Atlas, ruler and curiosity lead to surveying career on cutting edge of new technologies
Melissa Harrington spent much of the last year introducing a new outdoor augmented reality tool to geospatial professionals around the world, a culmination of curiosity in math and geography tracing back to her childhood hobby of using a ruler and atlas to measure the distance between two points.
“Like any surveyor, I wanted to be accurate and precise from a young age,” she says, “and I’d open the atlas and rule it up so I would get the exact location.”
Having gained the perspective of geospatial product end users over four years working as a surveyor in her home country of New Zealand, Harrington can understand how surveyors may react to new technologies like Trimble SiteVision that include buzzwords like “augmented reality” in their descriptions.
“Some surveyors have been scared of technology taking their role,” she says, relating some of the conversations she’s participated in as she’s demonstrated the capabilities of Trimble SiteVision, which integrates Trimble Catalyst technology with computer vision from a consumer smartphone, so users can visualize their data accurately positioned, oriented and overlaid in the real world.
Her overarching message: Don’t worry. Trust the technology.
“For some people it’s scary, but for me, my perception is, it’s great,” says Harrington, who completed her surveying degree at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, before joining Eliot Sinclair & Partners, a New Zealand-based surveying and engineering firm, where she worked on surveying projects after the devastating earthquakes in Christchurch.
That time underscored for her the importance of surveyors in the world, a role that technology can’t replace: “Professional surveyors are the experts,” she says, “and we will always be needed to help guide and inform people of the fundamentals and how to use things. We have a lot of value to add to technology and understanding how everything works, especially in relation to geospatial information.”
Varied Career Path
After her time at Eliot Sinclair, Harrington was accepted into Trimble’s rotational development program, which over two years exposed her to various areas of the organization. In her case, she started with the Trimble Geospatial team in New Zealand, working on testing Trimble Catalyst, and then a product management role with Trimble Access. She then moved to Colorado and joined the Trimble Sketchup team in technical support. Her final role was coordinating the SiteVision early experience program, which led to a permanent role as product manager for SiteVision, where she was able to see the product through its initial conception to its release in late 2019.
Because SiteVision is a horizontal product with applications in a variety of business sectors, Harrington was able to work with people from civil engineering construction, geospatial, buildings, Sketchup, and the utilities businesses (water and energy).
“I’ve had a wide exposure to Trimble and all of the technology that they use,” Harrington said. “That’s one of the components I really like about my job. I get to work with so many different people at Trimble who are all so intelligent, and you can learn from each and every one of them.”
Mentors Along the Way
Harrington says her young career has benefitted from working with many strong leaders, starting at the University of Otago School of Surveying, and throughout her various roles. “While I’ve been at Trimble, there have always been people I’ve looked up to, but I’ve also looked around me as well, because you can always learn from everyone.”
That includes through professional networks and associations. For her, this includes being chair of FIG (International Federation of Surveyors) Young Surveyors Network. “I’m really lucky to have friends located around the world who are just as nerdy as me,” she says. “We get to chat about things, like the work we do, what we think is important for the future of the profession and raising the profile of the profession.”
Recognition also has come Harrington’s way, including receiving the New Zealand Spatial Excellence Award - Young Professional of the Year in 2019 and being included in xyHt’s 2020 40 Under 40 list. In addition, Trimble SiteVision in 2019 received a New Zealand Spatial Excellence Award in the Innovation and Commercialization category.
Inspiration for the Future
Artificial intelligence is one area of technology she believes will make a big impact on the geospatial field, especially as geospatial applications become more prevalent in the lives of everyday users, such as mapping apps that predict traffic patterns to help people navigate their way to work more efficiently.
“Everyone these days is using geospatial information,” she says. “Surveyors—we are the people who truly understand the fundamentals of how it works, its complexities and its limitations. Looking forward to the future, more and more consumer technology will be using geospatial information.”
For any young person interested in the geospatial field, she encourages them to “just go for it.”
“Do some research,” she says. “If you are passionate about something, truly follow that. It’s worked for me—and you’ll never know where you might end up!”