Interview: Niels van der Vaart

Niels van der Vaart

Niels van der Vaart

Where do you currently work, and what position do you work in?

Currently I’m working at Esri Netherlands. Esri is a software vendor and we make software for GIS applications. In the Netherlands, Esri is with approximately 175 people. So we’re a medium sized company, but part of a bigger ecosystem of course. My current role is that of the manager of innovation and portfolio development. So what I do is I’m nurturing innovation within the organization, mostly technological innovation. This means new techniques which we see on the horizon, but also new product development. Sometimes it is tied to regulations which we have in the Netherlands, on specific Dutch data sets, as the Basisregistratie ondergrond (BRO) for example. And on the other hand I try to see which components from these innovations and new products we have which we can bundle in a sort of proposition which answers a specific question in the market, or a specific customer demand. So that’s my main role now at Esri. That means that I’m working with lots of people within the organization, so I deal a lot with our business development and sales people when it comes to what is going on in the market. And I work with our CTO, and other technical people, about what new innovations are coming, as well as with our product development.

The downside of working with that many people within the organization is that you have to spend a lot of time in calls to coordinate. But what I like a lot about what I’m doing is that the topics are different all the time, and that is the advantage of working for a software company that has a lot of different customers. You get to see what happens in a lot of different organizations both from the public and private sectors, and the evolving technologies keep the work really interesting.


Is this your first position after graduation?

This is my second job after graduating GIMA, so I’m not much of a job hopper. At first, I started as a researcher at Utrecht University, where I was supposed to do my PhD, but it didn’t work out, it just wasn’t a match. Then I moved to Esri, because friends convinced me that it was a nice place to work at. I decided to take the step and it has been a wonderful time here ever since. I have worked in a couple of positions within Esri now as well, so I started within the tech support, where I worked for three years. I had all kinds of different tasks there, like small consultancy projects and customer training. This position gave me a lot of freedom, which I really liked. After that, I moved to the consultancy department, where I worked in pre-sales, which means that I did software demos both individually with the customer and in front of big audiences at conferences. And then my role switched a bit more into product management, where I spent more time in defining how we manage our portfolio. At that time, our software portfolio had broadened over the years, so managing this portfolio has evolved into the role that I have now. So I never took on a new role from one day to the next, it has always been a smooth transition from one role to the next.


Of the skills that you acquired during GIMA, which ones are most important for your professional life now?

I think the foundational contents I learned during the programme are most important for me. If you talk to a customer, and you have this knowledge you can have this kind of laser-vision, which lets you envision how their problem can be solved technologically. This is something you can only do if you understand the fundamentals. Also, the internship was really valuable for me. I did my internship at an NGO in Amsterdam called Waag society. I was working on a project called Power Mapping, which was trying to find out how much energy could be produced decentralized, so if people started producing their own wind energy. Back then this was a cutting edge topic and I really liked it a lot.


What did you like most about GIMA?

Well there are a couple of things: I liked the composition of the student population, one half was full time and the other half was part time, one half was Dutch and the other half was international. So I liked that a lot, and using web conferencing tools was kind of new back then. Another thing I enjoyed was actually working a lot with GIS. During the bachelor’s, there was a lot of reading and writing, and then GIMA was a lot more practical. And after having obtained my bachelor’s in human geography, I really enjoyed the technical aspects of GIS as well. Lastly, I loved the deeper involvement I had with the programme, as I was also working as the GIMA secretary back then, which allowed me to have more contact with both the teaching stuff, but also the students.


Do you have any additional advice for current GIMA students?

I would give the advice to write your thesis before the internship, but I know that this has now changed and this is the new order prescribed by the programme anyway. Secondly, do your internship at an organization that you think is really interesting. So if you get the chance to do something different, like this internship project I once saw about marine research in Greece, I say go for it, this is the opportunity to do something strange! And once you start working in an organization, don’t restrict yourself to what is in your function description, just do the things you like a lot, until somebody calls you back. Don’t wait for someone to give you orders and take some freedom to do the things you like, because that will make you enthusiastic, make you grow and it will also add benefit for your employer.

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