Mark Packard M’97 knew where to look for expertise in 2006 when the geographic information systems (GIS) department of an environmental consulting company he worked for spun off into its own company, ddms.

Having earned his Master’s of Science in Geographic Information Science at Saint Mary’s University, he went back to his alma mater’s network. First Packard hired one Saint Mary’s alumnus. Then two. Today, six of ddms’ 20 employees are graduates of Saint Mary’s GIS program.

That’s not to say that Packard hires only Saint Mary’s alumni or that he does so out of loyalty to the institution. Rather, each employee at ddms — regardless of where they were educated — has won a job offer through an interview process where six or more people have been interviewed. “Just because you went to Saint Mary’s, we won’t blindly let you in,” Packard assured. “Everyone has had to earn it, and everyone has had to go through a multi-phased interview process.”

So what sets apart Saint Mary’s GIS graduates?

“We have a really good understanding of what it takes (to do this type of work),” Packard said. “We know that their level is where we need it to be for our hires. We have a really high comfort level in understanding what their education was, having gone through it.”

Packard’s own GIS story started in 1996 when he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in geology. He enjoyed his undergraduate education, but knew he needed more computer and technology training. That led him to enroll in the Saint Mary’s master’s of science in GIS program.

“I think I finished in about a year and a half, I really hit it hard,” Packard recalled. “My computer acumen went way up as a result of the training and classes at Saint Mary’s. I started at a very foundational level, learned what I needed and left at an expert level with software and computers in general. Ever since then I’ve done the IT at any place I’ve been.”

After graduation, Packard headed east and began his first GIS project in northeast Pennsylvania. For two years, he ran the information database for a non-profit coal reclamation project. It was there, Packard said, that he realized all of his education was practiced in the real world.

Feeling the urge to move back to Minnesota, Packard joined Summit in St. Paul as their GIS specialist. A regional environmental consultant, Summit conducts local environmental investigations and remediations, like cleaning up gas leaks. GIS technology is used for tasks such as locating water sources or planning drill spots.

It was from Summit that ddms split off — keeping a relationship between the two companies with stock ownership and sharing the same building. Since its inception, ddms has grown by large proportions as a consulting company providing data management and visualization services to the environmental remediation and energy industries.

“We work with many large chemical or pharmaceutical companies for example,” Packard said. “Anyone that has made chemicals that could get into the Earth and adversely impact the environment. For all the projects we work on, the goal is to clean them up to the point where it’s not unhealthy for people.”

The applications for GIS in ddms’ work are endless, and clients can now access the company’s information through an online project portal with a massive amount of data stored on it.

“We have a project portal that has about 3,000 users on it,” Packard said. “It’s fully GIS-enabled. All the projects around the country, they’re all in this web platform. You can spend a lot of time creating a map, and only one person might handle it if it’s paper. Or you put it up on the web, and 3,000 people in the portal can use it.”

Packard and ddms don’t have a particular goal for employee growth; they want healthy success and healthy business margins. They have the bandwidth to take on bigger projects.

“We don’t need to be big or to grow just for growth’s sake,” Packard said. “But we’ll keep hiring and keep growing.”

Maybe some of those new hires will be from Saint Mary’s. After all, alumni have a great track record at ddms.

Click here to visit the program page for the M.S. in Geographic Information Science program (offered in both Winona and the Twin Cities).

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