How GEOINT’s next generation built a robust community of young professionals, fostering countless careers and lifelong connections
In 2008, at a dinner following a USGIF Board of Directors meeting, then GeoEye CEO Matt O’Connell asked everyone to share his or her first memory of the internet. Carrie Drake, who was attending the dinner, recalls how O’Connell started off by sharing a memory of a Sony meeting at which the “World Wide Web” was first discussed as a way to access this new phenomenon called the internet.
“In that moment, I thought, ‘Who are these people, and how did I get this opportunity to sit around a table learning about their experiences?’” said Drake, who was 27 at the time and in her first role at the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF). “These senior leaders had influenced some of the largest companies and government agencies that keep our country safe, and I learned so much just from being in the room with them. I wanted other young professionals to have the same opportunity.”
In short order, Drake approached USGIF leadership and, with their support and the help of USGIF member volunteers, made this vision a reality.
“We’re committed to being a learning, growing, agile organization,” said USGIF CEO Keith Masback. “When Carrie presented this concept, it was the ideal scenario in which we could pivot and create much-needed programming to serve the next generation of GEOINT professionals.”
In February 2009, USGIF hosted its first Young Professionals Group (YPG) networking event, which attracted 80 up-and-coming GEOINT professionals. Today, YPG is 2,250 strong, representing 700 employers, with two young professionals serving as voting members of USGIF’s Board of Directors. YPG defines “young professionals” as being 35 years old or younger or in their first five years in the industry, and participation is free. The group not only offers its members access to regular networking events, service projects, and educational programs, but in its near-decade of existence, it has also helped launch many careers.
Drake, for example, has a penchant for networking and truly enjoys talking to people, sharing information, and connecting the dots in any given situation, which led to her current position as director of communications at OGSystems. Though growing YPG was part of her job at USGIF, she also grew her own career by developing relationships with the leadership at a number of companies in the GEOINT Community. “The leaders at OGSystems saw the work I was doing at USGIF and asked me to apply the same energy here,” she said.
Drake added those just starting their careers may not have a lot of flexibility in the projects they take on, or may not have many avenues to meet community leaders.
“YPG is a great opportunity for folks to stretch beyond their daily job tasks,” she said.
A Commitment to Young Professionals
In 2010 and at age 29, Alex Martinez, now CEO of ByteCubed, became the first YPG member on USGIF’s Board of Directors. As a geospatial software designer in Lockheed Martin’s leadership program, he connected with industry veterans, including Masback.
According to Masback, creating the board position made an important statement about the Foundation’s commitment to young professionals.
“The collective experience of the board is remarkable,” Masback said, referring to its members who are near or at the pinnacle of their careers—the “Who’s Who” of the GEOINT Community. “But adding two full-fledged, voting young professionals to our board—to which I report—differentiates us from other professional organizations. Their voice and vote matters and they are able to make a difference.”
Martinez dove into the position, lining up events that focused on education, career development, and service, from a speed dating-style mentoring program to a speaker series on emerging trends. Martinez also aimed to offer events that appealed to the entire community, not just his younger peers.
“We wanted the young professionals contributing back to the community with their ideas,” Martinez said. In 2011, during the early days of mobile application development, he and Drake created “What’s in an App?”
Martinez moderated the panel, and discussion topics ranged from the definition of an app to the promises and challenges of apps in the Intelligence Community. Among the panelists was Ahmad Ishaq, who had created a MySpace-like platform at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Martinez kept in touch with Ishaq, who later co-founded ByteCubed and asked Martinez to lead the team.
Now, at age 37, thanks in part to YPG, Martinez leads a company of about 150.
“Being part of [YPG] was an accelerator in meeting great people and building lasting friendships in the community,” Martinez said. “The relationships I built through USGIF and YPG have given me the opportunities to grow and make an impact in senior roles.”
