Student Story

Christy HeatonChristy Heaton

GIS Analyst, SGSI

Christy Heaton graduated from the UW Master of GIS program in 2014 and is now an instructor in the program and a GIS analyst at SGSI. Here, she explains how the program helped her further her skills and pursue new career opportunities.

Can you tell us about your educational and professional background? 
I have a background in anthropology and the Spanish language. I couldn't find a job in anthropology with a bachelor's degree so I was working in an office, and I knew that wasn't where I wanted to go career wise.

I discovered GIS and felt it was a good way to incorporate my skills and goals. What drew me to study anthropology was the same thing that drew me to GIS —  an interest in the world and other cultures. I'm not using my anthropology degree per se, but I still feel like it was a stepping stone to my career in GIS. I got a GIS certificate from the University of Utah and worked as a GIS analyst for the State of Utah for three years.

Why did you decide to pursue a master's degree in GIS? 
I wanted to get a master's degree to take that next step intellectually. As I was looking at programs, I liked that the UW program had a sustainability management emphasis because I had never done any project management. I’m interested in the environment and protecting the environment; I wanted to be able to incorporate that into my future work.

Can you tell us a bit about your current career?
I’m working as a GIS analyst for SGSI [a mapping and location-based software and services company] in downtown Seattle. I’m a software tester for mapping applications. It’s really important that I have a background in GIS and mapping to be able to dig deep into the tools that we make here and make sure they work properly.

Do you think having your master's helped you get your current job?
It certainly did. The job posting said a master's degree is preferred. That definitely gave me an edge. They were looking for someone with that intellectual capacity. My company values education highly.

I also got this great opportunity to teach GIS for a master's program in Spain. It was a visiting lecturer position. I did that almost immediately after graduating. I definitely could not have done that without a master's in GIS.

How did the master’s program help prepare you for your current career? 
I really value what I learned having gone through the process of getting a master's. It's a challenging process and you're required to think deeply into the software — meaning we not only learned how to use the software to solve problems and answer questions but we also learned how to create our own tools using the software. We learned to lead meetings and do reports and projects. Be a project manager. And like I said, having a master's in GIS really makes employers trust you to have certain skills and qualities.

This master’s program includes a capstone. Can you tell us about your project?
My capstone was working with the Regional Open Space Strategy, or ROSS, project. We were working on the idea of connecting green space in Snohomish County. We had a bunch of scenarios we were able to model to see the potential change in nutrient runoff into bodies of water if you change plant cover to pavement.

What do the instructors bring to the program?
The head of the program [Tim Nyerges] brought his leadership and overall knowledge. My statistics professor [Suzanne Davies Withers] was very knowledgeable about statistics and geostatistics. She brought that high level of knowledge and was willing to take extra time to make sure you really understood. [Former instructor] Robert Aguirre’s classes were challenging, constructive and gave us very valuable skills. He made sure we were on top of the latest technology.

Did you make professional connections through the program? 
[Former instructor] Robert Aguirre has been a great connection. As my professor, he wrote recommendations, one of which sent me to an Esri User Conference last year. Esri is one of the biggest GIS software companies, so going to the user conference was an amazing opportunity for networking, and I thank Robert for that. From there I was able to network and basically get that visiting lecturer job in Spain.

What was your favorite aspect of the program? 
Meeting my classmates and professors. From the start, all of my classmates have been extremely supportive of each other. We're all willing to take time to help each other, whether it's just listening or taking the time to teach someone how to do something they didn't know how to do. My classmates were so supportive, warm and great to work with.