Thierry Gregorius: “Build a unique skill, stay focused, and never grow up”

Thierry Gregorius
Thierry Gregorius

Thierry Gregorius is a GIS professional with nearly 20 years’ experience in the oil & gas, land & property, and environmental sectors. Originally from Luxembourg, he studied geomatics in Germany, Australia and the UK, graduating with a PhD in satellite geodesy. Thierry has worked internationally throughout his career, including Shell‘s global exploration division in the Netherlands and Landmark Information Group in the UK. He is currently a principal consultant with Exprodat, a London-based GIS consultancy delivering services to the global energy industry.

Thierry is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and serves as External Examiner for Geomatics at Newcastle University. He is married with two children and lives in England’s southwest where he spends most of his spare time outdoors, surfing, swimming, cycling or hiking with his family. He also enjoys mountaineering and fine malt whisky. You can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Thierry was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You and I (and several other folks I know) have this in common: Considered careers in architecture, then veered off into GIS. Why did you choose GIS over architecture?

A: I loved how architecture combines opposing fields such as art and science, or design and engineering — in a spatial way. As a kid I basically dreamed of becoming an architect and fighter pilot. Both are highly spatial occupations, so I guess GIS was not such a huge leap. Flying jets was a non-starter as my native Luxembourg had no air force and besides I grew too tall to fit into a cockpit. So yes, I seriously considered architecture as a career. But this was the late 80s and many architects were unemployed and desperate enough to go into interior design. I was interested in spatial relationships, not soft furnishings.

So my career adviser took a look at my profile and suggested geomatics (surveying) for which there was much more demand at the time. I didn’t really know much about it but immediately liked the look of the curriculum. It had many of the spatial elements of architecture (or indeed jet flying), it had maths and science, and it even had a bit of art and design in the form of cartography. I was also really attracted by the outdoor aspect of the profession, although sadly these days most GIS and geomatics jobs are desk-bound — a trend that needs reversing, I feel, as it is important not to lose touch with the world we’re mapping.

There is a saying that goes “An architect knows something about everything, an engineer knows everything about one thing.” The same is true for GIS professionals; we work in a very multi-disciplinary way. So I’ve no regrets — choosing geomatics over architecture provided many job opportunities and allowed me to travel the world (as it happens I’m currently in Australia doing a piece of work for a client). And besides, I still do a bit of architecture and flying in my spare time…

Q: You have 20 years of geospatial experience, most of it in the Oil & Gas industry. What do you do for Exprodat as a GIS analyst? Can you tell us what your typical workday looks like? What technologies do you use?

A: I’m a so-called strategic consultant. People hire me to troubleshoot, audit or design their GIS frameworks in a wider, organisational sense. So it’s more like management consulting. I might call it geospatial acupuncture… you know, optimise data flows, find pressure points, clear blockages, that sort of thing. I basically help organisations make sure that their people have what they need to progress their GIS to the next level — and that goes far beyond technology.

Even though GIS technology has vastly grown and matured, many organisations still find it difficult to make it work for them. Most of the issues I encounter aren’t to do with technology at all. Much of my job involves talking to stakeholders across an organisation to find out what they’re really trying to achieve, what data they need to achieve it, and how they like to work. I then help them create a GIS strategy with clear priorities and a framework that works for them, including the necessary governance, support and skills.

Technology choices should be the final thing to consider after all the other requirements are clear, but it’s amazing how often people still do it the other way round. Technology can be a real distraction when designing a strategy. What I try to do is more about improving people’s awareness and confidence so they can find their own solutions. Once people really know what they want to achieve, the technical solution often designs itself.

The oil industry is a bit of a mystery to outsiders, but thanks to its geopolitical and global nature it provides some really interesting challenges, also for GIS folks. And contrary to what you might read in the media, the people are really nice! The geoscientists I’ve worked with have real passion for what they do, and they’ve been quietly doing 3D and “big” data for more than 20 years. The industry is as advanced as Aerospace and Defence — not many people realise that drilling a deep-water well is as complex as landing a probe on the Moon. But strangely this level of sophistication is not always reflected in the industry’s handling of GIS and spatial data. For many companies it is still an afterthought, like data exhaust, or simply the “topo department” that makes maps. Over the years the industry has gradually woken up to the true power of GIS, but they still have some way to go.

