Alum Profile: From Hackathon to Amazon, Utako Kase is Proud to Have Studied Geography

Submitted by Nell Gross on
Geography Alum Utako Kase Stands at the Entrance to Pike Place Market

A year and a half out of UW, Utako Kase works as a Software Engineer with the GIS Team - "the backbone" - of Amazon Web Services (AWS). Kase started with AWS as an intern with the Supply Chain Management (Infrastructure) team, and afterward was hired for the current full-time position. As an international student, Kase was able to enroll in GEOG 496 Internship in Geography for Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and now is employed under Optional Practical Training (OPT). This role "utilizes both geography knowledge and computer science (CS) knowledge (I minored in CS)... Without [the GIS Team], the data cannot be transferred between data centers, and no one knows how AWS infrastructure is being supported." While the importance of this work cannot be overstated, because it is hidden behind-the-scenes, Kase remarks that their unit only gets attention "when [a] physical cable underground gets cut and all the data going through it gets affected, usually due to human error such as construction, and some services go down." Nevertheless, this role has taught Kase "the power of geography" - even offering  the opportunity to attend ESRI's User Conference where Kase's "mind was blown"! Here, Kase offers insight into this work and its connections between geography concepts and computer science skills.

A "Day-in-the-Life" of a GIS Software Engineer: "My average day consists of 30% meeting, 40% development work, 20% random stuff (replying to email, scheduling meeting etc.), and 10% of time for personal time (chatting with coworker, making coffee etc.). My team has 3 weekly meetings where we sync up what we did in the past week and what each person is working on. The 40% development time is the time for me to work on projects. You might think I code for most of the 40%, but in reality, I spend the majority of time planning, discussing, writing documents about the project rather than coding. I barely wrote any useful code in the past year, since my team is fairly new and we are still discussing 'what we should do.' My team is called 'Network Spatial Data (NSD),' and we belong to the network department under AWS. We use GIS tools (such as ESRI) to manage all the cables connecting our data centers around the world. My team's duty is to develop tools to allow others to manage and use this massive amount of geospatial data easily. We are currently using ESRI, but we are also looking into some open source GIS tools, so there's a connection between my work and [the 2018 Department of Geography Hackathon I helped organize], since we used an open source platform for the Hackathon. There's also a strong connection between geography coursework and my work, since we are using ESRI, python scripts to modify geospatial data, and using SQL to analyze/filter the data."

Learning from "Failure": "The biggest 'failure' that I experienced in UW was not being able to get into CS nor Informatics major. I majored in geography since GIS was the next close field to CS. I still kept applying to software engineering internships, but I kept failing and I thought my career as a software engineer was over. However, I didn't stop and luckily I got internship opportunity at Amazon, and later I was hired for full time position. After joining my current team, I felt thankful that I 'failed' to get into these majors, since now I have a skill that not many engineers have: GIS. There's a huge demand for GIS in tech fields, but there's a very little supply since not many people have both geography and CS skills. Majoring in geography was once my 'failure,' but it is now my biggest weapon I have and I'm very glad I chose geography major."

Connections Between Geography and Career: "The technical aspects I learned from geography courses (ESRI, SQL, python, open source, etc.) are helping me a lot for sure. I also learned that major is not the limit to career path; even though I'm on a GIS team at Amazon right now, I was hired as a normal software engineer and my GIS skill was not assessed when I got hired. I chose to join GIS team, and I'm proud that I studied geography."

Advice for Current Geography Students: "I'm sure there are a lot of people like me at UW, wanting to go into a technical field, but not knowing how to transition geography skills to engineering skills. Don't worry, just keep applying to the field you want to go into, and you still have a good chance to utilize your geography skills. One thing I learned from the ESRI User Conference is that geography is the base of almost any field, since when something happens in real world, it has to happen in a three-dimensional location. Boom, there's your geospatial data! Safety, health, government, utilities... any field that happens in physical world (even an IT company like Amazon, since we have our own data centers) will have geography related positions."