Dubliner leads team of hundreds of software engineers at Android
Wild Geese: Dave Burke, VP engineering, Google Android
Dave Burke: “Silicon Valley is ground zero for developing new technology that impacts the world.”
Google’s Dublin-born vice-president of engineering for Android, Dave Burke, counts himself incredibly lucky to have “one of the best tech jobs in the world”. Based in Palo Alto, California, Burke has been working for the tech giant for nine years.
He joined Google UK in 2007 as engineering manager and spent four years there before moving to the US in 2011 as director of engineering. He was then fast-tracked to the role of senior director before becoming vice-president of engineering in late 2014.
Burke is a UCD graduate with a background in electronic engineering and a PhD in the mathematical modelling of brain electrical activity.
In 2000, he co-founded UCD software spinout, Voxpilot, and last year his alma mater recognised his achievements by appointing him adjunct professor of electronic engineering.
“From [a] very young [age], I was fascinated by how things worked. As a three year old, I brought mechanical clocks rather than teddy bears to bed,” Burke says. “As a kid, I designed my own robots, wrote computer software and built remote control aircraft. I ended up studying engineering and branching out into topics such as neuroscience and mathematical modelling.
“The common theme for me has always been to work at the bleeding edge of technology. Inventing the future and creating amazing products is what gets me up in the morning.
“Silicon Valley is ground zero for developing new technology that impacts the world. The concentration of talent and expertise here makes it unique,” Burke says.
Android is the world’s largest operating system for mobile devices with in excess of 1.4 billion active devices worldwide. Burke’s job is to lead the team of software engineers who develop and scale world-changing technologies. He can’t divulge the actual size of his team, but it’s closer to 1,000 than to 500.
“Silicon Valley has refined a creative ecology where good ideas are nurtured and bad ones quickly weeded out,” he says. “For example, many of the features and services that reach a customer from a company like Google have basically been through a Darwinian process before launch.”
Burke and his wife, Louise, have three children under six and one of the reasons they relocated to the US was to cut down on Burke’s travel time.
“When I lived in the UK, I was back and forth to California and the jet leg eventually gets to you,” he says. “Living in the US, I don’t travel so much which is important with a young family.
“The US is a diverse place in terms of culture and attitudes, with Silicon Valley being at one end of a spectrum,” he adds.
“A big difference I see between here and Ireland is willingness to try ideas. There’s a positivity to this place and people are willing to take risks and think big. Occasional failure is a right of passage not an indelible bad mark against you.
“However, I find being Irish an advantage as we tend to have a more natural, relaxed, and adaptable way of interacting with people.”
Burke says there are many opportunities in the US for those with STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] qualifications.
Interestingly enough, he says Google tends to hire generalists rather than those who are niche specific.
When it comes to opportunities for Irish companies in the US, Burke believes the biggest potential lies in the software and big data sectors.
“We’re still in the middle of the Internet and mobile revolutions and it’s so much easier now to scale an idea very quickly using the cloud,” he says.
Google attracts employees from all over the world and Burke enjoys the insights and diverse ideas this cultural mix produces. The informal working environment Google is famous for also suits Burke although he emphasises that perks such as play spaces, free food and being able to bring your dog to work do not affect productivity.
“Being laid back is one part of our culture. The flip side is that we are a very driven company that gets things done.
“The key to this is employing highly self-motivated people,” he adds. “We invest a huge amount of time in hiring. Those applying to Google may go through six or seven interviews not with people like me, but with those they will work alongside. We look for individuals we can gel with. Our biggest asset is not code. It’s people. Our view is that you should keep the bar up by hiring someone smarter than yourself.”
Asked about the speed of new product development Burke says it’s cyclical by nature. “In the early stages, things are relaxed as we’re teasing out ideas and possibilities. As the idea gets pinned down and the product starts taking shape, the crescendo builds and it’s flat out to hit our deadlines. Then it goes quiet again. It has to be like this or people would burn out.”
Ideas are never in short supply at Google but Burke says the real skill lies in pruning them.
“You need to go through ideas very quickly and identify the ones that might work,” he says. “One of the differences I see between Irish and US business cultures is that we [Irish] tend to hang on to our original ideas come hell or high water. In the US one of the words you hear most often is ‘pivot’ – if it’s not working move on.”