Exprodat is exploiting this niche and has been going from strength to strength. It’s a boutique consultancy that specialises in geospatial services, training and GIS workflows tailored to the world of oil and gas. It’s a real fun place to work, and we’re helping clients all over the world. When I invited Steven Feldman to meet Exprodat’s board they hit it off immediately, even though we’re an Esri partner and he’s an open source evangelist. And working for a privately owned company is like a breath of fresh air after long stints at large corporates — in my two years at Exprodat I’ve not once heard the term “shareholder return”. We just love what we do and aren’t scared to say no to projects that don’t fit our values. Clients see that and appreciate the authenticity. We don’t bullshit people.

Q: I enjoy reading your blog Georeferenced. When I first saw your post “GIS is not as simple as it used to be”, I assumed the title was meant tongue-in-cheek. Then I realized it was not. But wasn’t GIS supposed to get easier, not harder? Or is “powerful and easy-to-use” — the sales folks’ favorite catchphrase — an oxymoron?

A: Well yes, GIS should be powerful and easy but that’s rarely the case. In reality, each solution can lead to new problems and we need to be careful to not just pass the buck. Sure, we can hide all the complexity under the hood and present users with a clean, crisp interface. Google Maps was the first example of that, and there have been many others since. But as soon as users try to go one step further they immediately hit roadblocks.

For a geoscientist, for example, data comes from many sources including hardcopies and other analog data — not just the digital firehose. To this day there is still no satisfactory way of easily assimilating all this data in an organic way, like a scrapbook, on a map that can be queried or analysed in seamless ways. If users like geoscientists — who have a day job other than GIS — want to do something slightly different, they need to go back to their GIS folks and ask them to add another button, include a new query, preload some more data or, worse, clean up a lot more data before they can even load it. People can’t just chuck all their stuff into GIS, and that is a serious shortcoming. A paper scrapbook has no such problem, although obviously it has other limitations.

So with GIS, and technology more generally, it often feels like we’ve just taken an analog problem and turned it into a digital problem — but not solved the problem. The internet, GIS, tablets… all of these are great tools, of course, and I still pinch myself every time I look at Google Earth on my iPhone. But it feels like something’s still missing. We’re not quite getting at the true nature of things.

Hopefully the current state of technology is just a temporary aberration, as evidenced by the slow death of the desktop PC. I’d like to see something more organic, something more human — where the technology works for us, not vice-versa. Maybe in the future we’ll just be able to conjure up a kinetic holographic model in front of us so we can literally handle the data with our hands (or voice), like sculpting clay. Or something like that.

If that’s not going to happen, we might as well go back to drawing maps by hand. Ok, I’m joking of course. But at as it is, drawing maps by hand is more fun, and for many people a GIS interface is still a rectangular hole for round pegs.

Q: I had just laid my claim to the title O.G. (Original Geohipster) when I read your post “King George III was a geohipster”. What a downer! But His Majesty was into maps big time, so I concede. What do you think led the King to collect over 50,000 maps? Practicality or hipsterism?

A: I’ve no idea! I can only guess it was curiosity coupled with obsessiveness — which are not unusual traits in geospatial people, if I dare say so… King George III’s Wikipedia page doesn’t even mention his map collection, so maybe it was his guilty secret. Maybe he just preferred maps to mistresses, unlike other royals.

Q: You blogged about your appreciation for analog gadgets: watches, cameras, etc. Such preferences are often considered eccentric nowadays, when you can wear on your wrist an electronic watch that is also a computer and a camera. How do you explain your “eccentricity” to someone who doesn’t understand why you prefer the less accurate device to the more accurate one?

