A Geography major, Alan T. worked in Enterprise Architecture before becoming a Cartographer for Booz Allen Hamilton, a business management consultant company. Here’s what he has to say with a year of experience under his belt.
Why did you choose this job?
It is directly related to what I chose to study in University and offered the opportunity to expand on it and branch out into new territory. My current position allows me to meld cartography (making maps) with graphics design — which often times winds up in the hands of US government policy makers, to aid in their decision making for matters of pressing importance and National Security. I enjoy just about every day of work – there are always new challenges to overcome, and I never have to wonder if my work is relevant, or if it has any lasting impact.
What is an average day like in your role?
My day lasts anywhere between 8-12 hours — depending on workload. Often times, the work load follows the trends of national and world crises. There are days of high stress, no-kidding deadlines, and rarer still, days when there is not much else to do but hone my skills by refining previous work that I have done.
I work in an office of 12 people — we make up the principal graphics shop for our small, but significant, intelligence analysis directorate. I work with graphics designers, multi-media specialists, and other cartographers. As I write this, our work has a reputation of being among the best in the intelligence community.
A given day would probably see me working on one or two different projects. Occasionally, I’ll work as a team will all the other cartographers, but most of the time, I work solo. I receive graphics requests to produce maps and charts – and I will either work from instructions the client sends via email, or meet with them in person for a consult to kick off the project. Each project takes anywhere from half a day to a week and a half to complete.
We have at least weekly, sometimes daily team meetings in order to review our work for quality, accuracy, and consistency. We keep each other sharp, and in high spirits. Praise and laudatory comments are common, and credit generously shared when received.
As a contractor, my clients are Federal employees – which is important to remember. While we enjoy collegial relationships, we are there to support them. There can often be a significant difference in mindset between public, and private sector employees. ‘Security’ for contract personnel often comes through delivering superior work. For Federal employees, it often comes from ‘blending in.’ Contract personnel are required to navigate both worlds simultaneously if they work on client site.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Battling ‘good enough’. While we enjoy a solid reputation for being among the best of the best, we can sometimes find ourselves battling to keep from being satisfied with good enough – especially when the workload seems to be on the verge of overwhelming our small workforce. It’s tempting to let small details slip, in order to keep production numbers ‘up’ — but that’s a downward spiral. We forged a reputation for quality by paying attention to details, and being satisfied only with our best work.
This might not seem like a big deal if your work seems destined for a lonely file cabinet somewhere in the depths of a bureaucratic paper-prison – but the game changes when you become aware that your work has decent odds of being briefed to members of the Cabinet, or perhaps even the President.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
Honestly, it’s the camaraderie of working with people who work hard, play hard, and demand, of themselves, the very best. They take great satisfaction in doing work that matters, and that is appealing to anyone who reads or experiences it. Sure, they gripe about the occasional bump in the road, but their approach to making our work worthy of emulation is personally, and professionally inspiring.
What’s a common misconception about your job?
That graphics design is either ‘easy’ or ‘quick’. It’s quickly apparent in the work of those who firmly believe either one. We often meet with clients whose understanding of the graphic design process is rudimentary at best. In the intelligence community, ‘Type A’ personalities are common – and they are generally of a strong opinion about what they do or do not like about the look of something. It can be difficult to convince them that Graphics Design, is similar to other professions… in that expertise can produce top-notch products, but at the expense of time, and resources. Getting people to trust a designer’s eye can be a big challenge.
Any tips for current college students who aspire to have your job?
Be open to opportunities that may not precisely align with your long-term vision and goals (and *do* have a set of long-term goals to back up your vision). My first ‘real’ job out of college was doing something that was not aligned with my background, and which relied primarily on a keen intellect, and speed of learning. I stayed on that contact for a year before moving on. It broadened my horizons, increased my value to the company, and grew my professional network 10 fold. It was partly due to that work that I found the work that I’m currently doing. Don’t turn something down because you can’t immediately see it leading to the work you want — but wherever you find yourself, do your best work. It will open doors, and pave the way to opportunities you might not have even dreamed of.
If you had a time machine and could travel back to visit yourself in college, what’s the #1 piece of advice you would have given yourself?
Internships open doors — start looking early, and often, for places you can intern during summers. Yes, there are paid internships out there, but even unpaid internships can pay dividends down the road. While you’re there, make sure your name because synonymous with all the best work-related adjectives. Forget flattery – find a way to make life easier for the people who took a chance on you, and surpass expectations.
What is a fun perk of your job?
I work at a location where catching site of Senior policy-makers is not uncommon. It is a frequent reminder that essentially everything we work on *matters* – even if it was royally painful to produce, or endure.