For his nearly three years as a program manager for remote sensing operations at Vulcan, Brent Harris has used satellite and drone data to support environmental and wildlife conservation.
Brent, who earned a bachelor’s in geophysics and space physics in 2014, felt comfortable managing what data needed to be gathered, processed and delivered. But he was less prepared for processing data to provide a particular output.
“Most of my geographic information systems (GIS) training was fairly independent and came from open-source software,” Brent said. “I used it at various jobs and built up a decent skill set, but I still felt like I lacked the proper training.”
The desire to align with industry standards and use a program like ArcGIS spurred Brent to bolster his education through Vulcan’s company education policy.
“The company was able to help me get the formal training and build out a skillset that can be applied across the industry to the standard that most people are using,” he said.
Brent’s search led him to the University of Washington’s Certificate in Geographic Information Systems — an ideal fit for someone who wanted to learn how to manipulate, analyze and apply GIS data.
“It felt like a great way to help out more at work and also help myself,” Brent said.
Learning In-Class and Online
Brent began his Certificate in Geographic Information Systems by attending classes in-person, two nights a week in the fall of 2019. Then the pandemic hit. Classes shifted online, so Brent ended up having a hybrid class experience. Luckily, it wasn’t a hard switch to make because Brent had already established a routine for managing the program and work.
“Remote classes felt pretty similar. You had your friends you recognized on the camera. You could still chat with them and work on projects in breakout rooms,” Brent said. “If anything, there was less commuting, so that was a little nicer when classes did shift online. But I think either situation is a good way to go about getting a certificate.”
Plus, the cohort of 30-40 students in the program had already formed a tight-knit group.
“We'd be assigned something that we’d have to collaborate on and deliver the next week, so it fostered a community,” Brent said. “Everyone was working and going to school at the same time. There was that mutual understanding of what we were all doing and why we were there.”
Whether in-person or online, Brent valued the chance to work with the rest of his cohort, who often had a different background than his own.
“Many of the students were environmental science majors who wanted to get more of a technical background. I came with a more technical background and less of an environmental science background,” he said. “Being able to think about things from their perspective and share my own was a great way to continue learning beyond the curriculum.”
Putting Skills in Action
The instructors in the Geographic Information Systems Certificate program are experienced and knowledgeable in the field. Brent valued the access to one instructor with a similar remote sensing background who helped Brent with his capstone project.
“For my project, I used remote sensing data to monitor and identify wildfires in the Amazon Basin,” he said. “We analyzed those fires and deforestation and traced the causes back to agriculture and industry, and then created a story map to teach people what’s causing the fires and how they could help."
For Brent, completing the certificate program has meant increased credibility among his colleagues at Vulcan and a larger toolset to work with when problems arise.
“Now that I've completed this program, my team relies on me more heavily for projects, which has been nice because that's a muscle I want to continue to build,” he said.
Ultimately, Brent believes the opportunity to go back to school and brush up on his skills with the Certificate in Geographic Information Systems is vital for anyone working in GIS.
“I always look back at my undergrad and think I would have appreciated it much more as an adult. I would have absorbed way more of what I wanted and needed to learn,” he said. "This gave me the chance to pick one specific thing that I wanted to learn.”
As of February 2021, Brent started a new role as a technical program manager at Planet, where he’ll be working across satellite operations, data processing and product development to manage the release of new features and products and ensure cross-functional alignment.
Brent mentions many of the skills he learned while completing his Certificate in Geographic Information Systems will help give him a leg up in his new role. “The foundational knowledge of ArcGIS that I gleaned from the certificate allows me to better understand the perspective of an end-user of satellite imagery and the different applications in which it may be used, which feels like an important perspective to have when developing these products,” he says.
He adds, “the project management class within the certificate program also provided insight into the best practices for working on large-scale, cross-functional geospatial data projects that I'll carry with me through this job and beyond.”