Intel’s Margaret Burgraff: the journey is worthy of the rewards

27 May 2015

Margaret Burgraff is vice president of Intel's Software and Services group and co-general manager of the Intel Service Division

Don’t sit around, work hard, build a network and get known for doing good work. That’s the career perspective of Margaret Burgraff, a key driver of Intel’s internet of things strategy who began her career at Apple in Cork in the 1990s.

Burgraff will be a speaker at our Inspirefest 2015 event in June, and the fascinating thing about her career is how she has managed to position herself at the very nexus point of every major technology shift in the last two decades.

Burgraff is vice president in the Software and Services Group (SSG) and co-general manager of the Intel Service Division. She is responsible for Intel’s Cloud and Connected Services group, which is integral to Intel’s approach to the internet of things (IoT). She was in Dublin this week as a panelist at the ITLG Summit.

Building the iMac and paving the way for Apple’s return to greatness

Burgraff began her career at Apple in Cork in 1994 and quickly progressed through the ranks to be present at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino for the return of Steve Jobs in 1997. It was a pivotal moment in tech industry history. Apple had just been saved from bankruptcy by Microsoft, no less, and Steve Jobs was returning to the company he left a decade earlier. It was also the moment that computers stopped being beige.

“I was 25 and Steve Jobs was in the room. But it wasn’t me he was talking to initially. As I grew more senior in my career there was more interaction, but my job was in engineering on the validation side and it was the first time I was in a lab with all the industrial designers. I have always been looking at what’s next in technology and I believed that in order to have a successful career it was important to navigate to where the trends are going.”

In her own words, Burgraff said she was “glad to have the balls” to leave Cork and head out to Cupertino at the time. “There was something about the iMac, for one thing it wasn’t beige. It was Bonzai Blue!

There was something about the iMac, for one thing it wasn’t beige. It was Bonzai Blue!

“I moved to Cupertino and met my husband within months of moving out there. Within a year we had transitioned to managing the iMac product line. My love affair with Intel began when I was working on the PowerPC to Intel Chip transition.”

Burgraff would have been responsible for the execution of the driver and firmware strategy. “Steve said the project would take two years. It took us 18 months. We were an awesome team, totally committed to the cause. Apple had no choice but to move to Intel to stay competitive.”

After having her second child, Burgraff had found she had developed her team to the point where it was optimised and running itself. This left her with too much time on her hands. After reading extensively, Burgraff came to the conclusion that what was holding her back in her career was weak negotiating and influencing power and not enough hands-on experience in other aspects of the tech industry.

Engineering the smartphone revolution

It was while mulling an opportunity to move to the iPhone team that she bumped into John Rubenstein, the inventor who was central to the creation of the iMac and the iPod, who had moved to Palm. “He told me they were experiencing huge quality problems with the product and he offered me a challenge. This was around 2009 and there was a huge focus on operating systems and how HTML5 would remove barriers to entry for device makers.

“I was intrigued and I felt that going into a smaller company at a senior level would give me more visibility into how the business worked. So after 15 years with Apple I took the plunge.”

What Burgraff didn’t realise was she was wading into a storm. While Palm was an iconic device maker that pretty much kick-started the smartphone genre, its acquisition by HP would signal its demise.

“There were huge quality problems with Web OS and it was around the same time that Verizon launched the Droid with Motorola. Palm had committed all of its cash to inventory and was running out of money. When HP acquired Palm the then-CEO of HP, Mark Hurd, had a huge vision for WebOS. However, after he left and Meg Whitman took charge, they didn’t know what to do with us. After releasing the first WebOS tablets they discontinued the product.”

Bored at HP, Burgraff felt the need to push herself to the next stage of technology, having tackled the desktop and smartphone space. “I don’t sit around. I began thinking that having done the operating systems, the kernel software, the firmware, drivers and app layers, it was time to get into the silicon space, which was the one space I didn’t know or have experience of. And I thought Intel would be the perfect company to patch that.”

In 2011 she joined Intel as director of quality for Intel’s phone and tablet products. At the time Intel had, along with many other players like Microsoft, completely missed out on the mobile revolution and was at pains to reassert its presence in mobile.

“We have come a long way,” Burgraff said. “We have the right people and on the client side we have reinvented the stack from top to bottom and we have created chipsets that make the lowest cost phones possible, as well as powering the top vendors in the tablet space. I am proud of what we have achieved.”

Intel will be at the heart of the internet of things

Now Burgraff is firmly focused on the internet of things – the field of technology where silicon and wireless communications will sit inside every conceivable object.

Already, Intel’s Irish operations have created the Quark processor for the internet of things, as well as the Galileo dev board that will enable inventors and makers to make any conceivable object from light switches to door bells intelligent.

