to help with all aspiring GIS Professionals out there. Feel free to add more details in the comments section as you see fit.

The discussion ranged from skills to succeed in an organization using GIS to support business decisions (City of Seattle), ESRI, the leading GIS software producers and freelance development using GIS technologies. There is significant overlap for the required and desirable skills, but also some slight differences. I will list the skills in no significant order and provide a brief explanation. If a skill is something I personally added, it will start with an asterisk.

GIS Skills

  • GIS
  • Spatial Data and Algorithms understanding: Understand the special case of spatial data, how they work and their internals. Also, be familiar with how certain operations are carried out and when they are applicable. Many operations will run in the software, but not necessarily produce valid results. (Contributed by reader Duane Marble)
  • Data entry: Be able to enter data into a database successfully with minimal errors. This includes editing said data as needs arise.
  • Data conversion: The ability to convert data from either older sources (digitization) or from multiple sources to either a common format or common schema. It is extremely useful to be able to work with data coming from GPS and performing data corrections as needed. (With contribution by Jimmy Xu)
  • Data maintenance: Be able to maintain data, correctly archive and ensure quality control.
  • *Metadata creation and editing: Maintain logs of data processing and relevant information to include in metadata and ensure accurate creation and maintenance of said metadata.
  • GIS Analysis: Be able to perform GIS Analysis as it is often used to solve common problems. An ability to extend and alter the standard analysis to meet requirements is a plus. Remember, data analysis can be performed on vector or raster data, therefore some remote sensing skills are required. (With contribution by Jimmy Xu)
  • GIS Workflow: Understand the workflow to perform some procedure and be able to follow it and enhance it as needed.
  • Model Building: Be able to create models of processes to allow for a workflow to be built. Also, model building in the ArcGIS sense is very helpful in this regard.
  • Cartography and Graphic Design: Familiarize yourself with cartographic principles and graphic design principles. Maps are used in a variety of ways and presented in a multitude of media. You need to be able to work with that. Think of color, symbology, fonts, etc. Bad cartographic design will often make your analysis hard to decipher and interpret. (With contribution by DavidM)

Programming Skills

  • C ProgrammingBasic understanding of programming: Be able to understand what programming is and what it can do to solve certain problems. Know the strengths and limitations of programming custom solutions to problems, as well as time requirements. (More about programming)
  • Programming language: Familiarize yourself with a programming or scripting language, as it is often used to build workflows or custom solutions to problems. For scripting language, both ESRI and the open source community tend to gravitate toward Python. For programming languages, C++ will give you an opportunity to work in multiple environments, while C# and the .Net languages offer you good development tools and interaction with Windows based software. (More about programming languages)
  • Object Oriented programming: Learn the concepts of object oriented programming and be able to apply them in conjunction with your programming language of choice. Most GIS development is leaning toward this paradigm, and you should too. (More about object oriented programming)
  • Basic GIS architecture (desktop and web): Understand the architecture of GIS and the method of communication between the different parts of GIS. Be able to distinguish when one can introduce internet-based communication in the mix and how it would work. (More about GIS architecture)
  • Web Services knowledge and experience: Web services are everywhere these days, and GIS is not escaping. Learn about them, how they work, and try to implement some of your own. HTML, CSS, JavaScript, XML and related AJAX technologies are a valuable tool. (More about web services) (With contribution by Andy Anderson)

Database Skills

  • DatabaseAble to understand data models and structure: When given a database, you should be able to explore the data models within it and understand the structure of the database. Often times, structure will be represented in diagrams (UML), discussed below. (More about data models and structure)
  • Ability to design data models: Given specific requirements for data, you should be able to design data models to fit your data.
  • Database Design tools knowledge: You should familiarize yourself with database design tools, like Microsoft Visio. Most design work for data models uses it. (Check out Visio here)
  • Structured Query Language (SQL) knowledge: Almost all modern Database Management Systems (DBMS) understand SQL for data queries, inputs, deletions, etc. One should be familiar with SQL and be able to perform SELECT, INSERT, MODIFY and DELETE statements. JOINS, RELATES and further SQL knowledge is greatly valued and useful on the field. (Contributed by Andy Anderson)

Project Management and Design

  • Ability to translate user needs to solutions: Project ManagementMore often than not, you will be supporting some client (or boss) that is not familiar with the details of GIS. You need to be able to translate their needs into solutions that can work in your domain. If it is not possible, you also need to be able to say so and offer alternatives. This is similar to requirements analysis used in software development.
  • Good communication skills: You need to be able to communicate effectively and with confidence with your team and clients. There is no substitution for this skill.
  • Good writing skills: Communicating is not restricted to verbal communication. You need to be able to clearly communicate in writing not only for communicating with your clients, but also to be able to produce metadata and reports of your work.
  • Project management skills: Often overlooked in the GIS world, formal data management training is desired and required to run successful projects on time and within budget.

