Executive Interview

Lawrie Jordan, Director of Imagery, ESRI

A Passionate Pioneer is Back in the Saddle

Lawrie Jordan ESRI

Lawrie Jordan is Director of Imagery for ESRI, as well as Special Assistant to Jack Dangermond, President of ESRI. In this capacity, he serves as an advocate for successful applications of all forms of imagery within the GIS enterprise, including environmental, civil, and defense solutions. Mr. Jordan has over 30 years of experience as a leader in the field of image processing and remote sensing, including a long-standing strategic partnership with ESRI. He has been an advisor to numerous government organizations on current and future trends involving imagery and satellite programs. His background education is in Landscape Architecture, with degrees from The University of Georgia and Harvard University.

Imaging Notes (IN) You started ERDAS straight out of graduate school and built a successful career. What inspired you to be in the industry in the first place?

Lawrie Jordan (LJ) Graduate school was really the motivation. I had the good fortune to go to Harvard Graduate School of Design back in the early ‘70s. This is the school where the current GIS technology has its roots. Jack Dangermond, our founder, went through the same program under Professor Carl Steinitz. At the time, we were building digital GIS databases there by hand doing manual encoding of the data. Then, in 1972, the first digital imaging satellite was launched, LANDSAT-1. At the time it was known as ERTS: Earth Resource Technology Satellite. What was great about this was that the vegetation information from it was already digital. This saved us a tremendous amount of time building these digital GIS databases. Instead of manually encoding the data, we could pull it directly off the satellite. So I became fascinated with that. And I thought, wow, this is really interesting.

Interviewed by Karen Nozik
Eco-writer, LLC

With two very good friends, Bruce Rado, also a graduate school colleague, and Nicholas Faust from Georgia Tech – the three of us got together, and started ERDAS in 1978.

IN And then you had twenty years of success, then you decided to retire, and then you came out of retirement to work for ESRI. What made you come out of retirement?

LJ We sold the company to Leica Geosystems in 2001, and I decided it would be great to spend more time with my two beautiful young daught-ers. They were growing up so quickly. Next thing you know, they’re just as tall as their dad, off to college, and I’m sitting around sort of thinking, you know, gee, this “retirement thing” is pretty boring. I miss the technology. I miss my friends, I miss the project work that we used to do and the success stories, and the technology is always fascinating.

A friend said, “Why don’t you give your friend Jack Dangermond a call and see what his thoughts are?” I gave him a call, and he said, “Come on out; let’s talk.”

IN And how are you finding the challenge of it?

LJ It’s a fascinating time. I call it, “The Dawn of a New Era – The Platinum Age of Imagery.” We’re seeing an explosion of gorgeous, high-resolution, multi-spectral imagery, very rich color fidelity, very high pixel resolution, near real-time systems… It’s really exciting.

IN It is amazing to think how fast the technology is moving. From the time you retired to the time you re-entered the work force, especially in the last three years…

LJ It’s true. The commercial companies that are launching these systems are doing a tremendous job. Imagery is a driving force in GIS. We like to think of imagery and GIS as two sides of the same coin. They’re really complement-ary to each other, they complete each other, they reinforce each other, they inform each other, and they are really incomplete without each other.

IN Has the global economic meltdown affected ESRI’s business?

LJ You know it’s curious; there’s no doubt that these are stressful times for everybody on the planet. However, that being said, our business continues to grow. We’ve seen significantly positive growth last year and again this year. So we are both confident and enthusiastic. I think there’s a growing awareness that even in a difficult situation, GIS technology can actually help you reduce cost and save money if applied wisely.

I’ll give you one example of this. One of our big clients has been using our technology to figure out where to locate stores for years and years. So curiously, when the economy started affecting their business, you would think our sales to this client would go down, but they actually went up! They bought more licenses to figure out which stores they no longer needed to keep open.

So it’s just fascinating. There can be silver linings everywhere you look. And I think the technology has true value in good times and in bad. And from a global sustainability standpoint, I think it’s timeless. GIS itself has actually evolved into a critical infrastructure, and it’s the primary technology to help us sustain the Earth’s environment. No doubt about it.

IN Do farmers have access to this kind of technology?

