Career in Overdrive

By Marcia Faye

“From an exterior styling standpoint, what you’re going to cue off of is that the Canyon’s definitely got the strong, proven DNA of our GMC truck family,” says Anita Burke (ME ’90) to a group of reporters. “When you look at the interior, there’s stitching on the IP, soft-touch materials, and real aluminum trim pieces. And as I mentioned earlier, the GMC Canyon also has an Autotrac T case,” she continues.

Her words are met with several long seconds of silence and befuddled stares. Finally, one reporter speaks up. “Autotrac T case?” he asks.

“The transfer case—sorry, sorry! I start talking in shortcuts sometimes,” Burke explains, as she and the reporters burst into laughter.

Talking in shortcuts may help to conserve energy for the petite Burke, who speaks nearly as fast as one of her General Motors Corporation pickups accelerates. Her love of her job coupled with the fall debut of the 2015 GMC Canyon and 2015 Chevrolet Colorado, the first trucks she designed as vehicle chief engineer, further fuels the adrenalin that seems to permeate her conversations.

Anita Burke (ME ’90) at the Chicago Auto Show

Burke was in town in February for the Chicago Auto Show, which featured the Colorado and Canyon, the newest midsize pickups to join the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra light-duty and heavy-duty truck lineup. She says she designed the Colorado and Canyon to attract customers looking for a manageable pickup suitable for carrying children as well as kayaks and at a minimal cost at the pump.

“Midsize-truck customers utilize their vehicles for everyday commuting as well as other lifestyle activities because they need the versatility and want the functionality of a pickup box. So every decision we made—first and foremost—was based on fuel economy. This truck is engineered to be ‘best in segment,’” she explains.

Women are expected to comprise 15 percent of the truck’s customer base as the Colorado and Canyon come with a segment-first “EZ Lift-and-Lower” locking tailgate along with a step-up bumper, second-row child seat, and “Teen Driver” feature that allows parents to set radio volume, a speed warning, and a speed limiter. Burke, a GMC Yukon owner, has been driving trucks since the late 1990s but has been involved with them indirectly since she joined General Motors (GM) in 1991.

After completing various design and development assignments through 2002, Burke was named an engineering group manager and spent three years working at GM’s engineering center in Mexico. Approximately two years later, she was assigned to the company’s engineering center in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where she began work on the Colorado and Canyon. Beside the Colorado and Canyon, she’s had engineering input on many GMC and Chevrolet trucks over her 23-year career. Not a bad record for someone who never thought she’d be working in the automotive industry.

“Within three hours of my interview at the General Motors Milford (Mich.) Proving Grounds, I knew my passion was here, in a company that offered me such a broad variety of choices,” says Burke, a Skokie, Ill., native who excelled in science and math from an early age, and who was encouraged to pursue engineering by a high school chemistry teacher and her brother, Robert Burke (EE ’89, M.S. ’98). She has coached colleagues and participates in a mentorship program at Visitation High School in Chicago.

“Both my parents worked hard; their family was the most important thing to them. They drove a very strong work ethic that my brother and I each have,” says Burke about her role models. “They told us to do what we wanted do but to do it well, to always be open-minded, and to look for learning opportunities. That is how I live my career and how I encourage and mentor the people in my life.”