Marisa Hess: Building a Career in Data

YPG Board Member discusses her journey in building her career


Photo Credit: Marisa Hess

Marisa Hess graduated in 2015 from James Madison University with a Bachelor of Arts in Geological and Earth Sciences / Geosciences. She joined MDA after graduating as a geospatial analyst and was soon promoted to deputy project manager, where she led a team of analysts in developing products through GIS and remote sensing principles. Hess continues to push herself out of her comfort zone to learn the different ways GEOINT services are applied.

What intrigues you about the GEOINT tradecraft?

There are so many fascinating and different applications of GEOINT, mapping, and technology. It is so intriguing to me, the different ways that you can use it. Right now I work at a cemetery, which I never really would have thought to have GEOINT aspects. But I learned about geospatial technology services used in cemeteries and how much they depend on it. Now I’m looking into more ways that GEOINT can be tied in with some of my other passions.

How did your career begin?

I started at MDA as a geospatial analyst. We were working on land use, land cover maps. We mapped the world on a few different scales, like 5-meter mapping, taking an aerial image and then assigning a classification to each pixel. These maps were for military uses, for example, knowing where planes can land if they need to do an emergency landing or helicopters or where troops could hide if they needed to take cover. Around the six-month mark of my first job, I was promoted to a team lead role, which I was happy to be in because it pushed me outside of my comfort zone. And I think sometimes the easiest way to learn is by leading and having to teach somebody else.

A few months later, I was promoted to deputy project manager where I managed a team of 41 people, which was very overwhelming. But again, it was a great learning opportunity for me to further expand my skill set and get better at production mapping while also working on my managerial skills.

How did you land in your current position?

I stumbled upon this job a little over two years ago. I was a golden ticket winner for the 2017 GEOINT Symposium. I struck up a conversation with a random person, as you do at a networking event. He decided I was the kind of person that he wanted to take under his wing. When he learned that I was looking for a new job, he introduced me to a few different people and helped get my résumé out there. Eventually, my résumé landed in the hands of my current boss. He called me and said that he had an opening for a geospatial data manager at the Army National Military Cemeteries. I took a few days to think about it, but ultimately I decided that this would be a fulfilling job serving a good mission.

I am located at the Arlington National Cemetery. I work strictly on taking all of that cemetery data and mapping individual headstone points, making sure that they’re attributed to the correct decedent and are correctly logged and tracked in the online interment system. GEOINT applications at a cemetery are slightly different. But at the same time, we’re keeping track of the data and compiling it, making sure quality control and quality assurance have been taken care of. 

What challenges do you face as you build your career?

People always stressed the importance of finding your niche, your specialty. And that’s something I’m still working on. I know what I enjoy. But when it comes to actually exploring what other jobs exist out there, I think that’s always been a challenge for me. There are a lot of areas that interest me in our field, but at some point, I do want to find that specialty. I also struggle with finding a mentor. For me, a lot of my mentors I met once or twice and then moved on. It was not necessarily a formal thing, but they did help guide me. In regards to finding a more permanent mentor, that’s another challenge that I’ve been facing and I’ve been actively pursuing.

What lessons have you learned in your career and what advice would you give other young professionals?

Push yourself outside of your comfort zone, especially if you feel like you’re not being challenged enough. You can join working groups or committees that help you hone into other specialties or technologies that are out there that you wouldn’t normally get access to. I’m part of USGIF’s tradecraft and professional development committee and YPG, and recently, a new part of the board of directors. Joining these committees was a leap of faith on my part, pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I think about the things I can offer and it opens up a new perspective.

As the new YPG board member, what do you bring to the table?

I do have a lot to learn, but I also think that being a part of a younger generation, I can bring a different perspective and different solutions to problems.


Posted in: Spotlights, Young Professional Spotlights   Tagged in: Analysis, Data


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