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Building Esri: The Relationship Between Geospatial Data and Software

Jack Dangermond
Jack Dangermond
June 9, 2021

Auren talks to Jack Dangermond, CEO of Esri, about his philosophies for building and running the world’s most successful geospatial software company. The two also discuss how software can be used to store, represent, create, and share geographic knowledge for solving problems more holistically.

World of DaaS is brought to you by SafeGraph & Flex Capital. For more episodes, visit

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Welcome to World of DaaS, a podcast tailor-made for people in the data industry, curated by data professionals. Hosted by SafeGraph’s CEO, Auren Hoffman, the podcast invites leaders in business, science, and academia to share their insights on the latest developments in running data organizations.

In the inaugural episode, Auren asks Jack Dangermond about how he built Esri, the world’s largest software company dedicated to geographic information systems (GIS). The two discuss Esri’s unorthodox business model, innovative leadership structure, and pioneering software tools. They also talk about building the Esri community of international data partners, and what Jack sees Esri’s role as in terms of building and expanding access to geographic knowledge. Here are a few quick things to know about Jack and Esri:

  • What is Esri?
  • 5 key takeaways from this podcast about Esri & the relationship between geospatial data and software
  • When was Esri founded, and what’s its history?
  • Jack Dangermond’s bio & what he’s up to now

We’ll start by going into a bit more detail regarding the question “What is Esri?”

What is Esri?

Esri is the world’s largest GIS software company. Jack Dangermond, the founder of Esri, started the company to use computers for solving land use planning and environment conservation issues. Esri’s software tools continue to aid many different organizations with geography-based problem-solving.

5 key takeaways from this podcast about Esri & the relationship between geospatial data and software

Throughout this episode, Jack explains some of his philosophies behind how to use computers, software, and technology in general to represent – or even create – geographic knowledge. He even goes beyond that into using software as a way to integrate geospatial data with other forms of data to enable more holistic approaches to problem-solving. Here are 5 highlights:

1. The key is to have a specific intention in mind 

Time in Podcast: 2:55

Jack says of Esri’s history: “We were interested in applying quantitative tools to environmental problem-solving and land use planning. And out of that intention came the development of tools: analytics tools, mapping tools. And so it’s all about intention.”

2. Keep your eyes and ears open to what people really want and need

Time in Podcast: 22:00

Jack Dangermond quotes here the best advice he ever received from a friend: “I don’t try to be interesting. I try to be interested.” What he means by that is “figuring out something that really serves the market or really helps somebody do something better, or improve, or make a difference with technology and innovation is the key.” He contrasts this with many an invention that’s “just some shiny object or looks cool”; it can make people feel better, but doesn’t help with a problem that anyone actually wants or needs to solve.

3. Facilitate the interplay between the public and private sectors

Time in Podcast: 26:05

Jack notes that many of Esri’s public sector clients create their own geospatial data, e.g. government records of land parcels, road inventories, utilities maps, and so on. So in the beginning, Esri’s business was mainly focused on organizing this public data into formats that private sector customers could use. But now public sector organizations are looking for the same thing regarding private sector data. So Esri aims to facilitate these data acquisitions in ways where both public and private clients “don’t have to maintain them in their own system of record like we did 30 years ago.” 

4. Geospatial data and GIS software form a symbiotic cycle

Time in Podcast: 28:58

Jack sees Esri’s primary function as abstracting geographic knowledge into data via GIS software. Then clients use GIS software to perform analyses on, and build models with, this data relevant to their own purposes. And then those analyses and models become part of geographic knowledge as well, for others to reference and build off of. So Jack sees Esri and its clients as part of a virtuous circle that expands geographic knowledge and access to it.

5. The true power of GIS software is in its ability to join differing sets of data

Time in Podcast: 31:49

Another part of GIS software’s role, as Jack sees it, is to be able to process various different types and formats of data so that they can be queried and joined together. As advances in technology allow for it, this will help people to more holistically visualize and solve problems. Jack believes this will be necessary for tackling complex issues such as climate change, biodiversity, and building smart cities.

When was Esri founded, and what’s its history?

Esri was founded in 1969 by Jack Dangermond and his wife Laura. As Jack tells it, the company “started very humbly, just as a little professional consulting practice when we left Harvard.” And they kept it that way, starting slowly and with building small software projects themselves so that they wouldn’t need to borrow money. It was a sustainable business model that Jack describes as: “We do work, work like hell, then get paid. And then spend the money. It’s simple, like running your own household.”

Over the 50+ years it has been in business, Esri has stuck to that principle of never going into debt. It has never needed to borrow money or raise venture capital. This has allowed the company to stay completely owned by Jack and Laura. Meanwhile, it has become the largest geospatial software company on the planet, with billions of dollars in revenue and offices across the US (and in many other countries worldwide). That’s a very rare achievement for a company that has never had any outside financing. But Jack says he prefers running the business this way, as it allows Esri to remain “mission-focused” on what its customers want.

Our next section will be a short Jack Dangermond bio to help you understand a little more about the man behind Esri.

Jack Dangermond’s bio & what he’s up to now

Jack Dangermond was born in Redlands, California, in 1945. His mother was a maid and his father was a gardener, so “we all grew up in a family of being in service.” He attended Harvard in his 20s, where he met his wife and business partner Laura. After he graduated, he moved back to Redlands with Laura, where they started Esri in 1969.

Over 50 years later, Jack and his wife still maintain full ownership of Esri. He feels privileged to be able to continue to direct his company towards causes he’s passionate about. These include “conservation, education of kids, and building cool tools that empower our users to really do a better job.”


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