What Drives Her: Anita Burke, Chief Engineer, Mid Size Trucks, General Motors
You might not believe that this petite lady built this big truck. Well, mid-sized truck, to be exact. But as trucks go, it’s so much more, and as petite ladies go, Anita Burke is a heavyweight in truck design.
Anita was charged with building a truck that opens up a whole new category for General Motors: the mid-sized pick-up truck. It’s important for many reasons: as our economy improves, trucks are the go-to vehicle for many business owners. But not everyone wants a full size truck: they can freeze you out of a parking structure, be a barrier to small or elderly passengers who might have difficulty climbing in and out, and can be tough on fuel economy.
“Customers haven’t had a vehicle that met their needs,” explains Anita; the category was neglected for many years. “Customers were faced with the decision between a truck that is dated and doesn’t have all the features we expect from a car, or a larger vehicle than they needed. Or they abandoned what they wanted for a crossover or sedan.”
As General Motors was exiting bankruptcy, the company realized the demand for mid-sized trucks and asked Anita to lead the project.
Designing for the customer
Giving the mid-size truck customer the best the automotive market has to offer was important to Anita. “The customer will use it for work and play, and for every day commuting, not just weekend work,” she explains, so the things that are so important in a car are also important in a truck: technology, safety, comfort and fuel economy. Anita worked with her team to ensure that all the best offerings in the car market today—from technology to phone connectivity to plenty of charge and USB ports—are incorporated into the Canyon and Colorado interiors. Then, the team worked to include the best of other truck details, like the step in the bumper, and to innovate what they could. The mid-sized trucks have new features like the soft-open tail gate (just pop the handle and the tail gate glides open rather than falling open with a jolting bounce) and a customizable grid for organizing the truck bed.
Anita is proud to deliver all that in the Canyon and Colorado, and also, a comfortable, un-truck-like drive experience: behind the wheel or in the passenger seat, the Canyon and Colorado drive like a car, smooth and comfortable. Leather upholstery cushions its passengers, and amenities like USB ports and heated seats are close at hand.
And, that point about having to climb into a huge truck? Not an issue here. “I’m 5’2”,” says Anita, so she understands the challenges of getting in and out of a truck. The Canyon and Colorado are not as high off the ground as bigger trucks like the Silverado and the GMC Sierra.
The path to truck design
Anita didn’t grow up wanting to design trucks—or cars for that matter. Unlike so many others in the auto industry, “I didn’t grow up with gasoline in my blood,” she says.
Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, her family had the usual affinity for cars—they liked and appreciated them but weren’t enthusiasts. But at her all-girls Catholic high school a teacher noticed her love of math and science and suggested she study engineering in college. Her brother had just started a major in engineering in college and “it was a lightbulb moment,” says Anita. “I knew I would like engineering.”
While getting her degree at the Illinois Institute of Technology, she participated in co-op programs with Kraft and General Electric. Looking for bright job candidates, General Motors invited her to interview for a job when she graduated.
At first, Anita hesitated to go for the interview. “My internal voice was, why would I work for an auto company?” But she went to Detroit for the interview, which was held at the company’s testing center, the Milford Proving Ground.
“The interview lit a passion I didn’t know I had. Seeing the proving ground, talking to people, seeing the scope of GM and opportunities offered in different areas, I thought, I can do so many different things here. I called my parents from the airport and said if they make me an offer, I know where I’m going.”
Talent + opportunity = breaking new ground
It was the possibility and scope of opportunities that excited Anita about working for GM. She knew that there, she could find her passion and put her stamp on projects she would be proud of. But building that path is just was important as the work she did. “Observation is important,” Anita says. “I started watching people in jobs that I thought were interesting. You may know what you want to do, or find your passion, but you have to find what gets you out of bed in the morning. I didn’t realize I wanted to be a chief engineer until a former chief engineer pulled me in his office and said ‘What do you want in your career?’, and I said ‘I want your job.’ It wasn’t until I verbalized it I realized that’s where I wanted to be.
Anita, like so many of the other 22,000 employees of General Motors, brings a diverse voice and view to the company’s products and operations. “This has been huge in last few years, listening to clear messages coming from outside the company, the bankruptcy, but we also started listening to ourselves, to the people who were doing [these jobs] every day. We realized we needed to do things differently,” she said. And when the message is clear and people’s views bring value to the process, “everyone comes to work dedicated and enthused about what we do every day.” One of the values that she embraces the idea that “we should always strive to do everything better,” she says.
But what really fires up her passion? “The best opportunities happened when I stepped out of my comfort zone, or when someone had an idea and it opened up other things.” Going to work for GM in itself was a step of out of her comfort zone, and it was the chance to think out of the box that was so alluring to her, more than simply engineering cars.
Anita hopes to inspire others, especially women, to find fun and passion in engineering. It needs to be “transparent and visible to girls that there are a lot of things to do with math and science; so often they don’t see the possibilities outside what’s in the textbooks, they don’t see the links to the great things you can do. But I think that’s changing and schools are showing where the great opportunities are.
But mentoring and development on the job is just as important. “I mentor men and women,” Anita says. “I’ve mentored people in other cultures as well. It’s important to encourage people to step out of their comfort zone. Even if it’s a disaster, you’ll learn something. We spend so much time at our jobs, you have to love what you’re doing.”
For all her efforts—building her own path, helping others and helping to change the way things are done at GM—what is most rewarding for Anita? “Seeing your vehicle roll off the assembly line,’ Anita says. “The only thing better is seeing them on the roads now, with customers driving them, seeing someone who purchased this truck.”