GIS management with HS2: it’s like Geography 2.0!

Geographical Information Systems (GIS) is all about using technology to get the most useful information possible about any geographical area. Find out more with Mike White from HS2!

Mike is a Geographical Information Systems (GIS) Manager for HS2. After his A-levels, he trained with the Environment Agency before university, and ended up with the ideal career: it combines his passion for geography with his enjoyment of solving problems.

Tell us about your job...

"The GIS industry is booming and technology is getting smarter..."

I work in London as a GIS Manager for HS2 Ltd. GIS stands for Geographical Information Systems, and it’s all about using information technology and data in a geographical context – for example, to produce maps and digital web mapping (like Google Maps), or carry out analytical work.

I use GIS to help answer complex questions about HS2. This can involve working with a wide range of engineering and environmental specialists, such as tunnel engineers, archaeologists and ecologists. I also work with government officials, giving them the information to help make the right decisions about the project. We also produce lots of maps, for example to help members of the public understand HS2. Using the GIS software, I can answer these questions in a quick time frame; before GIS existed, someone would have had to do this by hand with paper maps!

What are the best bits about your job?

Because GIS is such a powerful tool and can be so beneficial to everyone, my team and I are involved in lots of different projects within HS2. I get to know lots of people across the organisation, and I also get to learn about lots of different subjects, like archaeology, noise, economics and town planning, as well as what goes on in Parliament.

My role also gives me the opportunity to be innovative and think out of the box. The GIS industry is booming and technology is getting smarter and smarter, especially in being able to complete tasks faster and cheaper. People are also becoming much more used to having data at their fingertips because of the smartphone revolution, and we can integrate GIS with things like social media. I love receiving a project and seeing what I can do differently and more efficiently.

What top skills or qualities are important in this job?

  1. An ability to spot trends and patterns. Working with data is about understanding what the data is telling you – what the trends are, if there are any patterns, and being able to spot anything weird or unusual.
  2. Being methodical. Your work will be interpreted by many others and used to make decisions, so it needs to be top notch!
  3. Being innovative and having the ability to think outside of the box is a great quality to have.

How did you get into a GIS technology career?

"[With GIS mapping] I was doing something that combined geography, mathematics and my natural enjoyment for solving problems and puzzles!"

I always wanted to do something related to geography, given my enthusiasm and aptitude for the subject at school. I decided I wanted to work in engineering, so I chose Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Geography (because I enjoyed it), with a view to studying marine and coastal engineering.

But I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped in my A-Levels: a B in Geography, a D in Maths, and a D in AS Physics, and I dropped Further Maths after one term.

I had planned to go to university, but instead I found a two-year foundation degree training programme with the Environment Agency (EA). This programme combined a distance course in Rivers and Coastal Engineering at the University of West England (UWE) with working full time for the EA, so it was a lot like a Higher Apprenticeship. After graduation, I got a permanent position at the EA in Flood Risk Mapping and Modelling, using GIS to model and map where flooding could occur.

I really enjoyed the work, and was lucky to work with an enthusiastic individual who sparked my interest in this area. Suddenly it struck me that I was doing something that combined geography, mathematics and my natural enjoyment for solving problems and puzzles!

Three years after earning my foundation degree, I converted it into a BSc Hons in Rivers and Coastal Engineering. And a few more years on, I am now a GIS Manager on Europe’s biggest infrastructure project at the age of 27. Not somewhere I saw myself when I was 18!

The combination of studying and working has certainly given me a head start on the job ladder compared with my peers. Especially after not exactly doing brilliantly in my A-levels!

Did you overcome any personal challenges to get to where you are?

I was quite shy as a kid. Working in a professional environment since the age of 18 has changed that. I’m much more confident in presenting and communicating my work, and sometimes I even challenge more senior managers on business decisions!

Any job hunting tips to share?

Make sure your CV is concise and to the point. If writing isn’t your strong point, get someone else to review and check before you submit anything.

Understand the difference between a CV, a personal statement and a cover letter. Tailor the contents based on what’s in the job application.

If you are going to put ‘other interests’ on your CV, don’t put things down like ‘socialising’ or ‘going on holiday’. We’re human, it’s in our nature to want to socialise. Put down something more substantial if you can: you’re a qualified sport coach, you volunteer at a local charity one day a week. This tells a prospective employer so much more about you as a person.

Don’t be afraid to use skills and experience from extracurricular activities to demonstrate your ability in the criteria set out on a job specification. For example, if you’re a qualified coach, team captain or involved in a local club, this can show an employer you have the communication, organisational and leadership skills required for a job.

More about careers with HS2

Are you interested in creating real change? Using technology to put the passenger in control? More than just a railway, HS2 is about unlocking potential, and making better connections between people and places. It’s about finding new skills, growing new industries, and starting thousands of people on a rewarding career. This takes ideas, and it takes creativity. If you want to help build the country’s biggest mega project, and get Britain moving in all the right directions, HS2 could have the career for you.

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