Advice for Making a Career in GIS
andrew homka,GIS Specialist
The world of geographic information is an exciting and ever changing one, and an area of study that I am glad to have stumbled upon during my college years. I am a recent college graduate originally from Pennsylvania and newly relocated to the Bay Area. I have about three years of real-world work experience in a few different roles, along with a few unique internships. I thought it would be a great idea to write an article to reach an audience that is either curious about transitioning into the GIS field, just starting in the field, or maybe is a bit stuck and would like some advice and examples from one of their peers. With this article, I will present an overview of my career while detailing the most useful and important experiences, along with ways to network and stay current with the industry.
First, let me tell you a little bit about how I got into GIS! I started as a Geoscience major at Penn State University. In the latter part of my freshman year, I realized I wanted to study something with more of a focus on computers and databases, but still with an emphasis on problem solving and the natural world around us. I found out about an exciting path in the Geography program, called Geographic Information Science, from a pamphlet in the library. So I took a chance and signed up for some geography classes. From learning about cartography, to spatial analysis, to remote sensing and doing labs outside and in the computer lab, I knew I had found an exciting path forward.
While I had a number of great teachers and classes in college, perhaps I learned just as much during my internship experiences. My first internship came from attending a career fair at Penn State, and was with a company called TerraSim. TerraSim is based in Pittsburgh and works on building cutting edge training and simulation products. TerraSim was originally looking for a GIS intern that had more experience, but they decided to give me a chance for the summer. I got to work on many interesting projects, including a project for the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in Southern California. We spent time gathering extensive amounts of satellite imagery and performing material classifications with a new product TerraSim was designing. The end result was a very thorough and visually stunning 3D terrain of the Camp Pendleton area.
This internship taught me so much because it was the first time I had lived in a large city and worked for a software company selling complex products. I was able to use many of the GIS and scientific concepts I had learned in school to perform analysis and suggest improvements in the software. This type of experience using highly technical software while working on real-life projects with changing requirements is what really separates academia from the real world. It also confirmed that I picked the right major and was building the skills I needed to go forward. Another important thing I learned was there is great benefit to interning with a smaller company for your first experience. You get to really know the company you work for and their products, along with the people you work alongside. My experience at a larger company was quite different from my first internship.
Back at school after the TerraSim internship, I was getting exposure to advanced remote sensing, spatial statistics, and LIDAR. I knew that I wanted another summer internship, but this time I looked for larger company to see the differences. I found a job posting on a university job board for an oil and gas industry GIS summer internship at Noble Energy in Denver, Colorado. After several rounds of interviewing, including a Skype call and some test questions, I was excited to spend the summer in Denver interning for a company that used GIS in a different way. I think a big point is to be as proactive as possible in looking for jobs and opportunities. Reach out to your peers, professors, alumni, career service center, and go to career fairs. Make sure you have a polished resume and take the time to write a nice cover letter. Read up on the company and do your research to be as prepared as possible for interviews. Putting in this extra work can set you apart.
My responsibilities at Noble Energy were structured more formally. I worked on one summer-long project with ArcGIS to accurately map out acreage grid areas of company land for many important pieces of data. We looked at everything from owl habitat to competitors to geologic factors and tons more! I spent many hours seeing a lot of different ArcToolbox tools in action, while making some fascinating maps.
At the end of the summer all of the interns had to give formal presentations in front of multiple departments of the company, including company executives. Another GIS intern and I were tasked with presenting the value of GIS to personnel that knew nothing about GIS or why it was important. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to simply explain concepts that I had originally found confusing. I crafted a presentation heavy in visual examples of the importance of GIS, how interesting and useful it can be, and how it could save the company time and money at the end of the day. The feedback our GIS group heard after the presentation was that many people left with a better understanding of the basics of GIS and were excited to learn even more. That gave me a great feeling of accomplishment. I discovered that many people are not familiar with GIS, or are just starting to learn about it. But when GIS is presented with lots of visual examples and specific scenarios, people can appreciate its usefulness. I use the same approach now when I talk to others about GIS.
