AlumniDr Pauline Burke

Course studied: BSc (Hons) Computer Science and Microprocessor Systems, 1986; PhD Computer Science 1991

Position at time of writing: Head of Data Science for Siri Assistant and Dictation, Apple


Tell us about your background

I was born and raised in Glasgow, attending Bearsden Academy. I met my husband, Peter Burke, at the University of Strathclyde. After graduating, my first job convinced me to return to switch the focus of my career and I completed a PhD in artificial intelligence. This led me to work in Switzerland, meet researchers from across the world and eventually land a job in California. I’ve been lucky to work in some of the most influential tech companies such as SRI International, Yahoo, eBay and Apple.

Why did you choose Strathclyde?

At school, I enjoyed mathematics and physics but knew little about computers. After watching my Aunt use a modem from home and reading “2001: A Space Odyssey”, I though computer science might lead to an interesting job. So, I selected the University of Strathclyde due to its stellar reputation in the burgeoning area of computer science; opting for the challenging “BSc Computer Science and Microprocessor Systems”. The second time I selected Strathclyde, I was attracted by the opportunity to work while I studied. I took a position as a research assistant seconded to the National Engineering Laboratory in East Kilbride. There I was, lucky enough to have Nigel Kay as my manager and mentor. He encouraged me to take up a part time placement at the Artificial Intelligence Applications Institute at the University of Edinburgh where I was able to learn from Prof. Austin Tate, a leading planning researcher, and the exceptional team he had brought together. This and strong mentorship from Prof. Buchanan at Strathclyde opened many doors in the world of AI research.

Where are you now? 

While working at SRI International in California, I led a group of researchers trying to solve the problem of multi-agent calendar scheduling for a large government funded project on personal assistants. Parts of the work at SRI formed the basis of the very first version of Apple’s Siri Assistant. After stints in Yahoo, eBay and an AdTech start up I was asked to head up the Data Science team for Siri at Apple – a kind of full circle. My current position involves providing data insights and experimentation systems that allow Apple to make Siri the best assistant in the world whilst ensuring we protect the identity of the user and protect their privacy. Over the years I have found myself working with technology leaders and innovators which is intense, sometimes exciting and always inspiring.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

It is difficult to pick out one highlight from my entire career but here are a couple of moments. When I first started my career, I had to present a conference paper in the US. I stood up in front of a room of about 1000 men and quaking in my shoes presented my work. It felt like a monumental achievement. I’m happy to say those audiences are far more representative nowadays. Another highlight has been working at Apple Park, it is an amazing building and grounds, inspiring a thoughtful approach to technology and lifestyle. Later in my career the highlights have come from small moments: a former colleague or team member mentioning that I have influenced their career, or strengthened their confidence.

Ambitions for the future

Two things: (1) that as leaders we all create opportunities for young people to grow and develop their careers and expertise to influence the development of socially conscious technology and (2) to spend more time with my family and friends discovering the world.

What is it like to be a leader at one of the world's largest companies?

It is both exciting and inspiring working for Apple. Unlike many highly hierarchical companies, Apple is designed to encourage ideas and innovation and creates multi-functional teams. I often say to new employees that Apple culture is like small jazz bands forming and bouncing ideas off one another. Working with experts in different areas to explore new ideas and strategies. Yet, there is the over-arching concert orchestra ensuring everything comes together for Apple’s famous releases.

As a leader at Apple or eBay or Yahoo, I have enjoyed the ability to impact the daily lives of people across the world through our products. Currently I get to drive the privacy goals of Apple while making ML-based products more useful, and more personal.