YPG represents the diversity of the GEOINT industry: Its members are cartographers, analysts, systems engineers, mechanical engineers, data scientists, and emergency responders, to name a few. Yet for all their varied experiences, these early-career professionals form tight networks and friendships. Masback attributes this partly to the dynamics of working in defense and intelligence.
“Given the sacred responsibility and high stakes associated with national security, the trust has to be in place if you’re going to work with someone, and it has to be organically grown,” Masback said. Such trust is cultivated over time, and a group like YPG sets the stage for that to occur.
Elizabeth Lyon, a former young professional government advisor to the USGIF Board, works at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and has spent her entire career as a federal employee. During her time with YPG, she developed an invaluable network of peers and seniors in the industry.
“Having a trusted relationship with my peers is huge,” Lyon said. “I can go to them with questions rather than struggling on my own.” She has sought advice from her peer network and her “tribe of mentors” on the timing of a job transition, team dynamics, and leadership skills. She began her career as a research geographer at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and prior to her current position as NGA’s senior GEOINT authority on geography and cartography, she was the special assistant to then NGA Deputy Director Sue Gordon.
Jennifer Stansall, who manages U.S. government partnerships at Planet, served on the USGIF Board during her time with YPG and counts some of its members as her closest friends. Stansall said she learned a lot during her involvement with YPG, even simple things such as speaking up—not always an easy task when you’re sitting in a board room full of senior industry leaders.
Drake said it has been rewarding to witness how far her YPG peers have gone in their careers. She remembers in 2014 when she saw YPG member Shay Har-Noy, founder of TomNod, on NBC’s TODAY talking about using the company’s crowdsourced intelligence to gather information about the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Today, Har-Noy is vice president and general manager of platform for DigitalGlobe.
Growing the YPG
USGIF’s Young Professionals Working Group, which guides the YPG and plans activities, offers events that parallel the Foundation’s mission of advancing the GEOINT tradecraft. The group is co-chaired by Bill Pilotte and Isaac Zaworski, who also currently hold the two young professional positions on USGIF’s Board. YPG holds monthly meetings at USGIF headquarters, monthly networking events, and quarterly educational workshops. Among the group’s annual events is the Golden Ticket program, which brings industry juniors to the GEOINT Symposium for free, and Spy Fest at the International Spy Museum, where YPG members talk to hundreds of children and their families about satellite imagery.
USGIF and YPG leaders continuously strive to expand the group’s reach. Justin Franz, USGIF’s community and educational manager, focuses heavily on recruiting new members, sometimes traveling to academic fairs, universities, and conferences.
“There’s some magic happening with YPG,” Masback said. “But I can’t explain why it hasn’t taken off in a way that’s representative of the breadth of USGIF engagement. My generation knows this type of networking is at the heart of professional relationships and success. It’s these ties that as you get more senior create business opportunities and trust in a community in which trust is paramount. For these reasons we are steadily working to expand the reach of YPG.”
Zaworski, vice president of Vricon, said he feels “inherent ageism” in the industry. “People who are the most influential in the community are in a generation significantly older than I am,” he said. “I notice that the young professionals—or the YPG events—are thought of in a distinct way. They’re seen as the new kids in town.”
Zaworski encourages those who haven’t attended a YPG event to consider the content rather than the young professionals label.
“The events we’re organizing and promoting will provide opportunities for both young professionals and senior members of the community to grow their networks,” he said. He added that events such as a machine learning panel the group hosted in 2016 are intended for professionals of all ages to learn and share ideas about some of the most exciting and cutting-edge issues facing the community.
According to Zaworski, the GEOINT Community isn’t benefited more by the older generation or by those new to the industry. “[We need] both,” he said. “With the challenges that face the national security community today, we need this talent—and this collaboration—more than ever.”
Headline image: NGA Director Robert Cardillo and young professionals network at the GEOINT 2017 Symposium.
On February 24, the USGIF-accredited University of Southern California Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute hosted the 2023 Los Angeles Geospatial Summit. Three projects won top marks in the Student Competition.