A headshot of a woman with brown hair smiles at the camera. She is Rachel Abernethy of Esri Ireland.
Rachel Abernethy. Image: Esri Ireland

What is it like working with geographic information systems?

24 May 2024

Rachel Abernethy, a lead GIS consultant at Esri Ireland, discusses the importance of problem-solving skills in her role and how she uses spreadsheets to stay productive.

Digital mapping company Esri Ireland specialises in the application of geographic information systems (GIS) to help organisations record where things are happening and analyse why, which can in turn help them make better decisions. The company was named one of Ireland’s 2024 Best Workplaces in Tech by Great Place to Work.

Rachel Abernethy is a lead GIS consultant for the company, having worked there for five years. She gave us an insight into the work that she does and how the role has changed over time.

“Businesses and governments the world over apply Esri’s technology to address some of the world’s most complex challenges such as climate change, supply chain resilience, public health and social equity; so, it makes working here an exciting place to be,” she said.

What type of projects do you work on?

The tech I work with is Esri’s ‘ArcGIS.’ ArcGIS is a location-based analytics platform, designed to help companies make smarter decisions by visualising and analysing data within a geographic context. I’m currently working on a services project, what we call GIS-as-a-service, in which there is a steady stream of tasks to work on. For this customer, we manage their ArcGIS Online subscriptions and applications, meaning tasks can involve user management, data updates, maintenance or creation of web applications.

Requirements can change frequently and this requires flexibility and problem solving. You may be working on an issue with web services in a GIS dashboard one day and creating users to review an ‘ArcGIS Hub’ site the next! ArcGIS Hub is a community engagement platform that organises people, data and tools for information insights. I enjoy the variety this brings and that we can propose new ideas to the customer on how best to manage their GIS content.

Our technology can be applied to a sector or industry so there is no end to the variety of customer and projects that I may be working on, making it really innovative and interesting work.

What skills do you use on a daily basis?

One of the most important skills I use is communication. Communication is key to understanding what we need to do, who is going to do it and why we are doing it. I keep in touch with everyone in my project teams daily via group chats within the Teams channel or one-on-one calls.

As lead consultant, I am drawing on more leadership skills now than ever through our company meetings, relationships with colleagues and through the employee resource group, Women @ Esri Ireland.

We are really passionate about personal and professional development. I’ve spent a lot of time learning about my own strengths and know that I am good at developing others, showing empathy and building new relationships. These are skills I am continuously working on. Being a lead consultant gives me that opportunity more often than before.

What are the hardest parts of your working day?

One of the hardest elements of the working day is dealing with the various demands on my time. Finding focus time can be tricky. Part of Esri Ireland’s values are teamwork and collaboration, and this extends externally to our customers and internally to our team.

There can be a lot of demands, but this is balanced with the satisfaction of helping my customers and colleagues. I suppose this is everybody’s challenge, especially working in professional services, and I manage this by blocking off time in my calendar to focus on work packages. I keep these to a size that lets me get things completed but also allows me to be available to help others.

Do you have any productivity tips that help you through the day?

This will either be right up your street or the most boring thing you have ever heard. At the start of 2023, I started making a spreadsheet for every week of the year. I’ve an Excel template and on a Monday morning I make a fresh document for the week ahead. I’ve a summary sheet where I calculate my lead consultant project bookings for the week ahead and leave space for the total time spent daily.

I have kept this up every week since – that’s more than a year of weekly spreadsheets – and I would honestly be lost without it. It helps me stay focused, which makes me more productive and efficient.

I also have to say that running is my go-to non-work activity that helps me feel energised. Exercise in general helps me clear my head, focus on the important things and overall be in a better mindset for the day.

What tech skills and tools do you use on a daily basis?

As a consultant I apply my GIS skills to helping our customers succeed in their objectives for the system that they are implementing. This generally involves being innovative in how I apply the solutions and also a lot of problem-solving skills.

I spend time understanding the customer’s current situation and planning how we could realise their vision or resolve their problem.

The GIS tools I use most of the time would definitely be ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS Hub. There isn’t a day goes by where I don’t have multiple browser windows open with different ArcGIS Online subscriptions.

When it comes to tools for planning and communication, we use DevOps boards for tasks and Microsoft Teams for meetings and messages. I have both open at all times during the day (apart from when that focus time is supposed to happen of course!) and use the boards for team meetings and planning tasks.

How has this role changed as the sector has grown and evolved?

The GIS sector is always evolving as different products are being created or enhanced. GIS is now more pervasive than ever – how many of us have GIS on our smartphones [through map applications]? This means more and more businesses are taking advantage of location intelligence for their business and the customers they service.

We have so many different industries using our tech from central government, estate agents, public safety, local government, utilities, telcos, conservation agencies, and even schools and universities through our ArcGIS for Schools initiative. My colleagues and I need to be aware of new technologies both within the Esri ecosystem and outside of it, as they may be technologies we are likely to work with.

Esri invest heavily in R&D and evolving their products. As a lead consultant, I keep on top of updates that relate to the products I work with. This includes reading blogs and articles from Esri Inc when ArcGIS Online is updated or a new release of ArcGIS Hub goes live.

I’m currently learning about ‘Sweet for ArcGIS’, which is an app for data collection with built-in quality checks. Like anyone in a technical role, as the sector grows, you also need to grow and be ready for new opportunities.

What do you enjoy most about the job?

I really enjoy the moment when the team has been working on something challenging for a while, perhaps with a few different approaches taken along the way, but it is finished and handed over to the customer. The customer is happy, and we can see that they’ve succeeded with their objectives. Also, everyone on the team feels satisfied that they did a great job, they worked well together and learned something along the way.

I’m proud to say I have enjoyed quite a few of these moments and they definitely keep the motivation going. Ultimately, making a difference through our customers’ work and learning is the inspiration for everything we do.

In the past year, I have spent more time working with and mentoring colleagues on their objectives and goals, and I really enjoy these conversations. I like learning about other people and talking about how we work as usually both myself and that person take something away from the conversation.

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