Michael Carson taught me my first GIS class ever! It was in the fall of 1999 and I was a youngster at Santa Monica City College (SMC). Having just learned about a new technology for creating maps using computers, I signed up. It was the first offering of a GIS class at SMC. At the time, Mr. Carson was adjunct faculty at the school and doing GIS work for the City of Santa Monica. Now, he is the GIS manager for the City of Burbank. Fifteen years later, Mike graciously agreed to let me interview him.
Catherine Burton (CB):Thanks for the wonderful introduction to GIS so many years ago! How would you describe your job in 140 characters or less?
Michael Carson (MC) [pictured at right]: GIS leader, mentor, evangelist, diplomat, networker, opportunity seeker, programmer, developer, technical support, and budget wrangler.
CB: Why is Southern California a good place to work?
MC: I might be a little biased since I grew up here, went to school here, and worked here 96% of my working life, but I find SoCal has a great mix of jobs in different industries. There always seems to be some type of job opportunity in which to find a niche. And not just in the traditional areas like government, military and education, but other industries like health and child care, environment, construction, urban design, transportation, oceanography and even space exploration; all of this and more right here in SoCal.
CB: What’s the last new thing you learned at work?
MC: My GIS staff and I learned how to use some of the 3D analysis tools in ArcGIS, particularly the line-of-sight and visibility analysis tools. The city’s network administrator is working on a project in the Verdugo Mountains to bring Wi-Fi to our Starlight Bowl and Stough Canyon Nature Center. He needed to know: good locations for antennas, and at what height, and specifically if we could hit them from City Hall. It was a great opportunity for us to use our 3D building and elevation data to figure this out. We seldom get to use 3D data, so it was a fun project for us. You see this stuff demonstrated at the Esri User Conference all the time, but you really don't get a great perspective of it until you try to do it yourself.
CB: What advice would you give to a person who wants your job?
MC: If you want to get rich and you hate people, this is not the job for you! However, if you love working with GIS technology and enjoy working with a team of people, then you are on the right path to my job. Besides being a well-rounded technical GIS person, you will need to have good people skills that help you deal with department managers, city staff, city council members and the public. You also need to be a true leader for your GIS group so they can focus on their GIS work, and protect them from some of the political and mundane stuff that goes on in a government organization. Make sure they have all the resources and tools they need to do their jobs well. And don't skimp on training; technology changes very fast and your staff will need training to stay on top of the new tools.
CB: What was the biggest professional roadblock you had to overcome to get where you are today?
MC: There might be a time in your career that you may have to deal with management, or a boss, who is not supportive and does not see the value of GIS. I once encountered this in my career. Without support from above it was impossible to grow the GIS program in the organization. When staff starts to leave to pursue better opportunities - that is your clue that if you cannot change things, you should leave too. You should enjoy what you do and be able to grow professionally, not find yourself constantly frustrated with a stagnant career. When you are in a job for many years, looking for a new one can be challenging, but sometimes it is needed to get to the next level and grow professionally.
CB: What cool project are you currently working on or would love to work on?
Currently we are working on a project for the City of Burbank Public Works Department. It is a mobile application for sewer maintenance using an HTML5 Web interface. While they are in the field, sewer maintenance staff will be using ruggedized iPads to access wireless cloud-enabled GIS services. Working with live data they can make changes to the GIS database; back in the office, management can see the work being done in real time. We have also included the ability to take pictures and link them to maintenance records, as well as report other incidents that need attention outside of Public Works. Once we work out the bugs, we can adapt this application for other inventory uses in other departments.
City of Burbank GIS Sewer App - See images below
CB: If you had unlimited budget and resources, what services and/or technology (either practical or just for fun) would you implement as GIS manager at the City of Burbank, and why?
MC: Since I'm a firm believer in training, and doing things yourself, I would send GIS staff and all our GIS users to train in whatever they are interested in. I would also hire more GIS staff to handle our increasing GIS project requests. Buying a few more servers would be a big help with our growing demand for GIS map services, data and application support. And the icing on the cake would be a satellite in geostationary orbit over Burbank for wireless GIS communication for all our apps. No more dead zones!