The Most Interesting Technical Field You've Never Heard Of: Talking GIS and Geointelligence with NGA's MaryAnne Tong
If I asked you what GIS—geographic information systems—is, would you know where to begin?
MaryAnne Tong does: Google Maps.
When MaryAnne, who is a Geoint Analyst Cartographer for the Maritime Safety Office at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), finds herself needing to explain her role and the technology she uses to fulfill it—which is something she does on a fairly regular basis—she starts with the popular navigation app.
"Google Maps, Google Earth, that's all GIS. When you use navigational tools to get you from point A to point B, that's GIS," says MaryAnne. "GIS is the ability to represent all your data spatially. It can graphically show where you are on the earth; it touches everybody's life in one way, shape, or form."
MaryAnne would know; she has worked in GIS for her entire career, which has involved working with small engineering firms, city and Tribal governments, Native American land management, and more. As of 2018, MaryAnne has been employed with NGA, a major intelligence agency that provides geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) to the U.S. government and works with mission partners around the world.
We sat down with MaryAnne to learn more about her journey throughout her career, including what her day-to-day work with GIS looks like, the technical skills GIS is built on, and how she has learned to advocate for her own advancement in a male-dominated, highly technical field.
Finding her way to GIS
MaryAnne didn't always know she wanted to work in GIS. In fact, when she started at the University of Toronto in 1996, she didn't even know what GIS was. She went to college to study business administration, but "absolutely hated it." Instead, she followed her passion for the environment and conservation to receive an environmental science and geography degree. One of her professors suggested she look into GIS as a career prospect and MaryAnne was intrigued. She enrolled in a post-graduate diploma program that specialized in the subject at Fleming College, which was then the best GIS school in Ontario Canada. But, she found herself a bit out of her depth.
"That was probably the hardest thing I ever had to do," she remembers. "Back then, I was looking at DOS-based software, I had to use ArcInfo and AutoCAD. Now, you have ArcGIS pro and web interfaces that are a little easier to navigate." But MaryAnne learned programming, wrote a lot of scripts, and finished the program with her Geographic Information Systems – Application Specialist diploma. Shortly afterwards, she got a job offer in the States for the planning division at a local city government; she left her native Canada with, "two suitcases and no friends."
While in the United States, MaryAnne's first GIS job involving the strict use of ESRI products didn't pay very well. She remembers eating "oranges and cereal" for dinner and washing her laundry a friendly neighbor's house to save money. "It actually grounded me quite a bit," she says of the experience. "It made me realize what's important and what isn't, and it made me want to fight even harder to make sure that I kept advancing."
And advance she did. A few years later, MaryAnne received her Geographic Information Systems Professional License (GISP). This is an important certification license that MaryAnne must maintain, and she does so by keeping up-to-date with current GIS applications, and by volunteering her GIS knowledge with organizations like the National Tribal Geographic Information Support Center (NTGISC)—also known as Tribal GIS. On par with her volunteer work, MaryAnne soon found herself employed with the Seminole Tribe of Florida on a small GIS team that did a little bit of everything. Her team had to maintain all the tribe's GIS information for their seven non-contiguous reservations. "I would look at the parcel fabric, at assigning addresses for georeferencing, and I was working with different counties to try to establish a standardized way for reporting emergencies. I worked on utility networks and we did emergency management planning," she explains. One of her very important responsibilities was to keep both digital and physical versions of up-to-date maps in advance of Florida's hurricane season to ensure the national disaster response teams could get to people on the reservation who needed help.
That job eventually led her to NGA, where she began working with maritime GIS for the first time. In contrast to previous jobs where she was a 'Jill of all trades,' MaryAnne ended up establishing a specific set of responsibilities at NGA: Continuously reviewing GIS data on a 28-day production cycle to confirm that the agency is providing accurate information to its customers, including the Navy and the Department of Defense.
"We get information from different sources, including different countries, and need to guarantee accuracy so no mariner crashes into something—like an iceberg—that might cause their vessel to sink or run a ground, like a naval ships hitting docks or rocks," explains MaryAnne.
