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Professional Skills

Technical and Interpersonal Skills

Keeping everyone around you up to date on projects and assignments is a key part of most jobs, and there is a variety of methods you can use to do so.  Below we discuss many technological options for collaboration and project management - and also cover some basic tips and tricks for how to write a professional email/status report when communicating with a client.  


Another part of technical and interpersonal skills is developing the ability to present on your research/progress to other members of your profession and to clients.  As presenting to a non-technical audience (like when you present to clients) is extremely different than presenting to other members of your profession, we discuss the basics of both presentation styles in this module.  

Technical Skills and Productivity

  • Google Suite
    • Check out the array of Apps available through your Gmail account/Google Drive, such as Docs, Sheets, Slides, Sites, etc. For the most part, these function similar to Microsoft Office, but are easier to share with others to collaborate or get feedback.
  • Evernote
    • A notetaking and organization tool available online. No need to worry about where you saved your notes, because you can access them anywhere with an internet connection -- so long as you remember your login!
  • OneNote, another notetaking tool available through Microsoft Office or Office 365
    • As a student, you have free access to this tool through your app download options in your Office 365 student email account.

More information coming soon!

Interpersonal Skills

Regularly updating your clients, managers, supervisors, etc. on the progress of about a project is an every day occurrence for many of us.  However, putting your best “foot” forward in writing is both an art and a skill.  There are a number of things to keep in mind when crafting emails that will be sent out, and the links below detail important information to always bear in mind.  

If you're not a librarian, you're probably wondering what a reference interview is, and how it relates to you and your work.  

In our profession, we conduct reference interviews when we're assisting a patron (usually with research) and need more information about their question or issue in order to successfully help them. Reference interviews are about extracting details that help us piece together a more complete picture of a person's request. We call them interviews because they often require several incremental questions and answers. With each new answer, we get a little closer to what the person really needs.

This back-and-forth process may sound tedious, but it's an essential process in our profession, and translates enormously to client-consultant relationships. Some example scenarios that suit this process well include business consulting (e.g., projects in MGMT 429)...

Reference interviews require constant patience, empathy, analysis, and logic...


In the library world, working with library patrons who come to us with a specific information need is referred to as a "Reference Interview".  Librarians working at a Help Desk/Information Desk used to be called Reference Librarians, and as such we conducted Reference Interviews.  Patrons can start off by asking something as generic as "Do you have any stuff for my paper?" or they can have already narrowed things down to a precise need "I need to find a diary from an World War II soldier who was stationed in France."  Either way, the next step for the librarian helping either patron is never straightforward - and never comes with a barrage of accompanying open-ended questions.  This back and forth dance, this trying to get at the very root of what it is the patron - your client - needs, is at the heart of every good interview. 


Software Engineers call this interaction a Design Interview, while people in the consulting business frequently call it a Needs Assessment.  Whatever you call it, the interaction with a client as you get to know their business and their needs is a vital step in forging a strong working relationship that will last over the design period and into the implementation phase. In fact, that initial consultation can be unbelievably crucial to simply securing the job in the first place.

Studies have shown in the library world that over one quarter of library patrons would return to get help from the same librarian who was unable to provide them with an answer to their original question, simply because of the outstanding level of customer service that they received.  In fact, it has also been found that the librarian's "level of interest in the patron, lack of judgement, and ability to put the patron at ease and make them feel comfortable are often more important to the patrons than receiving a full or accurate answer."  (Durrance, 1989.  It therefore is not an exaggeration to say that all GIS Managers need to learn and become proficient with the sort of 'soft skills' of interviewing that are rarely taught in higher education.  A checklist of these skills is contained in this module in PDF format for you to read over and think about.  Becoming aware of your own interview habits and where perhaps you might need to spend some time improving your behavior can make a significant difference in your success with current and future clients.  

Here is an article about teaching interviewing skills to undergraduate software engineering students (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. - read over the article, paying particular attention to the areas where the discipline of software engineering clearly overlaps with that of GIS.  

Other articles on this very topic (of which there are many!) have a variety of interesting and relevant bits of information that are widely applicable to GIS Managers who are looking to improve their interview skills:

  • Questions in an interview are not truly as essential as folks might think - it is listening that is more important.  Relying too much on a list of questions may take the focus away from what the client needs to talk about, or may even force the client to talk about something that is ultimately irrelevant to them.  
  • It is incredibly important to "dial back a query: to the point of finding out what is required, and differentiating that from what is asked for."  (Smith, 2012)
  • It has been shown that two 1-hour interviews are better, and result in a higher level of understanding, than a single two-hour long focus session. 
  • When presented with too much jargon, people either become frustrated and shut down, or else agree to everything suggested -  just to end the session quickly.  
  • Patrons/clients have a particular difficulty in articulating their question or information need because they are describing something they either do not truly know, or else they have incomplete information about it.
  • Frequently when talking about technology you need to focus on the task to be accomplished, and not the tool originally requested.   


Works Mentioned 

Durrance, J.  (1989).  Reference success:  Does the 55 percent rule tell the whole story?  Library Journal, 114, 31-36.  

Smith, J.A.  (2012).  Technology and Tradition: Managing technology requests using basic library science techniques.  AAL Spectrum, June, 11-12.  

TED Talk - 'Start With Why' by Simon Sinek

We all know the stereotypes that are out there - - supposedly, people go into the sciences because they are good at math and understanding "technical things" - and people also supposedly become scientists because they are not good at/don't like public speaking and writing.  However those stereotypes (however much they may or may not be true) are never valid excuses for scientists to fumble through an interaction with a non-scientific colleague or client, or give an overly-technical presentation to a room full of donors or budget directors whose eyes glazed over in dual incomprehension and boredom five minutes into the talk!  I have created this discussion post in the hopes that we can shed some light on the finer points of interacting with non-scientific folks of all types and kinds so that you will emerge from this course with your presentation/lecture/reports a bit more refined and a bit more user-f

Surveys of supervisors who manage engineers have shown that there is a great deal of general lamentation about engineers' inability to communicate effectively.  In fact, the general comment  "Can't you teach them to speak and write so they can be understood?" was one that was most frequently heard.  And while it is common for students and faculty alike to either gloss over this skill and simply assume that it is (a) either already present in their curriculum/their students or (b) something that they will learn on the job - the reality of the matter is that effective communication from a scientist to a general layperson is a true skill that is rarely present in most students' wheelhouse - and can be a difficult and painful skill to learn while on the job.  

Practicing scientists can be expected to regularly need to do the following:

  • Speak before large groups.
  • Elicit information during conversations and committee meetings
  • Prepare informative messages for small groups
  • Conduct recruiting interviews
  • Deliver project reports
  • Answer questions asked by people of widely varying degrees of technical sophistication
  • Convey highly technical information to persons not trained in the discipline.


Bearing all of that in mind, read over the attached article and then let's talk about these communication skills and tasks!  Have you ever had to give a professional GIS-based presentation?  If so, how did it go?  Have you ever sat through a deadly presentation yourself?  Sat through a great one?  What were the differences in these presentations?