Other Skills

  • Ability to apply expertise in multiple domains: GIS skills, while important, are not useful if they can not be applied to different domains. Your knowledge of other domains (like biology, forestry, etc) will allow you to think of creative ways to apply your GIS skills in a multi-disciplinary functions, which is greatly needed. Think outside the box (Yawer S. Ansari commented to reiterate this)
  • Portability of skills on multi-platforms and online/offline world: Your skills need to be applicable to different platforms. Not only should you learn how to do GIS Analysis, but you should be able with limited help to achieve similar results using other platforms (be it moving from an ESRI training to Idrisi, or from a Windows machine to a Linux machine, or a desktop application to a server based one). An ability to traverse between online and offline worlds is a valuable asset to have.
  • Detail oriented: This needs no explanation, but in the GIS world, detail oriented can get you very far. The quality of your work will show (especially when you think of metadata or workflows).
  • Customer Support skills:  In most cases, GIS is used as a support tool within large organizations. As such, GIS Analysts oftentimes need to interact with clients, either internal or external. Having good customer support skills ensures you establish strong relations and opportunities.
  • Don’t be afraid to explore

Now that you’ve read all the skills mentioned at the panel discussion, please provide your own or your feedback below.

UPDATE: Fixed spelling. Thank you skobola for the corrections.
UPDATE: Incorporated user comments into the body of the text by Yawer S. Ansari, Duane Marble, Andy Anderson, DavidM and Jimmy Xu.

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51 Responses to “The essential skills to succeed in a GIS career”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by harshasv and Andrew Hunter, so_white. so_white said: http://tinyurl.com/yjy5ya7 The essential skills to succeed in a GIS career [...]

  2. Thank you for the article. I made a similar adhoc list when we were looking for a new geospatial analyst @ work:
    The list is very short.

    I like the way you highlighted skills in project management and design. Technical skills are always available but people and managerial skills should always be part of your “toolset” to advance in any career.

    • Thank you for sharing your article and your kind words. I have contemplated these kinds of lists in the past when trying to prepare students for the job market, but the list by 3 experts in the field was simply amazing and beyond what I could come up with.

  3. Would you please send me some car­to­graphic prin­ci­ples links to read about?


  4. Nice article and thanks for Sharing here

  5. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by harshasv: The essential skills to succeed in a #GIS career http://bit.ly/2OYxM2...

  6. Hi,
    Congratulations, interesting article
    an idea
    be able to see where others only look!

  7. Nice list, I don’t see a lot of these points made together in one location on the web. I’m sure many of us identify with most every thing on the list

  8. [...] Read more: The essential skills to success in a GIS Career [...]

  9. Fantastic Post! Welcome to my blogroll!

  10. [...] The Essential Skills to Succeed in a GIS Career [...]

  11. [...] The essential skills of a GIS analyst The essential skills of a GIS analyst [...]

  12. [...] This post was Twitted by paulblaser [...]

  13. While having experience with a Civil Engineering Consulting Firm, the most wanted skill was the ability to think of solutions in various fields like urban planning, forestry, construction management, dam engineering etc.

    • Yawer,

      Thank you for your insight. Indeed, the panel speakers were repeatedly trying to get the point across to students. Your core skills may be in GIS technologies, but their applicability to other domains is your great value. I do believe by helping students understand the theoretical framework behind GIS will help them in this, but I am not certain how one can teach “Thinking outside the box”.

      Thank you again,


  14. An interesting list, but I would certainly add to it the knowledge to understand in depth the characteristics of the spatial data being used. This goes on beyond conventional metadata. For example, if you are doing geocoding of street addresses you should really understand the many, many ways that things can go wrong in the process. When using GIS tools, you should also know what algorithms are being used and how different algorithms can lead to different results – all of which are “correct”. This latter point lead to the general statement: Just because the tool you are using lets you do it, does NOT mean that you should!

    • Duane,

      Thank you for the excellent point. I encounter this problem often, especially with my students being introduced to ArcGIS and ideas of zonal analysis. It is not unusual to see students perform zonal statistics on NLCD datasets (which are nominal) and come up with results that no one could use. Yes, indeed, the software ets you do this, but you cannot add forest and desert and tell me the average is grassland. Thank you for your input.

  15. Good job Michalis.
    I agrre with your list.
    The problem is that there is shortage of schools preparing this kind of professionals (at least in Italy).

    • It is indeed an issue that relates more to the issue of what schools teach. Most higher education institutions in the USA at least focus on academic tracts, therefore the more applied side of things is neglected. Schools do not wish to offer vocational training, they prefer to leave that to certificate programs. I am not sure what the best way is to train people, but currently this is the theme in the USA.

