Jim is a geodeveloper advocate at Esri in NYC. Before that, he worked in Redlands running the developer network program, and previous to that, running Esri’s tech support operations. Catch him on twitter @JimBarry.
The statements and opinions below are Jim’s and not the opinions or official positions of his current or previous employers.
Jim was interviewed for GeoHipster by Bill Dollins and Atanas Entchev.
Q: How did you get into GIS?
A: I guess it started with an obsession with maps when I was a kid.
Going way back though, back seat of the car on family trips, I was completely absorbed by road atlases. My mom was the original mapgeek and navigator in the family; still is. So I got the maps thing from her — total map nerd. Not to mention my other assorted quirks, like staring at the ground from the window seat of a plane. It’s like a big map, yo!
Maps just kept coming back to me over and over as I grew up. Orienteering in scouts and beyond. As an infantry officer in the army, maps were key. Grab a lensatic compass, a 1:50,000 topo in a waterproof case, a grease pencil, and let’s go. I really took to land navigation, on foot or on vehicles, any weather, any terrain, swamps, woods, or desert, mostly at night. It’s more than just dead-reckoning to point B; it’s route selection, contingency planning, speed and manner of movement, under stress, wet, cold, hot, miserable, dealing with obstacles, leading soldiers keeping them motivated, pressed for time, pushing thru it, learning and adjusting along the way until you reach the objective. Maybe a little philosophical, but sort of a microcosm of life itself, no?
As for GIS itself, grad school, studying urban planning, we had PC ArcInfo and ArcView v1. I taught a couple semesters of freshman level Geography, and spent a year running the mapping lab, keeping the hardware working and software updated, helping students working on their projects, and learning the concepts of working with and analyzing spatial data.
During grad school, but on the side, my first year I took an overnight job doing mapping at an electric utility. I got a real sense of the importance of this kind of high-impact production mapping—a lot of editing, complete and accurate information, and a high level of quality control when electrical service for customers, and the safety of the maintenance crews were at stake.
Then in my second year of grad school I got hired by a small town outside of Hartford to research and build their 10-year master plan of development. I used PC ArcInfo, ArcCAD, and ArcView for that. They had only been using AutoCAD. I was able to do some spatial analysis using whatever data I could find, convert, digitize, or otherwise collect, to provide support for some recommendations for development, preservation, transportation, and other aspects of the town’s growth and progress.
I really liked working with the tools, so figured I’d try to work at Esri for a few years, learn as much as I can, then take back to municipal planning. Well, a few years turned into 24 and running.
Q: You have been at Esri for over two decades. How would you describe life at Esri to an outsider?
A: Always challenging. First couple of years I was a desktop GIS tech support analyst. To me, there’s no better place to learn how to be productive with this technology, than in tech support. Not only do you learn how things work best, but also the wide variety of ways things break, and how to quickly find the cause, work up a solution, alone or in groups, sometimes code up alternatives, workarounds, and communicate that to the user trying to get their work done, often under pressure themselves. Fun stuff. Even after moving up into running tech support ops, I’d grab calls myself from time to time to keep the problem-solving and tech skills sharp as I could. The tech moves and grows fast. It’s quick and easy to lose your grip on it, if you don’t keep chopping.
But overall, the ability to do important, impactful work, surrounded by and learning from some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. But more importantly, everyone here buys into the idealism that Jack projects. He’s a true believer in what technology, in general, and of course GIS in particular provides to improve our co-existence with our world, in a data-driven way.
I saw this quote once. I think it was meant to stoke one’s entrepreneurial spirit by saying “If you don’t work to realize your own ideas, you’ll end up working to realize someone else’s”. Being that I’m a fairly UNcreative person, that quote motivated me too, but probably in a direction 180° from its intent. Meaning, I consider my value more about building and delivering tangible, useful things from the ideas envisioned by creative people, freeing them up to continue being creative. That’s the main reason why I’ve always felt a good fit at Esri. Jack’s visionary thought leadership over the past several decades, and his commitment to build and constantly improve (and occasionally completely reinvent) has been an honor and a great experience to be part of.
Q: You have been working in developer evangelism for over a decade now. During that time, Esri’s platforms have changed and grown significantly. How has working with developers shaped your view of the evolution of Esri’s platforms and what role has the developer community played in that evolution?
