Alum Profile: Staying Positive and Curious, Matt Manolides Finds Success with GIS

Submitted by Nell Gross on
Geography Alum Matt Manolides Standing Outside of Google Offices

From his first class on Economic Geography with now-Professor Emeritus William (Bill) Beyers, Matt Manolides was "hooked"! At the time, Manolides had reached the stage in his UW career in which he was encouraged to declare a major, and geography - particularly the GIS, Mapping & Society track - proved to be "an interesting combination of [his] interest in economics and interpreting data." Now, looking back on his pathway from geography major to GIS Manager for Google, Inc., Manolides shares key take-aways and advice in an interview with An Tran from College of Arts & Sciences Advancement.

What are your personal values regarding education and career development? Staying positive and curious are good attitudes. Constantly look for ways to improve processes, add value, and grow your skills. When I have automated a process that was previously manual, I unlocked opportunities to tackle new challenges for my team.

What lessons from your classes stand out to you? What is most applicable to your profession? My biggest takeaway was to look carefully at data sources. I look into the lineage of the data: Where did it come from? What were the methods used to gather this data? I learned early in my career that data can have biases. I also look at multiple sources for data sets, so I can verify information as accurate and reliable.

How does your foundation in geography distinguish you in the technology sector? Having a foundation in geography provides a real advantage on my team in Google Earth and Maps. When I started my career, online mapping was still a nascent field. My geography training allowed me to land my first role working on maps, with a focus on imagery. From there, I grew my skills in the technology sector and continually find ways to expand my skill sets.

Tell us about a time when you “failed” and what you did next. Early in my career, our team heavily promoted an upcoming aerial imagery collection of Sydney, Australia, to update images for Google Earth and Maps. We engaged the media and generated much excitement among residents, including publishing a specific schedule of our intended flight path. People planned sand sculptures on the beach, marriage proposals, exciting activities to be captured by the airplane. Close to the date, the Australian air traffic office did not approve the planned flight path and timing, instead requiring both to be adjusted. We changed our flight path and timing. The imagery was still captured, but the changed timing meant most of the activity on the ground was missed. Unfortunately, we set high expectations and blew it.

We have a culture at Google of blameless postmortem discussions. I learned our team needs to perform more due diligence on what is possible with stakeholders early on and manage expectations.

In 2011, our team was getting ready to publish detailed maps and imagery ahead of the new Cowboys Stadium where Super Bowl XLV would take place in Texas. About 4 days before the game, we accidentally unpublished the data. Instead of the brand new stadium, users saw incomplete stadium construction images. The team worked together to quickly update the database again, and successfully got the fresh stadium imagery live in Google Maps before the Super Bowl. Our team worked hard to push a big data set through to fix the bugs. We accomplished it in 2 days. After the excitement was over, our team came together to identify how the problem unfolded, and how we could prevent it the future.

What advice would you offer to students interested in your industry and field? I advise students to dig deep into their geography classes and minor in [a field related to] computer science or business. If possible, students can take business classes to acquire program management experience.

I see three primary areas where geography students who specialize in GIS can apply their skills:

  • Graduates can work as traditional GIS analysts, maintaining and revising maps and information databases for internal and external users, generating reports, and conducting geographic analysis. These are plentiful and important jobs that need to be done, and can typically be found in government agencies, utilities, engineering/development firms, non-profits, and media firms.
  • I have observed a growing demand for GIS program managers, people with solid foundation in GIS skills and can work with various stakeholders to start, track, and complete a project - often focusing on very specific business needs. Acquiring some programming and coding experience would be advantageous, as well as obtaining knowledge of how businesses operate (project life cycles, managing budgets, communicating with stakeholders, etc). The key here is combining GIS with business to help increase value and provide greater impact via insights and increased efficiencies. These types of positions are often geared toward Project/Program Management, so include those terms in your searches if this is the sort of position that interests you.
  • Finally, I see the largest increase in demand for GIS developers. These professionals possess software engineering skills as well as GIS skills. They demonstrate success in developing software, checking in code in open-source libraries, and contributing to their team’s success. Machine learning and big data are two clear areas of growth at the intersection of GIS and software engineering. Unsurprisingly, many of these types of positions can be found in tech and research organizations. We also see the possibility of using machine learning to process large data sets and segment images into meaningful information, for example mapping lanes on a road.