Women In GIS: Katina Michael


We interview the Market and Network planner for Nortel Networks (Asia Pacific)


What is your position at Nortel Networks?
Katina Michael

Katina Michael

I am a market and network planner within the Network & Systems Solutions (NSS) team for Asia Pacific. I am the GIS prime for the region. Our team of ten supports sales and marketing via bid responses and specialised network studies for telecommunication service providers. Most of our activities are pre-sales but occasionally we will undertake post-sales activities as well. For this reason most of our network plans are done at a strategic level not a detailed, implementation or operational level.

I have been working for Nortel Networks since I graduated from university in 1996. Prior to that I held two six-month co-operative positions at Andersen Consulting and United Technologies.

Yes, this is certainly the company that brought me into GIS.I recall my first day at work, my boss walked up to me with an unopened package of MapInfo Professional. He smiled and said, let us know if you think we can use this.I spent the next two weeks reading the manual trying to understand how I was going to integrate this into an engineering-type environment.It turned out to be one of my greatest challenges.

The only other GIS exposure I can remember was in high school geography.We did a lot of skills work with broadsheets, all manual tasks of course. But enough to make me comfortable with such things as drawing cross-sections, determining bearings, calculating longitude and latitude, measuring surface area and distance using string and rulers, unit conversion etc.I ended up doing quite well in the subject coming second in the state of NSW (competing against some 15,000 students). I was offered a very small grant to study at one institution with a strong geography department but turned it down because I thought that geography was only for those wanting to focus on environmental issues. I also thought information technology would give me a greater breadth of options. I was of the opinion then (and still believe) that if you are computer literate and understand the fundamental computing concepts you can apply them to any field given further training in that field.

The most sophisticated mapping software I came across while in high school was PC World in 1991- a set of plain country raster images with a few high level statistics thrown in for good measure on the side. Still, it was software like that that was the precursor for a lot of the desktop mapping that is happening today. Little did I know what was coming or that one day I'd be there in the thick of things.

I guess I created the position for myself over time.Initially, I was hired to do network access planning and traffic modelling.But the sheer demand for my GIS work meant that it warranted more effort. The pull came internally first.I ended up providing a lot of inputs to my colleagues in a tenth of the time with about one hundred times the accuracy they were use to in the past. They began to rely on me more and more with every bid response and network study we did. After testing the process on a few live projects they knew that this was the way to go. Instead of worrying about things like market sizes and segmentations, surface area and drawing freehand maps for presentations, they could focus on the more important complex aspects of network planning and design. We have never looked back since and we continue to build specific processes with the knowledge that we have the front-end under control.

Then the external customer demand grew as well. As I matured I was given the opportunity to present in front of several key customers whose immediate reaction was to want to find out more about what I did. As their requests to account managers grew, so did the profile of my work. Now the GIS work is a key to building customer relationships, always crucial when you are talking about million dollar accounts. At first I was overwhelmed by the workload and the need to customise almost in every instance. Now, I understand it more as a requirement and a competitive edge.

I think the key virtue here is patience. The processes will not permeate your team overnight even though the successes might. You have to work on it, long and hard. Some process benefits are immediately obvious, while others are not. You have to continually push the bounds of what you are doing so as not to hit a stand-still (which is like going backwards in my books). Innovation is the key here. If you ever think you have done enough, and that you could not do any better the next time around, you've lost the game.

My original title was engineer but this changed over time as people introduced me as a market & network analyst. This felt strange at first because I thought a market analyst should have a marketing degree and a network analyst should have an engineering degree. Well I had neither and still managed to survive. What I have learnt however, over time, is that as long as you can acknowledge your weaknesses in the presence of others (especially experts) you can perform well. You are never supposed to know everything, nor does anyone expect you to know everything. On the job training is so very important as is the dissemination of knowledge you build up. To this day, I am indebted to my senior managers, Dr Daniel Allard and Jean-Luc Thibault, who took the risk and hired me on the hunch I was the right person for the job.

Before I knew it I was on a plane to Singapore (training other staff), to Taiwan (involved in lucrative bid responses) and to many other places. I soon found out I could also assist colleagues in many different departments.I didn't have to know how to do their job, I just had to know enough about their requirements and talk at the level at which we could both communicate. With 85,000 employees in the company networking becomes a skill you acquire over time. And soon I was talking with people in North America and Europe (who had about a 1-year lead time in GIS development) about their experiences and their visions.

What is your background?