A: Understanding the evolution of developers, and of developing software apps and systems, starts by understanding the evolution of users and their expectations.
Back in the 90s when I first started building custom mapping apps, this might sound really odd now, but usability wasn’t exactly our primary concern, generally. You designed and built the app, and then you deployed it with documentation and training. As your end-user climbed the learning curve, their productivity would increase. Back then, “powerfully useful” was more important than “intuitively usable”. But it was still mainly up to the user to commit effort learning how to use it.
Of course, nowadays, in most cases, that approach is absolutely insane. (Well, it was insane then too, but who knew?) Today, when you put an app in the hands of an end-user, it better be designed to be intuitive for them, and productively useful for them right away, for what they need it to do. Apps you build need to free your users up, so they can put almost all their mental effort into their work and put as little effort as possible into figuring out how the app works.
That expectation bounces right back to the developers who build and use APIs, and the designers of the apps being used. It’s no longer enough that the API be powerful, fine grained, and comprehensive (hi ArcObjects). Now, its granularity also needs to be variable, doc accessible, learning ramp shallow, samples numerous, best practices proven, and user community robust, interactive, and supportive enough so that we meet these high expectations. It takes a lot of work to make things easy. Also, the shelf life of things developers build is also shortening. Developers often need to deploy something good enough now, then iterate to continue improving it.
Q: You wrote about smart cities recently. Is “smart cities” the new buzzword de jour, or is it GIS trying to reinvent itself, or is it an entire new industry being born?
A: A new industry? No, it’s broader than that. It’s a way for cities to keep up with fully using technology to make itself run better. Of course, GIS is a key part of it—here’s how. A smart city is one that uses technology to continually sense its state and respond in efficient, optimized ways. Human intervention is removed whenever practical, to gain speed and scale. Combined with the hardware and software technology itself, it also includes a digitized articulation of the rules on which decisions can be made, and actions triggered. Then, on a separate thread, patterns can be sensed, stored, analyzed in order to continue improving efficiency in future iterations.
Given that a city is a spatial system, spatial analysis has got to be a key part of these rules, decisions, and actions. Along with many other technologies, GIS fuels the decisions behind visualizing where things are and optimizing how, why, when, and where things move and interact. A GIS platform also provides cross-agency collaboration tools and the ability to perform modeling and predictive data analytics.
The data management, data analysis, data visualization tools that are a part of GIS and geospatial technology have a role to play in a “smart city”, from strategy down to the nuts and bolts. I can’t imagine how they wouldn’t.
Ok, so to me, yeah, in a way, “smart cities” can be seen as a buzzword, but it’s an important one, a motivating one. Meaning, it’s a simple term that helps everyone quickly focus in on what cities are trying to do to evolve. It’s easier for all of us to grab the handles and pull the wagon in the same direction if we’re not stuck struggling to understand what the term means. 50 years from now, a city’s “smartness” in this context will be so common, the concept itself is going to melt into the background and we’ll probably forget that the term “smart city” used to be a “thing”. Like the idea of an electric city was 100+ years ago versus today. But for now, we need the term, because it’s going to take a lot of domains working together to make cities smarter.
Q: Esri recently pledged $30,000.00 to the GDAL barn raising. Esri has famously used GDAL libraries under the hood of ArcGIS for many years now, so the pledge makes sense. How would you characterize Esri’s relationship with open-source and the open source community, particularly in geospatial? What steps do you anticipate Esri taking to help that relationship evolve?
A: Ask 10 people what “open” means, you’ll get 12 different answers. So, for me, I keep it practical, and I try to stay focused on how the level of openness helps or hinders productive work in any particular context.
As for open source software, I’ve seen some choose it based simply on principle. Some choose it when it’s free, or when its initial barrier to use is lower than other options. I mean, I get it. Open source provides a perception (sometimes an illusion) of control, and a perception (sometimes an illusion) of low cost.
But, over the past several years at least, I’ve seen a growth of users and developers who are trying to get their work done best, or build things that are more useful, whose technology selection has more to do with its capabilities, than whether or not they can contribute to the code base. On the surface, the terms open and closed imply a binary, but when it comes to technology it’s obviously a lot more complex and nuanced than that.
