Friday, 20 July 2012

What Makes ESRI Software Tick?

Monday, November 22nd 1999
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Clint Brown is the Manager of the Software Products Division at ESRI. I first met Clint about a dozen years ago in Redlands, when I was working for the City of Los Angeles. Since then we have often run into one another, and I've wondered what his job - arguably one of the most important in GIS software - is really like. Clint spent an hour recently answering my questions for Directions readers.
Elroi: What brought you to ESRI?
Brown: I came here in 1983. I was working in Alaska. I worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service on National Wildlife Refuge Planning. We were starting to implement some GIS systems to support master planning on national wildlife refuges. There’s about 70 million acres of refuge lands in Alaska. To look at these refuges as a whole was really difficult. ESRI had been building integrated terrain databases for lots of parts of Alaska, so that’s how I got to know ESRI. I got a job here, and started working with Scott [Morehouse]. He had a little team of programmers. We started on ArcInfo V.2, before AML. We had 55 employees and about 10 user sites. There were about 15 people at the user conference. [Now there are] maybe 1,200 [staff] in Redlands, 1,500 overall in the US, [with] maybe 100 [core] programmers.
Did you have a background in geography?
Actually, I have a Masters Degree in theoretical statistics. Before that I got a degree in econometrics; economics with a strong analytical/mathematical bent. I always wanted to do environmental, ecological work: population dynamics, things like that. Somehow that led to GIS. I stumbled my way through life and ended up here.
You play guitar in the Gridlock Band; what else do you do at ESRI?
I should make this clear. There’s a little band I play in called Road to Ruin, with two other guys, Dale Honeycutt and Dave Sousa. Then the Gridlock band is the big stage band that plays [at the Users Conference] and [has] about 20 other people from ESRI. (More on Clint's Rock and Roll connection here.)
I’m the manager of the Software Products Division here. The division has a number of programmers, but mainly a lot of GIS Analysts, and other kinds of analysts and specialist writers. We work closely with another division here called Software Development. Scott Morehouse runs that division. There’s [also] a special group here out of Marketing called Product Planning, with product managers and GIS analysts who really pay a lot of attention to user requirements in different industries and try to help set priorities for us, tell us the direction ahead. That group is relatively small, but real important. It’s run by David Maguire.
"Each of these teams is like a little craft guild."
So it’s really those three groups, organized together, that define the project goals, design the software, and build it. Our people form teams that build products. For any particular product, like ArcView or ArcInfo, we’ll have a team building the next version of the software. Scott’s programmers and my analysts get together and try to take input from lots of sources and turn those into designs. Those designs then become software. My people write documentation, run tests, manage releases, run beta programs, produce the CDs. Our people build the software. Every team is a little bit different. Teams are typically small: 4 to 8 people. There’s a number of development projects that are functionally organized; so there’ll be a team that works on raster GIS, a team that works on cartography, a team on 3D. The people that I manage typically take more responsibility for the design of the help and the test suite and the manuals; Scott’s people do it for the software in terms of the architecture. Each of these little teams is like a little craft guild; they do everything, from the design through repairing bugs. So there’s a lot of ownership.
What is the nature of your day-to-day activity
I talk to users some. I’ll travel to meetings maybe 10 times a year. We have some customer meetings. But a lot of what happens here are project meetings and design meetings. One of the things I take a strong role in here is trying to find the people, meet them, get my own sense of who they are. I do a lot of interviews. And plenty of responding to requests via email. I put a lot of high level conceptual presentations. I work a lot on the overall scope and goals for our products. In the last year or two, a lot of that has been about integration of our products.
What contributes the most to software changes at ESRI?
I think users are. Existing users. Now, a lot of times what users tell us are things we ought to do. And we’ll try to listen to the words, but try to get a larger message. What we try to do is be responsive. Like, if you walk around at the poster session on Monday, it’s incredible! With this degree in statistics, I used to think “I can do all this modeling stuff, that’s what I did before I got here.” But I realized a few years ago, going through those map exhibits, no I can’t! You know, these users are pretty special. So it pays to listen. It really has made a big difference for us. That’s top down; that, besides the overall vision, is probably the most important thing that Jack contributes. There are lots of other influences. There are competitors that do well. There are other kinds of market influences. There’s where the technology is heading. There are new opportunities. There’s lots of things. But I’d say the one thing that keeps us focused, that we all come back to, is those user requirements.
How do you keep this all together in your head?
A few things. One is… we know that it’s not a perfect world. You can evolve it over time. Part of it is dangerous. If we were a public company, stockholders would hate our guts, just like they do most GIS companies. One of the things that we do, we don’t do things in total isolation. We’ll present ideas, get reactions, then use those to improve and refine our thinking. I don’t think that at a fundamental level we’re ever too far off the mark, but I think what kind of feedback we get really helps us refine our vision.
Do some decisions cause you to lose sleep at night?
No. I don’t know how anybody else does it, but I don’t. I have a personality where I kind of charge through life. I don’t agonize too much. People who charge through life are already at a 45 degree angle; it’s not that far to the bed, and sleep.
What keeps you at ESRI?
GIS is just a field that, once it captures you, you’re hooked. When you see what users do with GIS it’s pretty easy to get excited about your job. And a lot happens here. I’m lucky enough to be in a position to have some influence on what we do. So I get real satisfaction from my job. Every time we do a new product or a new release, it’s really like starting over again. You take all the mistakes you’ve made, all the things you’ve learned, all the feedback you’ve heard, and synthesize it into something. A few years ago we found out we were one of the top 50 software companies in the world in terms of revenue. And that to us was really shocking! It’s been fun to grow a software company out of nothing.
See Daniel Elroi's The Future of ESRI Software"
Thanks to Yotam Givon for the caricature of Clint Brown.
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