I have a Bachelor of Information Technology degree from the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). The degree was sponsored by industry and was divided into two years of study and one year of full-time work (a sandwich course). I was fortunate to be in a small class of twenty-eight very talented students who were given special attention by the staff. I was only eighteen when I did my first six month industry semester which helped me to acquire business etiquette and professional skills, quicker than most other students at universities. The brevity of the course allowed me to pursue full-time employment before I even turned twenty-one. The core components of the degree were in Information Systems, Programming, Mathematics, Economics, Marketing and Management.

I am also currently one to two years away from completing a Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Wollongong, NSW. I am focusing on the technological trajectory of automatic identification (ID) techniques in electronic commerce. My hope is to one day get my thesis published in a book form accessible for the general public to read. I am doing the degree primarily because I am interested in how these ID devices are changing the world we live in. I also believe that auto-ID devices will be closely linked with GIS and telecommunications in the near future. There are a lot of ideas floating around about location-based services and how they will impact telecommunications but nothing is set in concrete at present. I hope to be a part of this discussion as it becomes more prominent and service providers can offer these capabilities at affordable prices.

The work-related training I have done ranges from personal development to very technical areas. Among the latter I have been accredited with Internet Protocol (IP)/Data certification, and other courses in network management, Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) product overviews, Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) overview, MapBasic training and Analysys Strategic Telecommunications Evaluation Modelling (STEM), a financial modelling tool.In previous work I have completed ABAP 4 SAP R/3 training and Microsoft Access. In the last three years, I have also had the opportunity to speak at four conferences, most related to the field of GIS.

Would you recommend GIS to other women?

I would not hesitate to recommend GIS to other women. They should start as early as possible as there is so much to learn. All that is required is a positive attitude and a genuine interest in the area. Do some background reading, talk to friends, talk to teachers, read articles, call a university lecturer, a careers advisor, ring up a GIS software vendor, attend a demonstration at a conference etc. You will soon know whether it is worth pursuing and whether or not you can potentially be involved/suited to it. Not every GIS employee is a marketing analyst, the opportunities within the field are endless. Programmer, salesperson, technician, data gatherer, business requirements analyst, trainer, public relations, educator etc.

A lot of universities are now starting to offer degrees in GIS. If you know you want to do something completely in GIS, go to a university that offers the right course. Watch for those institutions that give you the opportunity to major in an area you are interested in e.g.mining, archaeology. If you are not sure about GIS solely, then spread your risks and do at least some subjects related to the field of study you are most interested in. E.g. networks and introduction to GIS, or geology and using GIS for information gathering. While on the job training is crucial, some foundation and conceptual understanding in GIS is always to be respected and may save you a lot of pain and heartache when starting out. The basics are often what you rely on throughout your work life.Having a good grasp of these can take you a long way, fast!

Seek opportunities to work during semester breaks where you can earn extra money and acquire some skills at the same time. If you can't find anything suitable in the area, be proactive and get part-time work on a voluntary basis where at least you can gain some practical know-how. Future employers will take note of this experience and are likely to hire you on the basis of your experience and your academic record when you are starting out.

What is the accomplishment of which you are most proud?

Having been able to share my findings with others. There is nothing more rewarding to me than seeing processes I have built within the corporation being used by my colleagues.

Sometimes I can be in the middle of something and I will get a surprise call from someone I have never heard from before. So and so said you could help me with this or that- can you? Or how do I do this again- it doesn't seem to work? They could be thousands of kilometres away and yet so close. Even though training or GIS support is not the major part of my job role, it is all a part of helping others which I find rewarding even if it takes up some of my "spare" time. Whether it is a colleague or a customer or a salesperson I have helped, to me the reward is the same, even bigger if it assists them to clinch a deal. I have been fortunate to have been taught by the finest in the industry, people who have not been afraid to share their ideas with me. And for this reason I feel as if I have also given back something of worth.Hardly anyone ever accomplishes anything of substance alone these days. And if you can encourage the exchange of ideas, take ownership for a given area of expertise, be responsible for the work you produce, making sure to do your best given the deadlines you have to meet, it will also go a long way in your career development.

What does your typical day or week look like?

When I am not actively involved in a project (which happens rarely), I am trying to churn through a backlog of ideas I've had or others have had. The very nature of telecommunications is one of constant change, let alone the huge strides that are happening in GIS. There is always something new. I guess I am always trying to keep up to date- whether it is about a new product that Nortel Networks has just launched, or about new data that I can purchase to help me do my work, or new services that carriers are offering to customers etc. I always have more material on my table than I can digest mentally. Sometimes this can be daunting- information overload- but you learn to take every day as it comes.