      • While many of these institutions may say that they are focused upon “academic” topics (e.g., concepts, analytic tools, etc.) only too often I have found that they are really teaching how to turn the crank on the tools and neglecting the important things lying behind the tools.
        On the other hand, the balance can shift the other way. A Ph.D. student came to me with a seminar paper that he said demonstrated that ESRI’s shortest route module gave incorrect answers. He had used a linear programing tool to generate his numbers on a sample network then fed the same sample problem into the ESRI software. He had never heard of the heuristic algorithms that are commonly used in GIS to obtain acceptable answers in reasonable amounts of time for our very large spatial problems (e.g., a network with hundreds of thousands of nodes and links instead of a few hundred). He had been given an “A” on the paper – I thought the instructor should have received a failing grade!

  16. I would recommend that there be a section under Programming for “Web Programming”. With the rise of popular mapping technologies, no professional can long avoid the question “how might this work with Google Maps/Google Earth/Yahoo Maps”, et al. Even ArcGIS server generally needs to be tweaked, and it won’t always be a design team doing it. So a knowledge of Dynamic HTML (i.e. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript) is very useful.

    The list should also be a little more specific about what it means by “Web Services” and what it has to do with GIS — a link to Wikipedia isn’t really good enough. Perhaps this is the place to mention another important application of XML, viz. KML, which is one output of such services.

    Under Database Skills, it’s also hard to avoid SQL in many situations, so this is another language that is useful to know.

    • Andy,

      Indeed the web programming should be included. There is little on the area of web services in relation to GIS, but there has been a big push with the commercial mapping applications available on the web. I will update the post to include more information, as per your comment.

      As for SQL, indeed, it is the de facto language for databases out there, and even of queries of data not in a DBMS.


  17. Funny that the very first bullet, namely, “Data entry: Be able to enter data into a ase suc­cess­fully with min­i­mal errors. This includes edit­ing said data as needs arise.” was misspelled, and especially where it advises that one should be expected to perform with “minimal errors”. As such, it may diminish the readers’ belief in the article; luckily, other have already confirmed its value, but…

  18. The Cartographic and design skills part of this list can’t be overemphasized. This is a missing element in a lot of GIS curriculum, as is a basic background in Geography (that part of GIS that deals with spatial relationships, the ability to approach your data and results with an understanding of the principles that effect the “what” and “why” of spatial analysis). Good GIS work with poor cartography will look like poor GIS work. Bad cartographic design will ultimately diminish your authority as a skilled GIS practitioner while good cartographic practices help defend your work.

    • Indeed, there is not too much emphasis on cartography and the cartographic principles. Unfortunately, most people want to be up and running really quickly and tend to leave the “details” for a later time. We are trying to fix this, and there are some cartography resources out there helping out.

  19. I am apprciating your expereince in the field of GIS. You have covered all the aspects of the geoinformatics and discussed it in full detail. I would highly appreciate if you please discuss the application part next time.

    • The application part.. That would be wonderful, and I will try and see what I can find. I unfortunately have limited experience with the application part though, but I have some resources to help everyone that needs it.

  20. I think some GPS data processing and remote sensing skills are also required…

    • Indeed, GPS data processing and remote sensing are required. I assumed that data entry and processing, as well as GIS Analysis would encompass them, but I should indeed include them in their own bullet.

      • Indeed, GPS data pro­cess­ing and remote sens­ing are required. I assumed that data entry and pro­cess­ing, as well as GIS Analysis would encom­pass them

        In regards to remote sensing…
        You would be hard pressed to find many universities who teach the remote sensing. Not to mention, 0 community colleges. Though photogrammetry is a doable thing to pick up, the remote sensing skills that I find people hiring for (i.e. usually some sort of classification procedure using ERDAS, Definiens, or ENVI) are not easy to learn in many colleges. The software is simply too expensive for general student labs to afford. Definiens licenses can run 7500-10,000….ENVI isn’t much better (4,000-6,000). Even with educational discounts (I know one person who got a single use license for Definiens for 2,000) that’s pretty expensive stuff there.

        Though I believe ESRI has done an admirable job integrating their products into community colleges and even the K-12 system. They’ve put in the legwork to make their product user-friendly (not something I can say for all software packages) and relatively affordable.

        Ultimately, unless you had the good fortune to attend a university with a lot of money and prestige, you are not going to learn RS just anywhere.

        Another thing I wanted to mention….as a young GIS/RS tech, I’m troubled by the attitudes of some of the employers I meet today. I’ve been interviewed at firms who are new to GIS (primarily in the solar and wind industry). Some of these firms had a laundry list as long as yours, and were requesting that work be cranked out for a pretty low fee (if there was a fee). There were also an abnormally large amount of requests for me to start work as an ‘trial intern’ and/or design them a highly functional WebGIS in the matter of weeks.