Towards the end of my college career I decided to take on two minors as another way to differentiate myself. “Energy, Business, and Finance” covered everything from economics, to investment analysis, to trade, to trading my own stocks. I also minored in “Information Science and Technology for Earth and Mineral Sciences” where I had exposure to SQL, relational databases, and networking/telecommunications. Combining a concentration of GIS and another subject is the way to go. Whether it be programming, web mapping, environmental science, business analytics or something else, finding your specialization with GIS is what can set you apart. Doing this also sets you up to potentially transition into customer support, sales, business development, or project management.
After graduation, TerraSim was the ideal place to start my full-time career. Starting the permanent role of course brought much more responsibility. I was involved in meetings about software development, supporting customers, and even got SCRUM/Agile training that I believe will help me as my career progresses. The job taught me so much about communication, teamwork, deadlines, and how to interact with customers in a way I never learned in school. Ultimately, customers and product innovation are what drive businesses within the GIS field, and how well you perform your job simply comes from experiences that build on what you have learned in school.
Finally, the position also allowed me to expand my writing skills by creating several chapters of a new tutorial. The complexity of the software program that needed the documentation coupled with simplifying GIS concepts presented a new writing challenge, but one in which I grew in over time. My teachers had stressed the importance of technical writing, and this first job showed me I still had a lot to learn. On a daily basis as a GIS specialist you might be composing technical emails, performing customer support, documenting tasks in JIRA or other project management software, writing reports, or proposing new ideas. Demonstrating your ideas clearly and concisely requires great technical and business writing skills.
Most recently, I joined a company called Quantum3D in the South Bay that also works in the training and simulation industry, but specializes in flight simulation and making synthetic environments for airport areas. In this role I am the company’s go-to GIS person. I figure out the best tools to use, find more efficient workflows, educate others on GIS, and perform quality assurance on geospatial data for our projects. The role is a nice progression from what I had done so far in my young career and has allowed me to see how another small company operates.
A big difference in this role is the amount of open source software being used. Instead of defaulting to Esri software, we use ArcGIS in combination with QGIS, PostGIS, and a few other programs. This lowers the cost of our workflow and allows us to be more creative and adaptive in coming up with solutions. QGIS 3.0 has just recently come out and I am now finding myself using that even more than ArcGIS! There are so many great features and plugins available. I was almost exclusively taught to use GIS on Esri products in my college classes, but I have learned that there are other options to explore and learning these can increase your skill set.
In the ten months that I have been in the Bay Area I have met many intelligent, dedicated, and inspiring people trying to come up with the next great idea or invention. I connected with a Penn State Alumni Association group early on after moving here that made me some great new friends, and I found out about BayGeo shortly thereafter. BayGeo is exactly the kind of organization I had hoped existed out here. I wanted to find a way to get involved with the group, so after talking with some BayGeo board members they asked me to help with social media. I helped to promote the GeoMixer held in March 2018, where I met many great people from the BayGeo community. It was a great event and reassuring to me that I had made a good decision to come out here. I look forward to helping with more BayGeo events in the future, particularly trying to host some South Bay events! Networking in ways like I did with BayGeo is extremely important since GIS is a relatively small field. I've made an effort to meet peers in my geographic area, attend conferences, listen to speakers, and build a LinkedIn network of connections. I can’t wait to see where BayGeo goes moving forward.
Since I have been out here I have also been inspired to take more online classes in my free time (when I'm not hiking on the beaches and redwood forests) and learn more programming and project management skills. I am working on expanding my python skills and learning more web mapping for instance, along with more open source programs. There are some really great online classes that are either free, or very low cost such as classes on Udemy, Coursera, and other similar websites (don’t forget YouTube!). For example, I have found classes for under 50 dollars that teach web mapping, PostGIS, and advanced spatial database concepts. Maybe in a few years I will pay the higher cost for official graduate level courses when I want to specialize in another area. Don’t forget that there are GIS workshops being offered in connection with BayGeo! In the future, I hope to become a product manager for a geospatial software product as I think it will be a great way to tie together my technical, communication, and writing skills.
Thanks for taking the time to read my article and I look forward to meeting members of the BayGeo community at upcoming events and writing technical articles about my work in the future!
You can contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org or on https://www.linkedin.com/in/andrew-homka/
Spring 2018 Volume 11 Issue 1