Knowing that there is more to life than just work is important as well. People talk about striking a work/home balance. I don't really know if there is such a thing (there are always trade-offs and one always has to compromise) but time away to enjoy other aspects of life is a survival technique. It is easy to get caught up in the hype of it all, but one has to keep their wits about them, otherwise they may suffer burn-out.I have seen this happen to many young people. Pacing yourself to achieve, using measurable short-term goals is the key to success. Don't worry about what you cannot change, only about those things you can change, and that usually starts with things you can do first.

I receive a lot of emails both internal and external as well as lot of phone calls from clients and from friends in the industry (mostly GIS salespeople who are willing to part with a little knowledge to engage the customer). I try to keep abreast with what is happening in the world of telecommunications and GIS and I find that the e-newsletters I subscribe to are excellent sources of information. Sometimes there is too much detail but as long as I can manage to skim through the headlines I feel on top of it. When something specific captures my attention I can then spend more time chasing it up. I am always sending emails onto others about 10-15 a day. Lately, I have been given the task to prime a few projects and to also manage small teams made up mostly of co-op students. I am directly interfacing with the customer which I enjoy as well. However, the management component of the task, I find to be very time consuming and often too administrative. I don't mind being a mentor but as a manager/contributor the task would almost be impossible if both were to be done wholeheartedly.

I have a good filing system as well- both electronic and paper. Colleagues are always astounded when I know where such and such a piece of information is located and remember key data when it is useful.You have to when you are working on so many projects at such a fast pace. The work we do is spread throughout thirteen Asia Pacific countries and over fifty customers. Often several iterations of the same task needs to be done, given several scenarios or a change in strategy, there is no time to waste.

I attend meetings every day. These are broken down into the following: 1.) customer meetings (about once every two weeks), manager meetings (once a week), informal meetings with colleagues (every day), mostly in the form of de-briefings and how to do tasks. I find that people are an important source of inspiration. Sometimes it takes only a few moments to explain what you are doing to someone, and you can receive feedback triggering new thoughts of how to attack a particular task or make it more robust etc. Valuing the experience of others, and listening to other perspectives can make your work better.

I am working directly with GIS every day for different tasks. I am documenting my work using Powerpoint and Word and also using spreadsheets and databases to analyse data.I also set aside time to browse the internet and to keep up-to-date with the latest data offerings around the region. Networking internally is also important- you find that some people are more key to your work than others.I will also take time out to talk to friends at work, go to the gym and visit the university library (on campus). Being able to relax a little, while you are under a lot of pressure can be the difference between someone who is content and someone who is uptight. Working so closely with others, you try and not let out your own stress on them. In this situation it helps when your colleagues are supportive because they can assist you to understand that everyone is in the same boat as you.

Why is GIS an exciting industry in which to participate?

GIS is an exciting industry to be in because it is about real life.It captures trends and patterns more readily than any other software I have come across. Pictures in the form of maps are much more intuitive to people than numbers on a spreadsheet. You can make decisions quicker than you could in the past because most of the time a map spells out what direction you should take. You have hard core evidence to back up what you are saying. The statistics can lie but those maps cannot. Language is often a barrier across Asia, but no matter what language you speak, all can communicate through maps and symbols. In one sense it is primitive, in another it is modern. With talk of 3-D satellite images at 3m/s resolution entering the commercial market over the next few years as well, the industry is headed for interesting times.

What is the most important "next thing" that will happen in GIS?

The application of GIS to the consumer market segment. Location-based services will become very important as society becomes media intensive. Whether using the internet, the mobile phone or the interactive car television where one is in respect to some other point on the earth's surface, it will become increasingly important. Where I am? How can I get there? And how fast can I get there? will become three of the most commonly asked questions. While GIS is already enjoying its boom in the enterprise market, it will reap the revenue from the consumer market over the next 2-3 years. Because everything has a location on the earth's surface it will not be long before things (even animals and people) are tracked and monitored for efficiency, security and reasons of convenience.

Before you came to GIS, what did you think your career would be?

I expected to be in an IT-specific consulting role. I never dreamed that I'd end up in either telecommunications or GIS. But as fate would have it I did. I hope to remain in the industry for many many more years but to varying capacities and perhaps in different roles. Lifestyle decisions are made by individuals at the particular stage they are at in their lives, GIS accommodates well for these diversities.

If there is any advice I can lend to anyone else out there, which has been taught to me by my husband is never to waste the talents you have, and in whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability. Failure is inevitable every day but you should not let it get you down. Work at it hard enough and long enough and the dividends will pay off. Our life is brief in the scheme of things and you want to be able to look back one day and say that you made a difference in whichever way your gifts allowed.

Email: katina@nortelnetworks.com

Originally published in Directions Magazine here