GIS Has a “Field of Dreams” Delusion

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A career in GIS is, partly at least, a labor of love. Many of us chose a profession in GIS because we believe in the value of collecting accurate data, performing sound spatial analysis, and presenting findings in an intuitive manner. We believe that our work will make the world a better place. And, at the end of the day, we believe this will provide us with a successful, rewarding career working on important and consequential questions. There are many fields we might have chosen if our primary goal was to accumulate wealth. GIS isn't one of them.

“If you build it, they will come” the cornfields whispered to Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, in the 1989 movie Field of Dreams. Ray interprets this to mean that he must build a baseball field on his farm to bring back the 1919 Chicago Cubs baseball players. (Spoiler alert: He does build it and they do come). The film screams, “Follow your dreams and they’ll come true!” The real world is different. “If you build it they will come” is a spurious claim.

Movies, books, baseball fields, web applications and IT solutions all require promotion, sales, and marketing to foster adoption. If the greatest novel drops in the forest, is it read and shared by anyone? Even a cure for cancer requires effective communication to be adopted. As shown in the pie chart, marketing accounts for the largest portion of pharmaceutical company's spending, overshadowing investments in research or profits.

In the following 2017 @URISA Salary Survey, "GIS Business Development/Sales & Marketing" position was the second highest average salary, after "Independent Consultant" (understandable because Independent Consultants charge a premium to cover costs which are otherwise provided by employers). It also had the second lowest survey response rate: 1.7% of the 3,300 participants (the "Other" category had fewer respondents, at 1.2%). This seems like a clear supply and demand issue. Notably, the GIS Sales position has 5% higher compensation than the "Director of Geographic Information Systems/Geographic Information Officer (GIO)" and 28% more than "GIS Manager" positions.

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The GIS industry has a “Field of Dreams” delusion. I suspect many career GIS professionals believe that the value they bring, without any sales promotion, will make them successful.

Sales work does not cloud the principled reasons we entered the GIS field in the first place. In theory, higher compensation for sales and marketing positions should attract GIS practitioners. In my experience, this doesn’t seem to be happening. Perhaps the reason that this hasn’t taken place is that it is an arduous transition. Shifting from a technology-focused GIS practitioner to a “salesperson” requires a shift from the principled reasons for becoming GIS practitioners in the first place. I suggest this problem is deeply ingrained in our industry—we think that “sales” is a dirty word. Bringing value and not having to sell is part of our identity. The GIS industry will only realize its full potential if we purge this stance and invest in selling the value of GIS.

I founded Evari GIS Consulting, a 22 person GIS consulting firm based in San Diego. We provide services on the Esri and Amazon Web Services technology stacks. In January 2018, we published a job posting for a Business Development Lead. The primary responsibilities of this hire will be to pursue and secure work for Evari GIS Consulting, largely through the RFP process, and through effective management of existing relationships for follow-up work. This person will work out of our sunny San Diego offices and will make great money if he/she proves to be successful.

Evari GIS - Business Development Lead (BD Lead) Job Posting

We received responses from only 12 viable applicants. (In comparison, we receive hundreds of applications for IT management, traditional GIS managers, and entry-level field tech positions.) Many of the applicants were unable to complete the simple application described in the posting. Not one applicant had any combination of technical skills and involvement in business development activities, known as a “seller-doer” in the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) Industries. I suspect many applicants may think they were compromising their standards in applying for a "sales" position. Were we lucky they disliked their current position so much they were willing to lower themselves to work a sales job?

The Business Development position we are hiring for requires technical GIS skills. A BD Lead at Evari GIS must have a comprehensive understanding of the GIS industry, GIS software and the technical capabilities of our team. The BD Lead is responsible to "set up the pins" so the operations team can knock them down. "GIS" is not normally identified in the solicitations we pursue because aligning GIS tools with a non-GIS specified scope is our secret sauce. Many firms have similar qualifications on paper, so pursuing GIS-specific contracts means we must compete on cost and qualifications. We don't do that. We make the case that GIS is the proper tool to complete work, putting us head-and-shoulders above the non-GIS focused proposals. The person who fills this role will be lost without a technical comprehension of GIS solutions, awareness of where the industry is going, and first-hand knowledge of our team’s capabilities. They must have the ability to clearly convey complex spatial and IT concepts in written and verbal communications.

GIS is a professional service. I sit in a lot of rooms with Energy, Engineering, Planning, Environmental, and Construction professionals. These industries have dedicated business development professionals who possess the skill and talent to focus on tactics for responding to RFPs, organize teams to pursue specific targets, conduct market research, create marketing materials, secure certifications, speak directly to clients’ needs in interviews and everything else required to successfully get professional services work under contract.

The Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) is the largest trade group (6800+ members) focused on improving these skills and talents. All the big firms that pursue work with municipalities have representatives within this organization. Through SMPS, one can get certified as a Certified Professional Services Marketer (CPSM); there are currently 975 CPSMs and over 6,000 GISPs. Not one person on LinkedIn has both certifications. I plan to be the first.

We have a challenge in our industry: we don't acknowledge the value of internal or external sales. We need to invest in identifying opportunities which don’t specify GIS as a solution and we need to work to convince decision-makers that GIS is the proper tool to solve their problem. We must aggressively refine communication tactics and more effectively portray how GIS tools and spatial analysis can bring value to clients.

I love pursuing and securing work for Evari GIS. I love working as part of a team to demonstrate the value GIS can bring. I constantly strive to align new technological solutions with business opportunities, identify new and exciting markets that save energy, conserve water, reduce pollution, and earn income to pay our talented hard-working team members. These brilliant individuals make magic happen for our clients and improve the lives of many people. I am proud to be a GIS sales professional. I am proud of my employees, my peers, and our industry.

If you are interested in these concepts, join our new LinkedIn group: GIS Professional Service Marketers. Also, consider applying for our available GIS BD Lead position (please follow the simple application instructions). And if you are one of the 54 people who classified themselves as “GIS Business Development/Sales & Marketing” in the 2017 Urisa Salary Survey, please give me a call, let’s talk.

GIS Professional Service Marketers LinkedIn Group: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/13587718

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