Last week I attended the ESRIUK User Conference to see what new developments were happening with ArcGIS 10.1. With coming back to academia, I’ve made note of how important it is to go for conferences and network, however, there are definitely different ‘flavours’ of conferences. ESRIUK and AGI in particular, are two that I regularly go to, but are almost entirely geared with a major slant towards industry. Being that I’m in academia now, it’s not the same game, but it’s nice to sort of keep on top of what’s going on. Further to that, given the rest of the people in my department, with roughly the same skill set, I’m probably the best candidate to go to these, given that I have the time and the experience in industry.
One thing that’s taken a bit of adjustment for coming into this department, specifically, is that some time a few years ago, there was a purposeful shift AWAY from ESRI products (which was odd, as I used to work for ESRI). It’s true that in teaching GIS, you don’t simply want to teach ArcGIS (and I do appreciate in our department now, we are training students on MapInfo, QGIS, Geomedia, etc.), but it should not be discounted/deliberately forgotten, as it is still a powerhouse of an application and the de facto GIS package of industry. To not train students on it is failing those that hope to go out afterwards and wish to be competitive in the current job market.
As a slight tangent (though relevant), I have been making systems for about 7 years now. It’s always been a pleasure to sit down with people, listen to what they need, make it for them and give it to them. I like the challenge of starting off with a blank canvas and designing the system, the components and structuring things. Even when given a system that’s already in place, I like looking at it, analysing it, and ripping it apart to rebuild it and make it better.
While at the conference, I met up with an old co-worker and was pleased to find out that the system that I developed for them 3 years ago is still in use and being improved upon. There was a sense of pride and joy hearing that; that I made a visible difference – an impact – and by my work, am still remembered to this day at the company that I have since moved on from. So perhaps it’s not even so much creating the system and dealing with the challenge, but rather, I like making things that people need and use.
Since coming back to academia, I’ve had to adjust my own world, to (re)learn how things work here (though I don’t think I knew it to the level that I know now). There’s no compartmentalisation of duties and responsibilities – there is either very little protocol or two much red tape, so you’re haphazardly trying to wade through things. Don’t get me wrong, though, sometimes that’s the bit that’s a lot of fun (the former, usually; the latter, rarely).
When making systems in industry, a good business case needed to be put through. Wording had to be thorough; savings needed to be immediately apparent (and profit as large as possible). Here, in academia, people say “wouldn’t it be nice to have…” or “ooh! we should make…” and that is quite often it. I’ve made a few systems since I’ve been here, and helped towards others, and though the objectives have been met, the uptake isn’t there.
Before this conference, I didn’t pay that fact much attention; afterwards, though, it’s really got me thinking that I want to start making things again that people really want. Perhaps it means thinking outside of the box, or rather, thinking outside of people’s policies. I like the ideas of innovation and design – of utilising open source technologies – but it really comes down to the end users and what they want. ArcGIS 10.1 has some really cool features and supplementary systems; some of which I’ve reinvented in an open source form… that are not being used. I think the moral of this story is rather than to continue to pour effort into making the users (and myself) use and be sold on these systems, that I start making things, not only that they COULD use, but rather, they WANT TO use and if that means utilising ESRI technologies, then that’s what we use, people get over their hang-ups, and we move on to start producing results.