Sarah works in Atkins' Bristol-based geospatial mapping and analysis team, capturing data from satellite imagery and aerial photography, digitizing information from existing maps and plans and collecting data in the field.
What’s your name?
Where do you work?
Atkins, a multinational design, project management and engineering consultancy. I am based in the Bristol office.
What's your job title?
Graduate geographical information systems (GIS) consultant.
How long have you been doing that?
I joined Atkins in August 2012.
How did you get there?
After completing an undergraduate degree in geography, I worked as part of the events management team at the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) in London for two years. When I applied for the role at Atkins through its graduate development programme, I was one year into an MSc course in geographical information systems and science, which I completed via part-time distance learning. The contacts I had developed whilst working in London, along with the skills gained from my MSc course, helped me to stand out as a candidate.
What's the day-to-day experience like?
I work within the geospatial team and we capture data from satellite imagery and aerial photography, digitise information from existing maps and plans, and collect data in the field. We manage the data, conduct data processing and informed analysis, and map or model the data to create two-dimensional and three-dimensional visualisations.
As a graduate GIS consultant my day-to-day work involves sourcing data from local authorities and data providers, capturing and managing it in databases, and undertaking spatial analysis to produce map figures for report appendices.
The role is varied and challenging and, although my clients are mostly from within the company, I have been fortunate to work with people across a wide range of disciplines including ecologists, landscape architects, town planners, transport planners, environmental scientists and heritage consultants. This has also given me the opportunity to visit Atkins’ many offices across the UK and abroad to attend client meetings, and network with other divisions across the company who might benefit from geospatial expertise.
How technically focused is your work?
My work is very technically focused and we use a variety of highly specialised software, including the ESRI ArcGIS Suite, MapInfo, SketchUp, and programming in Python and R.
My work is primarily office-based. However, I have had the opportunity to use handheld mobile GIS devices in the field whilst training the ecology and landscape teams in preparation for a project survey. This required specialised knowledge in ESRI ArcPad software to be able to demonstrate the mobile GIS device functionality and troubleshoot any issues that arose whilst in the field.
What's the best thing about the job?
The geospatial team is spread nationally across a number of offices in Bristol, Birmingham, London and Glasgow. The team works on a wide variety of engineering and environmental projects and thanks to this we are able to share our knowledge with each other, in turn developing more innovative products for our clients. I have found the support provided by the geospatial team incredibly valuable, particularly when I first joined Atkins and was not only learning how the company worked, but also developing my technical skills through applied project work.
And the worst?
The nature of consultancy work often means there is an emphasis on technical staff spending the majority of their time delivering projects. It can therefore be a challenge to dedicate time to self-development tasks and researching industry developments during the working day. This is particularly true in the field of GIS where innovative tools are continually being introduced to improve analysis techniques, develop open source software and enhance technologies such as handheld GPS devices.
What have been your career highlights to date?
I recently had the opportunity to work in Atkins’ Dubai Office in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for one week providing cover for a geospatial colleague on leave. This was my first trip abroad with Atkins and was therefore a great opportunity to broaden my experience by working on new international projects including town planning in the UAE.
One of my recent career highlights was being part of the project team for a rapid-transit bus scheme in Bristol.. The project provided a great opportunity to undertake analysis on an area I was familiar with and, should the project proposals receive approval, I will then have the opportunity to see a project I have worked on being implemented.
Do you consider yourself an engineer?
I don’t consider myself an engineer either by education or profession. However, working for an engineering consultancy provides opportunities to work alongside engineering disciplines on structural and civil projects. Therefore, as part of the wider project team my technical skills in GIS can complement the engineering outputs, such as displaying a structural design model at its correct position on a location map, and performing height and visibility analysis on that design model based on the surrounding topography.
What did you expect when you started work? Did anything surprise you?
When I started working at Atkins, I was one year into my MSc and, although I had a basic technical knowledge of GIS and the theories behind it, applying this knowledge to project tasks was a steep learning curve! Over the past two and a half years I have greatly increased my technical knowledge by working on a wide variety of different projects. I have also recently been managing two environmental impact assessment projects of my own as the GIS lead, carrying out data management across the projects and supporting discipline teams in their environmental analysis. The complexity of managing this work has been particularly challenging and rewarding.
Is there any advice you’d like to pass on to those about to enter an engineering workplace?
Working within an engineering consultancy like Atkins offers many challenges, both in terms of technical skill and time management. In Atkins, we are positively encouraged to innovate and push the boundaries of design and technology, which makes it an exciting environment to work in. The most important advice I would offer is to be open to taking on new challenges to broaden your experience, as you’ll be able to call upon team members for support and new opportunities may arise as a result.
What do you think you'll do next?
My next personal goal is to complete my application and achieve Chartered Geographer (CGeog) status. As well as gaining a professional accreditation to enhance my career profile, it will provide opportunities for networking with like-minded young professionals and allow my personal development and learning to be structured through CPD activities.