“We are seeing a massive shift in hardware and software that is changing how we do design and development.”

Ireland is at the forefront of this change. Intel’s Irish operations have created 5,000 construction jobs as part of a massive US$5bn investment to move the Leixlip operations on to the next generation 14nm technology.

From California where she is based, Burgraff drives a “centre of excellence” within Intel for how cloud and connected devices scale with opportunities in the internet of things, data centre and client computing.

“Intel has been good to me. I am the kind of person who leads with her heart and I validate with my head. People think it’s not a great thing to lead with your heart, that you could get hurt, but that’s what drives my passion. Working in a company that does so many amazing things is a reward in itself.

“For example, we work with the Michael J Fox Foundation to create wearable devices that are used by thousands of patients with Parkinson’s Disease and we collect all that data in real-time to diagnose and make their lives better.

“There is a firm thread for Intel in creating this. In 1965 Gordon Moore had an astute observation that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would double every two years.

“We had the mainframe in the 1970s, the miniframe in the 1980s, the laptop in the 1990s. Now, by 2020 computing is going to be so tiny that it will be in everything. It is super exciting to me the potential of processing in the cloud through multiple, different devices. Moore’s Law has driven us to more possible utilisations of computing and connectedness – and all of the technology companies are following this. With luck the prices of sensors will fall by half, processing power will increase 60-fold and the cost of bandwidth will be 40-times less by 2020.

With the internet of things I hope for much more, not just data, but meaningful information for the good of the human race

“It is like all the planets are aligning for technology to get more useful information out of data. By 2020 there will be 44 zetabytes of data in the world. Today we are dealing in petabytes.”

Big data is the big disrupter as far as Burgraff is concerned, and she believes every company should be looking at big data from the perspective of cost and efficiency. Already cancer researchers in Oregon have begun using big data to provide more effective treatment for cancer patients.

“In order to realise the potential collaboration is essential. No one company is going to solve this. Policy makers need to work together to help with data privacy and security concerns. In the mobile space things were held up because policy makers took too long and there was not enough alignment.

“With the internet of things I hope for much more, not just data, but meaningful information for the good of the human race.”

The biggest gap is the confidence hurdle, not the competence hurdle

Looking forward to her appearance at Inspirefest 2015, Burgraff says that the key to greater diversity in the technology industry is for women to keep pushing themselves forward.

“I am not a spokesperson for diversity. But I hold a strong position and a meaningful role in the technology industry that is a testimony to how women can get ahead.”

Burgraff says that as a young woman growing up in Ireland never did she feel on the back foot. “As an individual I never felt being female was a disadvantage. Margaret Thatcher was always on TV and she was then the most powerful woman in the world and my name was Margaret, so that was cool. I remember when Mary Robinson became president of Ireland. I really didn’t think about it too much and it never held me back.

“However, living in Silicon Valley, where we have a melting pot of cultures and tolerances for genders, I agree with Sheryl Sandberg in her book that women are underselling themselves. Often it is the ‘tiara syndrome’, where [women believe] some day we will get recognition for all our hard work and sacrifice.

“One of the things I did when I started my career was to observe a lot of successful leaders and how they navigated their careers. At Intel we have senior leaders like Renee James, Diane Bryant and Aicha Evans and lots of other great role models.”

Burgraff believes one of the obstacles preventing young people from pursuing engineering as a subject is the fact that there are no engineering classes in primary schools. “People just don’t know what engineering is. It’s not seen as sexy or attractive, so it’s time to start breaking down the stereotypes.

“STEM is how the world is naturally inclined. We just need to make it more applicable and relatable. Technology reaches all the way back to the invention of the wheel.

“At school maths was my favourite subject and I neglected other subjects to concentrate on that. Maths problems were like crossword puzzles to me.

I wear nice dresses and shoes so that girls can see there is a different side to engineering

“For women in technology the biggest gap is the confidence hurdle and not competence. In navigating your career you have to work hard, build influence and try and get working in an area that is meaningful to your company’s goals.

“This is how I made my career shift – I pushed to get working on things that are impactful. Work hard and get known for doing good work and start building a network.

“I made it my business to know the right people and built a good network and I accelerated my goals by working on the right things.

“The process isn’t that hard, it is just girls need to make sure they get to work in areas that can be impactful to their company’s future. They need to stand up for themselves if they are being marginalised or pushed into an area that doesn’t connect with their passions.

“If there is an opportunity out there, get into the game and play,” Burgraff said.

In conclusion she said that she is an ambassador for changing the perception of engineering in young people’s minds.

“I wear nice dresses and shoes so that girls can see there is a different side to engineering.”

Inspirefest 2015 is Silicon Republic’s international event running 18-20 June in Dublin that connects sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years