Career Development in Spatial Sciences – An Interview with USC’s John Wilson

By Catherine Burton

In this interview, Dr John P. Wilson (pictured at right) of the University of Southern California shares his insights about starting the Spatial Sciences Institute (SSI) and helping his students take the long-term view on their career development, including finding and landing jobs in Southern California and beyond.  He also discusses SSI’s mission to prepare the next generation of geospatial leaders and managers, and lastly, how the Institute is partnering with the U.S.. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF), and their L.A.. Geospatial Summit, now in its fifth year.

Catherine Burton (CB): Tell me about creating the Spatial Sciences Institute and its objectives.

Dr. John P. Wilson (JW): In creating the Spatial Sciences [Institute], there were four things in the first three years I had to do.  First: create the Institute. The second was to create online programs and we had already been working on that. We had an outside partner for that Pearson Embanet. Then the third was to build an interdisciplinary undergraduate degree which had a spatial foundation. And then the fourth was to build an interdisciplinary PhD. 

CB: “I'm maybe not even worried about your second job. I'm worried about your third, fourth, fifth, and sixth jobs.”

JW:  For better or worse, I'm not high enough up the food chain that I can influence the tuition that my administration chooses to charge. So tuition is what it is.  What you need to be thinking about is the value proposition.  And you get to the value proposition by figuring out a list of benefits and the cost and then comparing the two.  And I would argue that the next variable you put in the equation is your aspirations. How high in the world do you want to climb? The further you want to climb, the bigger the list of benefits needs to be and probably the bigger the list of benefits is going to be, the bigger the cost.
You're betting on the fact that at some point in the future you're going to get it back.  I'm not really worried about your first job. I'm maybe not even worried about your second job. I'm worried about your third, fourth, fifth, and sixth jobs. And since I already know what my costs are, I'm every day thinking about how to improve the benefit proposition.

CB: What kinds of students to you attract?

JW: We find students come to USC with all kinds of different backgrounds and aspirations and then they move to all kinds of different job opportunities, some of which I've never even known about, except [that] they told me [about them].  The only ones [who] find [employment] a little bit difficult are one's that announce, "I only know one thing for sure John, I'm going live here."

CB: And that makes life hard.

JW: For the few that have said, "When I'm graduate I going to live here, I'm going to live in Los Angeles."  Some of our graduates find employment in the private sector and some are in the public or some sort of quasi-public sector job.

CB: What kinds of jobs can you find in the L.A. area?

JW: L.A. County has taken the U.S. Geospatial Technical Competency model and they've built their own version of that; and more than 100 people inside the County, [have had their jobs] reclassified. They now have explicit GIS tracks and development paths and everything else. Mark Greninger is the Geographic Information Officer, County of Los Angeles. 

I believe Southern California Edison, either have just done or are about to do the same thing.  Within Southern California Edison, apparently there are about 50 positions they've identified that could be reclassified and cast as geospatial positions rather than something else. [They’ve done this] because they have a big infrastructure to manage. They have a lot of people that are working with geospatial data on the assets or management side and then implementing and automating that with field crews and the new smart network and everything else that [one would] need to do.

CB: How are you preparing students for more senior management positions?

JW:  This semester, we launched a new graduate certificate in Geospatial Intelligence and a new one in Geospatial Leadership, which is not aimed to people looking for their first or second job, but somebody that has just become or is just about to become a leader. In order to organize that, I've spent a lot of time working with colleagues in the business school. They are the ones that know about leadership.

In the Geospatial Technical Competency model that the Department of Labor published, there are three fundamental tracks: one is built around the data acquisition/data curation; another built around web maps and programming; and one built around analytics.  [USC SSI] has specified those tracks within our degree and we added electives; there are three required classes and three electives that [one] would take if [one] were interested in the programming web mapping piece, or interested in the acquisition, integration, curation piece, or the analytics piece.  And then the fourth option is to build your own track. To our surprise, most of our students still want to build their own track.

CB:  Since I was a little kid, I’ve always been business-inclined. And then I found geography, and started my own business.  The company was based on intellectual property that I developed at NASA.  While doing my work at NASA, I gained some experience in project management, and the like.  In general, geography folks don’t get exposure to project management.

JW: Right from the get-go, we've had a geospatial technology project management class.  It covers [project management] nuts and bolts: meaning it covers cost benefit analysis, personnel management, things about technology.  [Does one] just buy [geospatial technology and software] and stand pat for five years or how do you decide when to replace it?  All these kinds of things have important implications for your future success (or failure).  How to figure out whether you need to take on a particular job as a loss leader or not and things of that nature?  All the decisions you probably had to grapple with. We occasionally have students that take it as a last resort.  For whatever reason, some people do a course, and then they take project management, and afterwards they will often have the comment, "Damn, I learnt so much."  Even if [they do] not actually own [their] own business or manage something, it's just really helpful to understand the bigger perspective.  [Students learn that, in the future], that [their] boss maybe he won't be happy if I say, "Just give me an extra day to see if I can find any more data". Because if I don't, I've just wasted a day and even if I do, maybe it's not worth a day.

CB: The old billable hour.

JW: The next class is called "The Practice of Geospatial Leadership" [but] we haven't taught that yet.  The idea for that class is that the student will have developed - with coaching and guidance and so forth - their own sort of personal leadership plan.  We are going to help them do a SWOT [Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats] analysis of themselves. What can they do? What do they know how to do now? What might they need to know how to do but they don't know yet?  If they haven't been able to do that inside their class, how are they going to find additional resources to help them with that task? And working with my colleagues in the business school, there are various pieces that you build along the way throughout the semester to build a personal leadership plan.

CB: USC has a partnership with United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF).   Why did you select to partner with them? The defense industry jobs can be somewhat controversial.

JW: Well Susan Kamei [USC SSI Associate Director] and I, we went to the 2014 USGIF conference, and every presentation was fundamentally 90% geospatial. It didn't matter which kind of person was giving it. We have a whole bunch of people in our GIS&T program, who either are there now or aspire to be [part of the intelligence community]. And we are interested in finding ways to diversify our offerings because in that diversity you might improve your chances of sustainability. So it just seemed like a natural, simple path for us to pursue and we pursued that simultaneously with the geo-health piece and the strategy was a wee bit different because of the different complexion of the university but fundamentally the motivation was the same. We see both of those as tremendous growth opportunities globally but also for us as a program. Our sort of kind of mantra moving everything forward has been that the fundamental knowledge and the fundamental concepts don't change very much when you skip from one application domain to the next. But the way in which it's articulated and the way in which it's applied potentially changes a great deal.

CB: The university sponsors the L.A. Geospatial Summit. Tell me more about that.

JW:  For the last four years USC Spatial Sciences Institute has put on something called the LA Geospatial Summit. We're going to do it again in February and we're finding, like most things in life, you can't just decide to do something and be instantly successful, right? You got to sometimes keep doing it until you are successful. We know that Max Baber's coming to the summit. We know that Keith Masback is coming to the summit. They're going to help sponsor our summit. I think Chris Dunbar from the Aerospace Corporation was invited and is attending as well. We've got some sponsorship from Pixia Corp. And one of their vice presidents is coming. So I think if we do a good job with this summit, then I think the next logical conversation with USGIF will be whether they want to have an event out here on the west coast.

CB: Thanks very much, John. This has been a very interesting discussion.

Published Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

Written by Catherine Burton

Published in


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