What a suite of responsibilities looks like at NGA, technical and otherwise
MaryAnne says that the most important factor to succeed in a role like hers is having a familiarity of data; you don't have to be an expert in the field. For instance, while MaryAnne was well-versed in GIS when she arrived at NGA, she didn't have any geospatial intelligence or maritime experience. However, she emphasizes that you have to be comfortable looking at the data, analyzing information, and speaking up when you have questions.
These are just some of the factors needed to execute the role. But to enjoy it? MaryAnne stresses another important characteristic: Curiosity.
"What's great about working at NGA is that it is basically up to you how you want to shape your career," says MaryAnne. She determined that she wanted to learn more and develop her career in three specific areas: how geospatial intelligence relates to world politics; what collaboration and leadership look like across organizations; and how to support diversity initiatives.
With this goal in mind, MaryAnne raised her hand, asked for additional duties, and outlined why she was the most qualified person for the roles she was interested in. Her managers at NGA agreed and helped her to make it happen.
As a result, MaryAnne expanded her cartography responsibilities one of which is working as the Regional Data Manager Under Instruction for a region in the Asia Pacific that includes China, Japan, North and South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Russia, Vietnam, and Macau.
"This region is significant for commerce and world politics," explains MaryAnne, "and the uncertainty with specific Asian countries makes the region extremely active and important." MaryAnne's responsibilities in this region also include ensuring that NGA's regional data is aligned to meet all mission requirements of the agreements the agency has with its partners. To enhance her skillsets for the role, MaryAnne has taken NGA classes on the politics and culture of the region. While she has yet to take any additional language classes, she says NGA offers those too.
In addition, to learn more about what international and cross-agency collaboration looks like, MaryAnne took on the NGA's Maritime International Officer Assistant role as one of her extra collaborative duties. In this capacity, she engages with NGA's international partners to build new relationships with foreign countries and collaborates with her peers in other NGA offices, the Department of Defense, and several foreign counterparts.
Aside from these duties, MaryAnne is also exploring her interest in how agencies can create more diverse workplaces. Upon joining NGA, she became the primary Recruiting Ambassador for the American Indian council; she also works with NGA's Human Development team on diversity recruitment as a whole. "My exposure with tribal government, as well as my volunteer work with Tribal GIS, is why I chose the American Indian Council as for my Special Emphasis Program council," says MaryAnne. "The ways in which tribal government operates is so unique to each tribe and different from what the majority of Americans have been exposed to."
It may sound like MaryAnne does a lot (and she does), but all of it is done with the backing and assistance of her team and NGA as a whole. "They're very supportive, and that's one thing that I absolutely love about where I work," she says. "NGA is actually an agency that really cares about their employees."
Her advice for other women considering a career at NGA
"NGA is a great place to further your career, or even to start it. The agency's opportunities are so above and beyond those of any other place I've worked before. The way NGA invests in you as a person, and encourages its employees to grow, is worth more than any dollar amount that you could put on paper," she says.
From furthering education for PhD programs to encouraging its employees to be the architects of their own career, NGA's opportunities have made MaryAnne happy to have landed there at this point in her GIS career.
For women thinking about following in her footsteps, whether at NGA or in another technical role somewhere else, MaryAnne has three pieces of advice:
- Don't be afraid to speak up, even if that means asking questions when you don't know something. "You should never be embarrassed. No one knows everything," says MaryAnne.
- Foster your relationships, which means giving and receiving help. "It's a give and take. Find a mentor that can guide you when you have those difficult questions, and be open to having people ask questions of you as well."
- Advocate for yourself. "Statistically, men are more confident in putting themselves up for promotions; women need to take on that same attitude and be bold too. We're just as qualified, if not better, and there is no reason for us not to strive and conquer great things in our futures."
MaryAnne is looking forward to her future at NGA, along with the future of GIS in general. "GIS is really only limited to your imagination. You can apply it to almost anything you want—everything from tracking COVID-19 to whale migration patterns!" she says.
If you're interested in working with MaryAnne at NGA, check out their open roles here.
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