LJ Absolutely. Every aspect of the agricultural industry on the planet uses this technology. I was recently in Colombia, and the coffee growers – actually they grow the little bushes and the beans – use it. We got to meet [people from] the country’s largest coffee-growing association – really fascinating people. They count the bushes and they do an inventory using our mobile technology. They actual-ly have their imagery in maps on a mobile pad and they count these things and add up their inventory and look at the health of things. Precision farming is a big application of this, and the entire continent of Europe has various programs for agricultural subsidies to determine how many hectares of the land are in sustainable crops, and farmers get paid subsidies. This is all driven by imagery and GIS.

IN Which ESRI products fall under your domain?

LJ There are two main areas of responsibility for my position, both of which I enjoy and take seriously. The first is serving as Director of Imagery, which includes responsibility for the company’s overall imagery strategy. The second is as special assistant to Jack Dangermond, which involves providing all necessary support to insure our messaging, vision and purpose is delivered globally, often in person. There really is a global market for this technology, and ESRI has been global for a long time. Imagery is clearly a global phenomenon.

GeoEye-1 high-resolution satellite imagery over Queenstown, New Zealand with local government parcel basemap.

IN So as the Director for Imagery, 100% falls under your domain, yes?

LJ We have a whole suite of products; our flagship product is ArcGIS, the new version 10, and we have a broad range of products that are part of that ArcGIS family, and all of them are imagery enabled and imagery aware. We have desktop products, we have server products, we have mobile products, we now have a cloud initiative and all of those have imagery at their center, at their core. The fact that imagery is prevalent throughout our entire line is a key strength, and I am fortunate to be able to work with each of the teams who are creating these capabilities.

IN Great job to come out of retirement for!

LJ Oh, it’s fascinating. I would pay them to let me work here! I couldn’t be happier. Someone said recently, you seem really happy lately! Of course I am, I get to do what I love to do, and I’m around the people that I really enjoy and appreciate and I’m learning every day – so many things to learn about this; you’re always a student.

IN Anything we haven’t covered that you’d like people to specifically know?

LJ I would like to add that I love Imaging Notes. The graphics, the quality, the lay out… everything about it to me is fascinating. I wish we’d had this from the very beginning back in the ‘70s. It’s a great magazine. We’re big fans of it; I have it on my desk and I look at it every time it comes out. It communicates very effectively because it takes some of the science and the mumbo jumbo out of it and it gets right to storytelling. And I think that’s the essence of how we communicate with each other is to not go over some technical feature function check list, like, “Oh yeah, we do maximum likelihood, and we do parallel processing…” This is story telling. This is saving lives, saving time, saving money, making the world a better place – asking, how did they do that? Tell me all about it, tell me a story.

One final thing I want to make clear. We don’t really look at other companies as competitors. We don’t think of Google as a competitor. We respect them highly. They have done a great service to society. We’re very much inter-operable with them. But our agenda is focused on listening to what users tell us they want instead of asking, “Do we do what this company does, or that company does?” The main focus is to key in on the success of the users. Pay attention to them, and everything else works out, and it has. And they’ll let you know if you’re not paying attention to them – which is a good thing.

So that’s really the reason why we get together in San Diego [at the User Conference] every year, is to listen. We’re listening. And we actually act on it. So if you come year after year, you’ll see that people say, “Thank you. We told you this last year, and here it is this year.”

IN Is it odd for you that you now work for ESRI? Do you ever feel like you used to work for the Red Sox and now you work for the Yankees?

LJ No, not at all. ESRI and ERDAS worked closely together for many years. I respect them all very highly, and we continue to enjoy good friendships. The previous management of ERDAS made a business decision some time earlier to pursue a different path, so of course we respected that. Although the compan-ies’ technologies are no longer tightly integrated, they are still interoperable at the data exchange level.

Today, we have a new set of imagery partners that we’re doing much tighter integration with, such as ITT VIS and their ENVI product. I just came from their board meeting across the parking lot! They have some great technology and they’re doing a lot of investment in integrating within ArcGIS, which is key to success for us. We’re very proud of them. Good folks, good technology. Originally I thought of them as only hyperspectral years ago but they are so much more than that. They’re very much into advanced feature extraction, work flows, a bunch of other great imagery tools.

So no, again we don’t really think of other companies or other ones that are in the market space as competitors that drive the agenda. Our customers drive the true agenda. And the main challenge is to continue to listen to them, and then deliver what it is that they tell us they need. And it’s a job that’s never done. And that’s a good thing that it’s not. It’s keeping us all very busy.

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