A: I guess it comes back to what I said before about technology. My self-winding mechanical watch may be slightly less accurate than a digital one, but it never needs a battery and when I hold it to my ear it ticks at 3 beats per second — it’s alive. Digital stuff is nice and convenient but just feels too disposable to have soul. I like things that are well-made, preferably with natural materials, where you can feel with all your senses the creativity, dedication and craftsmanship that have gone into them. I’d much rather have a beautiful and well-made watch that lasts a lifetime and is made of nothing more than metal and glass, than an electronic gadget synced with atomic clocks that bites the dust after 5 years and then becomes toxic waste.

Q: Is there fashion in technology? Does the desire to be different sometimes trump other more “rational considerations” — in tech as well as in couture and in everyday life? Is it wrong if it does?

A: This is very unhipsterish, but I don’t really do fashion, or even pretend to understand it! I’m bewildered by people queuing through the night to get the latest iPhone. I used to follow technology news, but I’ve taken a step back. It’s all just too hysterical — it’s like someone brings out a new sandwich toaster and everyone goes nuts. Maybe these people see in iPhones what I see in automatic watches or well-made bicycles. It’s good to be passionate about something, I just don’t share that particular passion. And that’s not to say I don’t appreciate technology — I do. But to me technology is just the conduit, not the end goal.

As for being different, it really inspires me when people make maps in new and surprising ways, like when those first D3 maps came out. And the people who made them weren’t even GIS people. What a relief! We are not alone in the universe.

Q: You ride a Dutch bike, skateboards, and surfboards. You prefer to draw maps by hand. Have you been called a hipster because of these activities? If you have, did you take it as a compliment or as an insult?

A: Ha, no! The only thing people ever call me is “tall”. And believe me, a dangly 6’7” creature is not a pretty sight on a surfboard. One advantage of having pushed past 40 is that it’s OK to do stuff and not look cool. And I’ve always refused to let my inner child die. It’s important to hang on to your sense of curiosity and wonder. I like learning new things, making connections, asking “why” or “why not” questions. This attitude is also critical for my job. So the worst insult anybody could call me is “grown up”.

The Dutch bike, by the way, is just a relic from my time living in Holland – a 28” frame with double cross bars. It’s simply the best bike I ever had, which is why I keep riding it in the UK despite the strange looks I get. And I rode it way before hipsters found Dutch bikes hip.

Q: Thank you for the interview. Any final words for the GeoHipster readers?

A: If hipsters are defined by being different, then I think all geospatial folks are basically geohipsters. We don’t fit into any camp, really. Let’s face it, anyone working with GIS full-time is not a geographer, computer scientist, engineer, geoscientist, or whatever. If you want to be one of those things, go study their degrees and enter their professions proper. To make your mark in a particular domain you can’t afford to dabble in multiple disciplines because you’ll be up against specialists with many years of dedicated practice and experience.

Over the years there has been much discussion and debate about what career a GIS professional should aspire to, or what a GIS career even is. In my opinion you need to have at least one skill that nobody else has. I once called this the “geomatics striptease” — what expertise and value is there exclusively to us geospatial folks? I came to the conclusion that, if I had to strip off my non-exclusive layers, my naked self would be a geodesist and cartographer. No other field does these things, or at least not as well.

There may be a few other exclusive skills in GIS or geomatics, but many so-called geospatial expertise areas also reside in other professions. They’re not unique and this can be a danger area for career development — unless of course you want to become a multi-disciplinary generalist. In which case, sure thing, go ahead and become that ‘architect’ who orchestrates input from different fields. But whatever you do, it needs to be a conscious decision, and it requires focus. If you dilute yourself too much as a professional you’ll become the Swiss army knife that people only use when there’s nothing better at hand.

So to stay relevant, build a unique skill, stay focused, and never grow up. If you do those things, nobody can eat your lunch.

2 thoughts on “Thierry Gregorius: “Build a unique skill, stay focused, and never grow up”

  1. I think I may be too late to the game to build a unique skill but I think you have given me the new sign to post over my desk:

    “Stay focused, and never grow up”

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