Alumni Profile: Robert Hendrickson Shows the Value in GIS

Geography Alum Robert Hendrickson
Geography Alum Robert Hendrickson

After graduating from UW with a B.A. in Geography, Robert Hendrickson followed what he calls "a typical path": First a GIS intern for the City of Redmond, then a GIS technician for a tax parcel mapping company in Texas, to GIS Technician II at an energy company, followed by an analyst position at a few places, Hendrickson is now a department manager with Sierra Resources. In his current role, Hendrickson enjoys "the creativity to solve a variety of spatial questions, [and] often works either in a small team or a team of one. So to be the expert, technician, analyst, IT manager, programmer, etc., can be a daunting task especially when starting out." Despite having twelve years of professional GIS experience, Hendrickson says "still to this day I learn something new constantly." One of the most important lessons Hendrickson has learned is "to constantly show the value of GIS and its related products, [for example] how GIS saved the company money, how automation reduces labor hours, or how webmaps are self-service GIS portals." Below, Hendrickson shares more advice for geography students who are interested in a career in a similar field.

A “Day-in-the-Life” of a GIS Manager: "[First I check] automated scripts that I wrote using python to automatically download and update SDE (GIS) data from data vendors. On occasion these fail and I have to dig into whether it is an IT issue, scripting issue or data change on the vendor side. After this there are usually requests for spatial type questions and/or requests for maps or updates to webmaps on our internal map portal. Disciplines range from geologists/landman/business development/ field operations/ legal/ and regulatory.

The job of the GIS manager and team is to interpret their requests and design a solution with trustworthy data for the end users. Often I will listen to a request and at the end of the discussion I'll say 'what is the purpose of your request?' and more often than not there is a simpler solution... The key is to be the expert in GIS and all the technical advantages/disadvantages when it comes to a good solution for your end users. They won't know or need to know the background of what it takes to produce a simple map but it's your job to interpret and provide... In a normal day a GIS professional needs to be competent in GIS skills, scripting, IT and customer service skills."

Connecting Geography Coursework with Career: "Projections, coordinate systems and transformations are extremely important. Every day I use the concepts from database design with Professor Sarah Elwood. General geography classes show the types of questions that can be solved with GIS. Map design is important. A clean and thoughtful map can fully show your skills in geography and they should always be created with the end user in mind."

Building a Career in GIS: "From here I could go a few ways either start a GIS consulting firm which many people I know have or I could be a GIS Director at a larger energy company... GIS isn’t industry specific so along the way I have considered switching industries especially with the volatility of the energy industry. A benefit of GIS is that you can switch while using the same technologies. With that said, the more you specialize the more of a benefit to a company you can be, thus the pay and benefits will be higher typically...

GIS in the energy industry is extremely data heavy, gathering third-party lease data, well information, and grid systems. The better you can be with larger data sets, cleaning data, editing, and scripting processes, the better you will be and the more valuable you will be. The line between GIS professional and data scientist blends together in many cases." For more on this topic, click here to read Robert's response to a question on Reddit.

Reflecting on "Failure" as a Key Learning Experience: "My final project in Professor Tim Nyerges's class was to create a python script tool that would use the flow modeling module to predict where an oil spill would end up on the coast line. I was having endless issues and getting a ton of errors. So I tapped into the GIS community and a few other classmates stepped in and we solved my coding issues. This is paralleled in the community in my professional life and was a key learning experience."

Advice for Current Geography Students: "Connect with alumni. Find an internship or technician/analyst job.  Learn how to map legal descriptions like metes and bounds; there are a lot of classes by companies that specialize in this. Learn programming if possible, python and any other language you can. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t know or understand specific aspects of GIS such as programming. There are ways to learn and or understand. I would say I'm not the world's strongest coder but there are a lot of resources, communities, contract developers etc., so you will find your strengths and weaknesses."

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