USC Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute

First Build Trust, Then Make a Case for GIS: A Q&A With Alumnus Kevin Loberg

Geographic information science influences nearly all of modern life, and, because of that, the career opportunities in the field are uniquely diverse. GIS graduate programs offer benefits that extend beyond basic technical proficiency, such as developing spatial reasoning skills and building lifelong professional networks.

For GIS Specialist Kevin Loberg, joining the virtual classroom at USC Spatial Sciences Institute gave him the opportunity to learn from both expert faculty and peers, who share his passion for geographic information science and for leading teams of GIS professionals.

Loberg began on the leadership path in the Army as an engineer officer and has since continued his career in public service. From digitizing storm sewer assets in San Jose, CA to mapping amusements at a county fair near the Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Loberg has been a true pioneer in this growing field. He is now the sole GIS Specialist at the Bureau of Land Management, High Desert District, Rawlins Field Office in Wyoming.

He enrolled in the online Graduate Certificate in Geospatial Leadership because of the customizability of the program, its unique coursework and his ability to apply his GI Bill benefits. Although he was initially hesitant about the online learning environment, the format of USC’s graduate GIS certificate made it easier for Loberg to quickly adjust to project-oriented work in this unfamiliar setting.

In fact, he found himself pleasantly surprised by his level of interaction with both faculty and other students. Loberg strengthened his professional relationships by networking with his peers, and he honed strategies to shape the direction of innovative GIS initiatives in his current role.

Read our full interview below for a look into how our online geospatial leadership graduate certificate program cultivates a trail-blazing mindset and challenges students to reach their full potential beyond their time at USC.

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Tell me about your background. I’m especially interested in hearing about your experience with San Jose’s Department of Public Works and your experience providing geospatial support to the Marine Corps.

I started out pursuing a career in federal law enforcement. Consequently, I ended up with a BS in Sociology, a JD in Law, and an LLM in Taxation. I also spent eight years as an Army engineer officer, including one tour of duty in South Korea, and three in Iraq. In that time, I commanded two platoons, served as a company executive officer and filled a number of other staff roles. Through opportunities afforded to me through the GI Bill, I changed tracks and earned a BS in Earth Sciences and a graduate certificate in geospatial leadership. Being an engineer sparked an interest in topography and this is what led me to pursue GIS professionally.

My first GIS job was working for the City of San Jose’s Department of Public Works. I was in charge of digitizing storm sewer assets from record drawings for inclusion in an enterprise database. My time in the military left me with the ability to execute dull, repetitive tasks remarkably well, and, after a year, I was promoted out of GIS to an IT management position overseeing the applications and data relating to the City’s vehicle fleet.

My next job was working as a contractor at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. Most of my work was again in the realm of public works, digitizing data for the storm and electrical systems. The Marine Corps previously considered GIS data only in terms of visualization. Marine Corps Air Station Yuma was at the cusp of creating datasets as networks with an eye toward analysis rather than just visualization. The work was varied with projects involving military range operations, realty encroachment, and resource management. I once found myself mapping amusements at a county fair because they were set up in the glide path of one of MCAS Yuma’s working runways.

As much as I enjoyed my time in Yuma, contract work is not terribly stable and I jumped at an opportunity for federal employment. I am currently the sole GIS specialist at the Bureau of Land Management’s Rawlins Field Office in Wyoming. I am currently working to build a GIS program while providing support for a whole host of resource management activities.

Why did you select USC’s online Graduate Certificate in Geospatial Leadership program among others that you may have been considering?

First and foremost, USC’s program was the only GIS-specific leadership program I came across. All of USC’s GIS certificate programs allow for completion in two semesters, and the Geospatial Leadership program allowed me to choose from a significant number of electives. I was able to easily customize courses for any deficiencies in my own GIS knowledge.

What was the online learning experience like for you?

The virtual classroom was difficult at first. Being a non-traditional student (i.e. middle-aged), and a person with almost no digital footprint in my personal life, interacting online doesn’t come natural to me. Even so, I adjusted fairly quickly.

