David Maguire, ESRI’s Chief Scientist, announced in late November 2008 that he was taking an administrative position at Birmingham City University. At the same time he will continue to support ESRI as Chief Scientific Advisor, advising ESRI on some projects and visiting Redlands periodically.
I had the chance to sit down and chat for a few minutes with David on Boxing Day, December 26th, 2008, a few days before his departure.
So David, tell me about your new position.
The new position is called Pro Vice chancellor for Corporate Development at Birmingham City University which basically translates into U.S.-speak as Vice President for Research and Enterprise.
Will you be teaching classes there as well?
No, I’ll be doing other things; it’s an administrative position so it’s really about running the University. I hope to do a little teaching; there are some courses in GIS at the University and I hope to contribute to some of those.
Will you be able to use this new position to further GIS research and development?
I definitely plan to stay involved in doing that, obviously through the ESRI connection but also through the University connection and the connections I’ve got with the GIS community in Europe and North America. I definitely want to stay in touch. I’ve been working in this field for 25 years; I don’t want to go overboard just yet. I want to stay involved as long as I can.
How will your relationship with the University of Redlands change with you moving?
I’ve been working to support the University of Redlands for several years. For two years I was the special assistant to the President of the University, focusing on GIS and information technology. That’s now finished although in an informal way I’m still helping support them and offering advice as I can for the various GIS programs they’ve got going there in the Environmental Studies program and the Business school.
In your role as ESRI’s Chief Scientist for about the last 18 months, what do you think have been your primary accomplishments?
I think the main accomplishment was to raise awareness of the importance of science as one of the underpinning areas of knowledge for GIS. And that spans the full spectrum from research and development and adding new features to support the science community, to developing software with a strong scientific foundation, through helping those members of the GIS user community that are interested in working in a scientific context with ESRI software.
Probably the single most important thing is where I encouraged the community inside and outside of ESRI to look a lot more closely at the science behind GIS as well as the scientific application of GIS.
Anything you had hoped to accomplish that you didn’t have time to?
Well the idea of having a science laboratory is one of the ideas that we discussed earlier on but given my departure I don’t think that’s likely to happen in the same sort of way. So it’s a disappointment that we weren’t able to pull that off because I think that’s very important internally and externally for building better software and making sure that the people that use ESRI software apply it in a strong, scientifically appropriate way and that we can learn more about the world and develop better applications based upon scientific traditions and scientific foundations.
Can you share a little more about the concept of the science lab?
The idea was to get together a group of people and a set of resources to build a physical and virtual laboratory which would provide examples of best practice of using GIS in a scientific context, would look at new requirements and implement new features in the software platform which spoke to the needs of the scientific community, would help to raise awareness around the world of the importance of science and scientific applications of GIS, and would build up a body of knowledge and a talent pool of people who understood those basic ideas and could help support people both internally to ESRI and externally.
So you think implementation of a science lab at ESRI will still happen?
I think it will happen but in a different sort of way. Rather than being concentrated and focused around the laboratory, I think that in a number of areas across the company people have already been working on this, for a number of years in some cases, and they’ll continue to do that. I also think that there will be additional pockets that develop…whether or not a champion or a coordinator will emerge over the next one to two years remains to be seen but I hope that there is somebody who feels able and willing to fill that role. I think it’s very important.
I think your last book was The Business Benefits of GIS: An ROI Approach. Are you working on any new book projects now?
We’re working on a third edition of our book Geographical Information Systems and Science. It’s authored by Paul Longely, Michael Goodchild, myself, and David Rhind, and co-published by Wiley and ESRI Press. We’re working on it right now, and I think the target date to get it published is by the end of 2009 by I’m not quite sure about that.
Will you still be working on book projects in your new position?
I don’t know, I’ll have to see…I’ll definitely be writing in one way, shape, or form, because I enjoy doing that. As to how extensive that will be I don’t exactly know. One book project at a time is sometimes more than enough!
You’ve been at ESRI in Redlands since 1997, and before that you were at ESRI UK for about 6 or 7 years. For people out there who use ESRI software, but maybe are not too familiar with the culture, what can you tell them about ESRI?
ESRI is in many respects a unique company. Some of the defining characteristics are the fact that it’s a private company, with same owners through an almost 40 year history, which gives it a very focused and strong cultural background. It’s very strongly focused on GIS—the company isn’t doing anything else—so 100 percent of its focus goes to that. Even though it’s a privately held company, in some respects it’s a lot like a university or a government research organization and there’s a strong value for individual learning and knowledge and contribution to the overall goal.
There’s no question that ESRI has been incredibly successful over the last 40 years and probably will be for many years to come. That’s founded primarily on the quality of the people at all levels throughout the organization. And as an organization, ESRI is global, although with a very strong local focus. I think that combination of global and local is another one of the defining characteristics. A very strong lead comes out of the corporate headquarters in Redlands, California, but each of the individual offices in the United States and each of the individual offices of distributors around the world interprets that direction and applies it in the context of local culture, local tradition, and other local requirements, and adapts the company to best serve and support the user base in their individual geography.
The company has built some fantastic software, and an amazing software platform with ArcGIS which really has no peers in the GIS marketplace and is extremely rich and mature in terms of its capabilities, its structure, and its outlook.
I think another defining characteristic that in my mind is without question one of the key ingredients for ESRI’s success is a very close association with customers. Somewhat fortuitously the idea of organizing an annual user conference—initially in San Bernardino, and then in Palm Springs and later in San Diego—turned out to be one of the great reasons for ESRI’s success. This idea of the software developers, the sales and marketing staff, the applications staff meeting with the users on a regular basis has allowed the company to make sure it builds technology and undertakes projects which directly meet the needs and requirements of the users. It’s a great way to get instant feedback about what works and what doesn’t work.
I think those are some of the things that are unique about ESRI. There are many others; if we had a couple of hours and several drinks we could fill in lots more…
You’ve been directly associated with ESRI for almost 18 years. How do you think the company has changed in that time?
In some respects the company hasn’t really changed at all. It’s the same core values. It’s the same complete focus on and dedication to GIS and the users. Many of the people who where the leading lights at ESRI when I came are still the leading lights.
But at the same time, the company has changed beyond all recognition. It’s many times larger than it was, it has many more employees, and it’s got a much greater global reach. And the software, even though it’s gone through a number of generations of development and several architectures the company has managed to bring the users along and has managed to grow the platform but also grow the knowledge and the capabilities of the user base over that period of time. And I think that right now, in the start of 2009, ESRI has never been better positioned than at any time I’ve been associated with the company and probably any time throughout its 40 year history, so I think even in the present economic circumstances the company is well positioned for sustained success. So in many respects I’m sad to be leaving the company, but am also very pleased to see that it’s going to go from strength to strength in the years to come.
Thanks for taking a few minutes to talk with me, David, and best of luck.