In our increasingly connected world, for a technology to be useful, it needs to be openly interoperable with other tech. It also needs to support open standards with regards to format (hi Shapefile), workflow, protocols, and interface (both UI and API).
And then there’s open data. It benefits all of us to support open data, particularly in government, in order to promote freedom and transparency, optimize operations, encourage collaboration, but also to engage the people who live there. In NYC there is a vast ecosystem of non-profits, startups, students, motivated citizens, and more, ready to pitch in, and they do amazing work. It’s a force multiplier to ensure that accurate, complete, timely data is pushed into the open, into the hands of everyone, fueling great ideas. Doing so continues to improve the lives of New Yorkers every day.
Back to open source though…
Where a particular technology, any technology, open source or not, is better, more useful, more cost effective, it will be used. A few years ago, Chris Wanstrath was the keynote speaker at the Esri Developer Summit. He was a founder, and at the time CTO of GitHub. He noted that while GitHub has played a huge role in the support, usefulness, and growth of open source software, GitHub itself is not open source. He found that open source makes sense, when openly inclusive collaboration is the best approach to building something, and it doesn’t make sense when you want to build something that supports your core business model, and for as long as you want to maintain full creative control. When it comes down to it, the relationship between the two is more productive when it’s symbiotic rather than adversarial. The way I see it is this: our work contains a lot of constraints we have limited control over; it makes no sense to purposefully add more constraints by limiting our own options.
Q: You are from New Jersey — home of The Sopranos, Bridgegate, and Silent Bob. I hear you have a special connection to one of those. Tell us about it.
A: The shore area of New Jersey, yes, born and raised in that magical state where the government still believes pumping gas is a task best left to paid professionals.
So yeah, after a couple decades in Redlands, I recently moved back to my hometown of Leonardo, NJ. Most of my family still live in the area, and it’s great to be back. Silent Bob, right, well, Leonardo is the town the movie Clerks was filmed in. The Quick Stop is still there, the dive bar of convenience stores. Anyway, when I was 14, I had a newspaper route and that store was the halfway point. I would go in and grab a soda for the return trip. One day, the guy who worked in there said I could have the coke for free if I’d go in the back and load the dairy case with milk, eggs, cheese, and stuff, that had been delivered, which at the time could only be loaded from the back of the store. Otherwise he’d have to lock up, stock the case, then reopen (“I assure you we’re open”). I think I was only hauling in $15 a week at that point with the paper route, so I’m like, cool. For a while, this turned into an almost daily thing. I hadn’t seen the movie til many years later, but it was weird to see our little hole in the wall store be a central character of a big movie. “Bunch of savages in this town”, indeed.
Q: Finish this sentence: If I could only keep one of my sports jerseys, it would be…
A: I’ve got a bunch, but this Hartford Whalers jersey I have, well, I normally resist wearing third party gear to games, but this one seems to be an exception. Wore it to a Rangers game last winter and it’s obvious that hockey fans get it. Plus, it’s a pretty cool logo.
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: Not at all. While I respect and am inspired by the innovation that comes from the unconventional thinking of all you hipsters, for the most part, my strengths (and weaknesses) seem to stem from being a straight up conformist. But then in a way, without us conformists, being a hipster lacks the frame of reference from which to diverge — there’s no contrast. So to all you real geohipsters out there… you’re welcome.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: If you have an idea — a solid idea that has a vision and a purpose, and you really believe in it — you’re ready to sink or swim in it — don’t wait, don’t check, don’t ask — just do it. Probably intuitively obvious to many; wasn’t obvious to me for a long time.
Meaning, what I’ve found that often doesn’t work, is trying to sell others on your idea when it’s still nothing more than an idea. All this does is open the door for it to be crushed under the weight of opinions. And at that point, your great idea becomes just another deleted slide deck. So. Don’t ask for permission. Believe in it? Then just build it. When you need others’ collaboration on bits of it, keep it focused, and limited to trusted resources.
Here’s the point though. Believing in it of course means you’re ready to own the consequences, whether it works, or whether it lawn darts into the ground. Best case scenario, it works, and at that point you’ve improved things a notch or two for your users, added value to your product, helped move the ball forward for your organization. Not to mention you learned a lot along the way. But most importantly, those who earlier might have crushed your idea — they vanish. No one argues with success. No one debates whether something will work or not, after it’s already working.