During 2017, I met with Michelle Ellington after hearing about her from my Esri colleague George “Geo” Dailey. Geo told me that Michelle was one of the most stellar campus facilities administrators he had ever met, but even this high praise did not prepare me for the amazing work that Michelle showed me when I visited her office at the University of Kentucky. Imagine having the job of managing the best way to create, maintain, and network all of the infrastructure on a major university campus — every light pole, water main, fiber optic cable, sidewalk, tree, exterior door, and much more. That’s what Michelle and her team do, day by day. Meeting her staff, it was immediately apparent that Michelle is one of those rare leaders who inspires everyone to be their absolute best, and no matter what their role, they feel that they are a critical part of the team. The innovative tools and methods they are using are helping make the university more efficient, cost-effective, and sustainable. Therefore, it is my great pleasure to introduce Michelle to you, and, through her story, inspire you to make a positive difference on your campus or wherever you happen to be.
Michelle’s position is, in my view, one of those “unsung hero” types of positions on a campus. How did she gain the knowledge and skills necessary to fulfill all of her responsibilities? Michelle said, “I’m currently the GIS coordinator for the University of Kentucky Facilities Information Services as well as the president for the Campus FM Technology Association. I worked in the private sector for seven years before coming to UK and am a past president of the Kentucky Association of Mapping Professionals. Folks in the campus GIS world or Kentucky mapping community are my people and we are a tight group. I enjoy serving in leadership positions for professional non-profit organizations because it connects me closer with people who are passionate about the work they do. I love the CFTA community specifically because everyone so freely exchanges information. There’s a like-minded viewpoint shared across CFTA where everyone wins if we all work together and collectively share our successful strategies and implementations.”
What convinced Michelle to enter this field? “I was living in Alaska in my early 20’s (late 1990’s) in between college years, alpine trekking near Valdez,” she said. “We were using a GPS in whiteout conditions for wayfinding, and I just thought it was a powerful technology. When I went back to school at the University of Georgia, I asked my anthropology professor, Dr. Garrison, if he knew about GPS technology and had any recommendation on what I could do with it upon graduation. He steered me to the university’s Information Technology Outreach Services, and there I landed my first GIS job digitizing lakes to the Georgia base map for the Department of Transportation. Since then, I have worked for engineering and photogrammetry firms using GIS in a variety of applications until I found my home at the University of Kentucky in 2006.”
“A little over a year ago we hired a young woman and fellow alumni from UGA. She is an anthropology graduate, like me, and Dr. Garrison was an inspirational teacher to her as well. She is doing great work in our department and doesn’t have a GIS degree either. GIS is an over-arching technology with unlimited potential and I believe it could be taught across multiple college curriculums. As a hiring official, I’m typically not swayed to hire someone with a GIS degree over someone without. I seek individuals who are technical, methodical, see relationships and patterns, spot anomalies, as well as those who are flexible to adapt to the ever-changing advancements in geospatial technologies.”
I asked Michelle, “What one person, class, or topic most inspired you during your career?” She said, “Without question, my supervisor, Andrew Blues, FIS associate director, is my biggest professional inspiration. I feel fortunate that Andrew has been my mentor for over 10 years. He inspires me to believe that I am the “best in the world” as the GIS coordinator for the University of Kentucky ([see the] Hedgehog Concept from the book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins). He brought lean management principles into my life, which is the foundation of how our department works and why I believe FIS has received several local and international awards. He is a gifted mentor and continues to support me immensely with all I do. A great mentor does not tell you what you want to hear; they see your potential, sharpen you, and encourage you to find your best and work to achieve it. I’m very thankful for Andrew in my life and hope he will continue to mentor me for many more years to come.”
What project is Michelle the proudest of being a part? “There was one significant project that put us on the map as a leader in GIS floor plan mapping. In 2008, we partnered with a contractor to develop the UK GIS Facilities Management System for a new UK hospital, Pavilion A. We went from a vision to successful deployment of an enterprise GIS interior space mapping application used to facilitate the occupancy of a 16-floor 1.2 million square foot Level 1 Trauma Center. The GISFMS had an interactive map interface and dynamically generated Room Data Sheets used to track move-in. The RDS showed where the space was in the building and listed all technologies, furniture, and equipment present in each room. Each RDS was posted to the door of its associated room and assets were checked off in the system until occupancy was complete. This application was well received within the GIS community and in 2011 we received an Esri Vision Award at the Esri Health Conference followed by the Esri Special Achievement in GIS Award in 2012.”
“GIS floor plan mapping wasn’t as pervasive in 2008 as it is now, so we were definitely a leader in this new space. Our application was built off the Flex API so, unfortunately, the GISFMS application died off once Apple’s iOS took hold of the mobile market, but that’s just the price of being on the bleeding edge of technology. Back then, we could take these kinds of risks because it was pretty much just Andrew and me supporting a few projects while building a GIS service area, whereas today we have about 30 employees and three distinct teams in our department. FIS is now a recharge unit that services many customers across multiple UK areas so we have to be more selective when choosing large, high-risk project opportunities that come our way. The experience gained from the GISFMS project, along with Andrew’s leadership, has inspired a belief that we are successful innovators. This mindset has now become part of our department’s DNA.”
“The second project I’m extremely proud of is the Miller Fork rock climbing guidebook that my husband, Ray, and I self-published. We’ve both been rock climbing for over 20 years and Ray has authored many editions of the Red River Gorge Climbing guidebooks since 2005. In 2014, his publisher unexpectedly passed, so we decided to create an innovative guidebook for a new climbing area with a couple of friends. The book is filled with GPS surveyed 3D maps, analytical charts and graphs, eye candy illustrations, professional photography, and Ray’s reputable route descriptions. I developed much of the content and coordinated the entire project from beginning to end in under six months while working a full-time job. It was an extremely challenging and fulfilling project and I definitely think there will be more self-publishing in my future. My husband and I are outdoor enthusiasts with a passion for technology so documenting our recreational activity information in databases is a fun hobby.”
What does Michelle feel is the most important thing we, the geographic community, need to work on? “I think the most important thing every community needs to work on is learning how to be more efficient so we can use our time more wisely to accomplish great things and enjoy life to its fullest (work-life balance). Everyone is so busy! I don’t feel busy; I definitely have a lot of things in motion but I rely on the Lean strategies I’ve learned to create successful plans and accomplish goals. Being a student of Lean for many years has taught me to “be good to my future self” by documenting all my work and developing systems that are self-servicing so I don’t have to always be accountable for their upkeep. Nearly everything I do is standardized, documented, and taught to others with the hopes of growing them into future leaders. I welcome anyone to contact me to learn more about Lean and how it makes life easier, more rewarding, and promotes success.”
What is Michelle’s advice to a new geographer, surveyor, or GIS professional? “My advice would be to focus on the term “geospatial” instead of “GIS.” Our community and industry is not just one technology, tool, or software application. To be successful as a geospatial professional today you must be aware of all the many components and how they integrate. You also must be disciplined and flexible enough to learn new systems and quickly dive into new technologies instead of staying anchored into something just because you’re good at it. Also, join professional non-profit organizations and volunteer to help them meet their mission and goals. Through helping the industry in this way, you will exponentially grow as a professional and make meaningful relationships along the way.”
Michelle also shared this quote, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” – Thomas Edison
To read about more of these "geoinspirations", see my column in Directions Magazine. This column is published every two months; some are in text format and others are in podcast format. Enjoy and be inspired!