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How I Got the Job : GIS Specialist

February 26, 1996

Cheryl Wilder, 31, of Redlands found a field that combined her training in management and economics with her lifelong interest in geography: geographic information systems. In her first GIS job, she used computers to combine maps with data on Alaskan wetlands and bird habitats for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Now, as a technical support and software analyst for the industry's premier software manufacturer, Wilder tells Karen Kaplan she is helping others to embrace computer mapping technology.

You've heard the saying, "A picture is worth a thousand words." That's the idea behind geographic information systems, or GIS. Seeing a picture of your data is better than handing out a dry report that's 200 pages long.

I work as a technical support and software analyst for Environmental Systems Research Industry, a GIS software maker in Redlands. I coach and advise clients from around the globe on how to better utilize our ArcView software, which is a desktop mapping package that allows people to visualize their data on a map.

Companies use our software to track where their customers are coming from so they can effectively position their salespeople in the right zip codes. Municipalities are using the software to help with city planning and keep track of things like where they are issuing building permits.

In the early 1980s, I went to college and studied management and economics. But I ran out of money after two years and had to drop out.

I got some training in computer programming and held a couple of temporary computer-related jobs. Then I helped out my parents, who owned some fast food franchises. I also had a job preparing food for a fine restaurant and worked in the check processing department of the Federal Reserve Bank.

In 1989 I decided that in order to command the kind of financial resources I knew I was capable of, I would need to go back to college. I examined what my interests were and discovered GIS. I have always loved maps--when I was young I used to get out the atlas and look up far-out places with funny names. So I decided to get my bachelor's degree in geography.

While I was in school I had a series of internships that introduced me to the kinds of work that GIS specialists could do.

I worked for the city of Southfield, Mich., and analyzed the changes in population in certain neighborhoods. We produced a lot of charts and graphs and maps that showed the racial shifts. I also had an internship where I located the high-tech areas of southeastern Michigan and put them on a map.

After school I went to work for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Anchorage, Alaska. I started off as a computer clerk, but after a couple of months I started working on GIS projects. I learned how to program in AML (a GIS computer language) in order to produce maps.

Fish & Wildlife biologists would collect data on where eagles built their nests and where people had seen black oyster catchers and other species that biologists were tracking. I generated maps with ArcInfo, a computer program produced by ESRI. If you click on a point on the map, you get a text box that tells you whether someone saw a bird or a nest and when they saw it.

As part of a national wetlands inventory, I produced a map of the Alaskan wetlands. It was easier to read than a 100-page report. It showed which parts of the state had been studied and which wetlands were in the process of being studied. The map was connected to a database so it was easy to update and to sort the information according to whether an area had been studied or not.

After about a year my boss suggested I take a course in how to use some of this GIS software better. The class was taught by a man from Environmental Systems Research Institute who flew up from the company's headquarters in Redlands. We got to talking and I ended up giving him my resume. About two months later they called and invited me down for an interview. I went to work for them in August, 1994.

Now I work on a research and development team testing a new software product. I'm the link between the designers of the software and the users of the software.

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