Inspiring Success

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May 19, 2014

Dale Burkett: Tech Adventurer

DaleBurkettA few months after the 9/11 attacks, a taxi dropped off Dale Burkett at the airport in Subic Bay, a city in the southern part of the Philippines. He was in the midst of another international trip with his long-time employer, Lenovo, where his job as a global tech project manager took him to parts throughout the world.

Burkett was due to fly to Taiwan again, then continue to his home in the United States. After just two years in this position, world travel had already become routine for Burkett—so routine that he wasn’t expecting the wrinkle that was about to develop in his itinerary when the Filipino ticket agent gave him some news:

“You can’t buy a plane ticket to Taiwan. You need a visa to fly there.”

Burkett kicked himself. Because of some issues with his current project, he would have to spend more time this trip in Taiwan than he’d planned, requiring he obtain a Taiwanese visa. He simply would not be allowed to board a plane for Taiwan today without that all-important credential.

Burkett asked the agent where he could obtain a visa, but he already knew the answer: only at the U.S. embassy in Manila, a three-hour cab ride away. Complicating the issue were recent reports that Westerners were being targeted for kidnapping by radical Muslim rebel groups. Burkett had been advised not to trust anybody and especially to avoid traveling over land for long distances.

For the sake of his project, he badly needed to leave the country today. Resigned to the long journey by car, Burkett grabbed his bags and returned to the taxi area. He was about to book a ride when a young man just arriving at the airport asked him where he was going.

“Manila,” Burkett said, hesitatingly.

“You shouldn’t drive there,” the teenager said. “My father has an airplane. My brother and I are going there now. You can fly with us!”

It seemed too good to be true. Was this a set-up? Confronted with two risky options, Burkett chose the alternative that promised to get him to his destination sooner. “I decided to accept the offer — and leave it in the Lord’s hands,” Burkett recalls.

Before long, he was on the airport’s tarmac stepping onto a sleek, private jet. The family he rode with was pleasant, with lots of questions about America. After just a few minutes of airtime, he was safely on the ground in Manila pulling into a private hanger that also housed a helicopter and a Lamborghini. At the embassy he obtained his paperwork and was soon on his way, but not without saying a prayer of thanks.

“Now that was a once in a lifetime experience!” Burkett recalls.

The story highlights something Burkett wants to communicate about careers in technology: There is an aspect of adventure in tech that awaits anyone who desires to pursue it.

Now 42 and a family man, Burkett has wrapped up the phase at Lenovo that required a great deal of international travel. He has moved into other positions at the company, each one allowing him to grow his experience and flex his talents.

But he credits the beginning of his career with a basic fascination with technology. “I was always an early adopter. I was walking around with a blue light in my ear and everyone was like, ‘What is that?’ and I said, ‘It’s Bluetooth!’ I’m fascinated by technology and watching the market to see how it evolves.”

Burkett was at first an unlikely candidate for a tech career. He grew up in Trinidad, a Caribbean country where, in the 1970s and 1980s, computers were rare to come across. Burkett successfully lobbied his father to buy one. “Dad had the foresight to make that investment in my future,” he recalls. When his family emigrated to Brooklyn, Burkett was delighted to find computers in his school. His high school years were spent focused on learning all he could about the machines.

Thinking the degree would help him learn even more about computers, Burkett enrolled in college at City College of New York for electrical engineering. Surprisingly, he found himself losing interest in classes. So he took some time off to work for Macy’s in the store’s electronics department.

“I needed a new start,” he says.

Burkett decided to transfer to North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC, where he undertook a mechanical engineering degree. “That degree helped me understand the cooling, components, and measurements of a circuit board,” he explains.

Even more important, he realized he loved the problem-solving nature of engineering.

“The engineer is no longer the guy with the pocket protector. It’s someone who sees a need and develops something to meet that need. Just having that natural inquisitive nature and the methodology to figure out a solution is important.”

A college internship at IBM at the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina turned into a co-op job and then, after graduation, a full-time position. When IBM’s laptop manufacturing division was acquired by Lenovo, a Chinese-owned company, in 2005, Burkett moved just six miles away to Lenovo’s new North American headquarters. At Lenovo he transitioned into a new key role every several years. When the project management stint ended in 2008, he worked in several management roles in the areas of server quality, special bids (customization), and global accounts.

In 2014 he received his newest assignment — as senior manager of the company’s enterprise storage team, ensuring that client companies world-wide have the required amount of server storage space available to them exactly when they need it.

Moving up from purely technical positions into management has been a gradual and rewarding progression for Burkett. “It’s all about evolving. It’s adding to the bank of knowledge that I have. It’s another feather in the cap.”

Some people are drawn to technology who never get started on a career, mistakenly believing that a career in tech is too difficult. In fact, some jobs, such as help-desk technician, may not even require a college degree. Certifications, which can be obtained more quickly and for less money, can open the door to an entry-level job.

But for those who can afford the cost, time, and rigor of higher education, Burkett recommends embracing challenging math, science, and engineering classes in order to leap ahead.

“You’ll build a base in high school and college. True, these courses are not always easy. They can be abstract. For example, I draw on less than 10 percent of calculus in my current job.”

Adds Burkett: “I may not have enjoyed advanced physics or thermodynamics, but today I can draw on the learning from those classes, and provide solutions in my job.”

Tech careers with global companies have given Burkett and his wife (who works for IBM in a technical role) a standard of living to afford a house in a safe neighborhood. Both of his daughters are competitive in gymnastics, a past-time that requires the family to travel for meets. That’s okay. Burkett actively encourages members of his work teams to seek a healthy work-life balance. “There is a perception that as long as you’re busy you’re valuable. But taking time out to decompress from work is healthy.”

In fact, looking back on his varied career in tech, Burkett sees that he has found a way for technology to work for him — not the other way around. “Some look at technology as intimidating, but it’s not. We are the masters of technology.”

And as he dwells on some of the exciting things he has experienced along the way, Burkett can truly say: “Technology has led me on a great journey.”