A long string of successes in the technology sector characterizes Ann Dunkin’s (BSIE 86, MSIE 88) career. Much of that she attributes to being in the right place at the right time.
For example, when Dunkin was finishing her master’s degree at Georgia Tech’s Stewart School of Industrial & Systems Engineering (ISyE), she received a phone call specifically inviting her to interview for a position with Hewlett-Packard (HP) in Boise, Idaho.
Did she want to move to Boise? “Not really,” Dunkin said in a recent interview, laughing. But her would-be supervisor persisted, and eventually Dunkin headed to Idaho and spent the next three years designing material handling and systems for HP’s R&D on laser jet printers.
Eventually, Dunkin had enough of Idaho’s extended below-freezing winter temperatures and relocated to Vancouver, Wash., where she remained for the next 17 years. During this time, she worked on a varied number of projects: software quality, R&D, operations, and then found herself back in IT, where she spent a number of years.
“I did cool stuff at HP – and got to see a lot of the world,” Dunkin noted. For her last project with the company, she worked as a program manager to help develop and bring an enterprise-class inkjet printer to the market.
“Inkjet printers are typically desktop-size printers,” she explained, “but they decided to build one that could serve as a full-size hallway copier.” Although the project ended up being discontinued for cost reasons, “bits of it are still out there in the guts of some office jet printers.”
From the corporate world, Dunkin took her career into the nonprofit sector. For the next five years, she served as chief technology officer (CTO) – which is equivalent to the corporate chief information officer (CIO) designation – for the Palo Alto, Calif. school district. “I was able to help about 15,000 kids in the district, so it felt like a great opportunity to make a contribution,” Dunkin reflected.
While in Palo Alto, she received another phone call – perhaps what some would consider the phone call: from the White House Office of Presidential Personnel asking if she had an interest in becoming the CIO for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Barack Obama’s administration.
When asked how getting that phone call felt, Dunkin said, “First of all, when the president calls, you don’t say no. Additionally, the EPA was the agency I wanted to come to, as an opportunity to serve more broadly. The EPA helps protect the environment for the entire world. Air and water don’t know any boundaries, so what we did didn’t just help the U.S. – it served the whole world. It felt good to do that work.”
Dunkin joined the EPA in August 2014 and while there, she oversaw the cultural transformation of the agency’s IT department. She described it as pushing the agency toward being agile, using the cloud, and “embracing the desire to move fast, make changes, and take risks.
“I never bought into the idea that the federal government is full of people who are lazy and don’t care. The folks I worked with at the EPA were smart, capable people, and they were deeply concerned about the mission of the agency.”
In terms of climate change – which is not the sole focus of the EPA, Dunkin was quick to point out – she said that “clean energy is coming because of market forces. There are states, cities, municipalities, and companies deeply committed to doing the right thing.”
So what came next for Dunkin after leaving the EPA at noon on January 20, 2017? Though – as a life-long philatelist – she considered a position with the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, she ultimately answered the call for a CIO position with the county of Santa Clara, Calif. Santa Clara is the 15th largest county in the U.S. with a budget of $6.1 billion, and it represents the heart of Silicon Valley. “It’s the center of technology, and we need to tap into that technology. Counties are the lifeblood of the world: fire, police, jails, voter registration, social services, property taxes, and so on. [The job] represented a compelling opportunity,” she said.
As CIO, Dunkin is responsible for all of the technological infrastructure in the county, as well as how the public interacts with it. One of her goals is to increase the customer service aspect of the county’s technology – for example, making it easier for someone to pay their property taxes online. In addition, she wants the county to better understand its residents.
“About five percent of the folks in our community use the vast majority of the resources our county delivers,” Dunkin explained. “We see them in the health care system, in the social services system, in law enforcement. So we’re looking to use analytics to understand these residents better, and how we can help them use fewer services. This is not because we don’t want to provide services, but because in almost every case, quality of life goes up when fewer county services are used. No one starts out wanting to be put in jail or deal with child protective services or be in and out of the hospital. It’s very concrete – what we do has an immediate impact on someone’s life.”
When asked how she has thrived in the technology sector, which is famously male-dominated, Dunkin is very clear. “There is no doubt that there’s still a lot of sexism and ageism in Silicon Valley,” she said. While the general perception is that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy, Dunkin suggested that the public sector is more favorable to women and minorities. “I think that how I’ve been successful has been partly in choosing to change my path forward to the public sector, where it was easier for me to get a chance at the jobs.
“The hiring process for federal jobs tends to be more ‘color-blind,’” she continued. “I think women continue to be underestimated and continue to find alternative paths. It’s still true that women and minorities have to be twice as good to get half as far.”
It’s clear that Dunkin lives out her definition of success: “Success is ultimately doing something that makes you happy, where you feel like you’re making a contribution that’s meaningful.”
Dunkin also makes meaningful contributions through her extensive involvement with ISyE. She currently serves on ISyE’s Advisory Board. In addition, the generous provisions made by Dunkin through her retirement account and her estate plans will provide permanent faculty support in ISyE. She attributes the beginning of her success to the education she received at Georgia Tech and ISyE. “I want to be sure future students have the opportunity to attend the best engineering program in the world,” she added.