        I’d blame this attitude on the economy, but I have other evidence to that begs note. Recently, I have lost count of how many grad school acquaintances and non-profits have requested me to perform some GIS/RS task at the drop of a hat (for free). Though I’m happy to help these friends, it is a little disconcerting that they believe GIS works ‘something like google maps’ and you can just type addresses in and get whatever information that you want with a twinkle of your eye. The time it takes to accurately geocode their site data, and find/create the shapefiles files that provide the information they want….well, they think it should be done in the matter of minutes (not hours/days).

        It seems that news of the usefulness and many-applications of GIS has reached these industries…however, they don’t seem to have a clue how to best utilize this technology. They also have a rather flippant attitude about salary and how long (and costly) it is to develop these particular skill sets. I feel kindof tired being paid 1/2 of what your average IT tech is making (though I have a master’s and a very similar skill set).

        Much like our problem with farmers today (which is an aging, highly-litigious, and impoverished profession, with the average farmer being over 55 and approaching 60, and the proportion of principal farm operators younger than 35 dropping from 15.9 percent in 1982 to 5.8 percent in 2002) if we don’t make the profession worthwhile to young employees, they aren’t going to study it in college, and they are not going to enter the field. Something needs to be done to somehow impress upon our new markets that GIS is an expansive technology, and it’s students are not mere “google maps junkies”.

  21. [...] This post was Twitted by woolpert [...]

  22. I work for a local government office and started drafting ownership maps several years ago. I have pushed our office into GIS and we have had great results. There area several small cities, fire districts and other entities that I have taken old hand drawn maps or rough descriptions and added them to our GIS data set. Several agencies that have looked at our files were thankful for the detailed Metadata that I created for each data set.

    I have limited time to time to devote toward programming and modeling. There were several programming scripts that I created back when I used Arc/Info version 6 and 7. I would like to find more links and information to help me utilizes programming and modeling to utilize in parcels and others government resources.

    Thanks for your insight into the various aspects of this great world of GIS.

    • It is great to hear from you Matthew. I have some articles posted about geoprocessing using Python, the new way for ESRI to introduce scripting. Perhaps you will find those useful.

  23. [...] Michalis Avraam and colleagues have summarized a wonderful blog entry titled, “The Essential Skills to Succeed in a GIS Career.”  It offers a brief explanation of GIS, Programming, Database, and Project Management and Design skills essential for a successful career.  Check out this entry and the rest of his blog @  http://michalisavraam.org/2009/11/the-essential-skills-to-succeed-in-a-gis-career/ [...]

  24. I was disappointed there was no mention of ethics in the article. This issue is receiving more and more attention the field of critical GIS. It is very easy to lie with maps, as any well trained cartographer can attest to. The working GIS professional and especially students need to be aware of the issues they may encounter in this line of work and how to deal with them from a moral stand-point.

    • Patti,

      It is true that the ethics of GIS seems to be lacking in most requirements by GIS professionals. I do not think this is an attempt to characterize critical GIS as not important in the domain. It is rather an understanding that learning about cartography and GIS will already have that aspect embedded. Every training course on the technology should indeed be informed about the ethical implications of this work, but that is not easy to incorporate in a skills for the job kind of article or a job announcement.

  25. [...] sebagai benchmark tentang persyaratan untuk sukses berkarir di bidang GIS. Apa sajakah? Berdasarkan tulisan ini, terdapat lima skill pokok yang perlu dipunyai oleh seorang praktisi GIS agar bisa berkarir secara [...]

  26. Great article and comments!!

  27. This is an effective assessment on what we need to know and practice to succeed. Nice job.

  28. Hello, excellent point of view !!!!

  29. [...] Go read: The essential skills to succeed in a GIS career [...]

  30. Hi,
    Great article, One quick Question though.

    What is the best programming language to learn, for someone (like me) who doesnt know how to program and is one thing missing for my CV?

  31. I am returning to college this fall to study GIS. This has been the most helpful site I have come across to get a sense of what I need to study to actually get a job and what programs I may be working with. Thank you.

  32. Hi,
    Great article!
    the article clearly spells out the required skill sets for anyone who wants to be a well rounded GIS Professional.
    I am pretty new to GIS Programming. Please advise on key programming language and how to access training.

  33. [...] quest.  The first thing on the agenda however, was to find out exactly what was needed to succeed in a GIS career- more on that in a later post. This set the framework for what I’d focus my energies on at [...]

  34. [...] needed to be a successful GIS professional. It was written by Michalis Avraam, entitled The Essential skills needed to succeed in a GIS Career. This was the post that inspired me to take a serious look at my current skillset and organise my [...]

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