The nice thing about GIS in general and the courses I took through USC is that they are project-oriented. Though they can be helpful, discussion and socializing aren’t the keys to learning what you need to know to be an effective GIS professional. Doing GIS is the key, and the focus on that made the transition to a virtual classroom much easier for me.

How were your experiences with faculty, staff and fellow students?

The program faculty were very accessible, and I interacted with them more than I would have in a traditional classroom setting. I have a lot of leadership experience in GIS. The faculty at USC seemed genuinely interested in those experiences instead of dismissive.

Interaction with students was generally positive. In fact, while still working in Yuma, I ended up in a class alongside the GIS Coordinator for the Western region of the Marine Corps. The mix of students in the program not only allows for academic potential but networking and strengthening working relationships as well.

What’s it like being the sole GIS specialist at the BLM’s Rawlins Field Office?

So far, it’s been amazing. I’ve been essentially left to devise the GIS program as I see fit with little to no interference. That freedom is professionally very satisfying. My office has been without GIS support for a number of years, so the staff here is downright hungry for GIS knowledge and support. I’ve never had so much gratitude directed toward me for just doing my job before outside of my time in the military. The people here have been so welcoming and open that I truly feel fortunate to have landed here.

How has USC’s online Graduate Certificate in Geospatial Leadership program helped you in this current role?

It reiterated that a GIS program is more than technology. A successful program requires building relationships with people who have the authority to change culture and integrate GIS into daily routine. The class materials provided great methods for quantifying benefit, and I’m currently working to implement some of them to convince folks that GIS can help save time and money. First build trust, then make your case for GIS. I’m venturing into this latter territory now, and I’m happy to have the texts and other materials from class related to this.

What would you say was the biggest takeaway from your participation in the certificate program?

Like most professions, GIS values and culture are continually evolving and changing as new generations come into their own. The way I lead isn’t the same as my grandfather would have led in his day. Heck, the way I lead today isn’t the same as I led 15 years ago. Leaders have to be flexible and capable of learning and adopting new methods as these changes take place. Mental agility is necessary for long term success as a leader.

Were you able to apply what you were learning in the certificate program to your job at the time?

I was still in Yuma when I started the program. One of the courses I took was a mobile applications course in which I created an app that uses current location to obtain weather data and convert that to a heat category in accordance with military standards. It also derived work/rest cycles and suggested water intake. The app, while imperfect, was useful for justifying field data collection times in an extreme environment such as Yuma. In my final semester I’d moved to Rawlins and enrolled in the leadership and project management courses. A lot of the material in these courses can seem esoteric. Being involved at the time in building a GIS program at work, I was able to think of the topics being discussed in terms of what I was experiencing and desiring to build. As I’m still building and shaping the program here in Rawlins, I still refer to the texts and materials from class on occasion.

What advice do you have for those who wish to pursue a career in geospatial leadership?

A lot of people see leadership as simple career progression. “If I do GIS long enough I should end up a manager of some kind.” Leadership, however, requires stepping into a very different role. If you are a person who loves having your hands in the technology, who loves being the one using the technology to solve problems and create products, you might not be happy in a leadership role. As a leader you may not touch GIS for long periods. You will find yourself in budget meetings, planning meetings, frankly all of the meetings rather than doing GIS. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys building teams, developing individuals, and resourcing them properly so they can solve problems using spatial technology, then the leadership track may be for you. Consider carefully what you want and what will satisfy you professionally before pursuing a leadership position, and talk to others in those positions to find out what they do on a daily basis. Make sure it’s something you want before pursuing it.

What would you like others to know about this program?

Given the principles of leadership are not static, the program will always be a work in progress. You won’t receive “the guide to leadership” in this program. Instead, you’ll study the characteristics and experiences of leaders who were successful and unsuccessful. You’ll then look to your own life in comparison. This program is very introspective. Be prepared to examine yourself through writing and discussion, and, in doing so, share your experiences as much as you can. You have the opportunity to not only learn from your professors and other students, but to help them learn and grow as well.

About USC’s GIS Graduate Programs

The University of Southern California offers a comprehensive selection of GIS programs, including GIS master’s degrees and GIS graduate certificates. Click on the programs below to learn about our leading geographic information science education.

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