iSchool alumni John Burke ’12 and Kevin Dong ’09 G’11 recently visited Syracuse as the second HINDSights Alumni Visitor Program guests of the school year to discuss their roles at JetBlue Airways.
Kevin is currently in the hospitality department working to develop the company’s customer service and John is a manager who oversees a variety of projects in the 100+ airports that JetBlue services, including innovation projects.
During their talk, the two focused on how students can leverage their iSchool degrees in companies that are not traditionally IT-focused. Afterwards, I sat down with the pair to pick their brains further.
When did you know you wanted to study Information Management and how did you find the iSchool?
When I got accepted to SU, I was looking through the majors and I didn’t know what I wanted to study. The iSchool seemed appealing because I thought about the classes I enjoyed the most in high school and it was a computer building class and a visual basic coding class.
I am a self-professed geek and have always loved technology, travel, and aviation. I actually came into Syracuse as a stage management major in the College of Visual and Performing Arts because I liked being the man behind the curtain in high school – it was something I sort of fell into in high school and wanted to pursue it in college as well. When I realized it wasn’t for me, I decided to stop ignoring or putting aside my passion for aviation, but I loved Syracuse University and didn’t want to transfer universities so I started looking around at the majors. Since I have always been really into aviation the staff at the iSchool helped me realize that I could put myself in a good position for a career in aviation if I had a background in IT and project management. Any large company needs IT people so I thought it made sense to transfer to the iSchool with a plan to apply it to a job at a major airline after graduating.
What was the most important thing you got from your iSchool education?
While I enjoyed the introductory classes at the iSchool, they felt like a price of entry. It was once I could get into the higher up management classes that I felt I really started to appreciate all the school had to offer and learned how project management and bridging the gap between IT and business really suited me. Seeing a group’s idea all the way through the end of a project, and learning how to manage it is something I still do every day. I think IT gets a bad name because everyone thinks you’re a coder in a basement — and that is not to say there’s anything wrong with development-focused career paths —but there really is so much more than that. For me, it’s being the person to understand the IT but also manage a team. Again, there’s nothing wrong with development or more technical tracks, but I knew I wanted to be more involved in the end-to-end management of a project.
I would agree with all that. I was more curious about creativity and coming up with ideas than just the knowledge of hardware and technical skills. I loved taking an idea and going through the whole process to see an idea develop into real-world applications. Because of this, I took classes honing in on project management acumen and other classes that allowed me to tap into my creative side to solve problems. These are skills I still use every day in my job.
Kevin Dong (left) and John Burke answer questions while speaking to Prof. Bruce Kingma’s class.
What do you do day-to-day that requires aspects of your IM degree?
I was able to apply a lot when it comes to managing data and information systems. Teams I work on are always looking at how we can solve a problem differently using new technologies. I have found people are very resistant to change so you need to be able to explain to them why integrating a new technology will both work and make things easier. I interned at the company first and I succeeded as an intern because I was able to make proposals early to improve processes and procedures. The iSchool also helps you learn to make concise, informative presentations, which is a critical skill for engaging leadership.
Yeah, the iSchool taught me to be curious and that there has to be a way with technology to do things faster and more efficient than what is currently happening. Millennials get a bad name for “only being good at social media,” but we are intellectually curious and can help companies explore new ideas and take chances. Even classes that don’t seem immediately relevant to management in the iSchool, like web design, have had an effect on the way I work now. I may not be building a website on a daily basis but knowing how to put together a well-formatted presentation, and knowing which types and colors work well to relay an idea… it helps. Half the battle is if what you are presenting looks good, then you can make it through a pitch.
How did you go about securing your job?
I was open to new horizons and was willing to deviate from my comfort zone whenever people presented me with new opportunities. Even if it didn’t pique my interest at first, I still welcomed the conversation. When I landed at JetBlue, I was not aware of a career in aviation. I had no prior knowledge of it and had only dreamed about working in sports. Then while interning and during my full-time search, one of my colleagues presented an opportunity to work for the Director of Dispatch. He had full confidence that I would succeed in the role despite my qualms, and I took the opportunity even though it didn’t initially seem to fit my career path. It turned out to be an immersive experience that was pivotal to my first full-time position at JetBlue.
The relationships I established while working on projects helped me navigate to quite different teams around the company. What sets JetBlue apart is the exposure and accessibility to leadership at all levels, enabling you to be exposed to a wide breadth of projects. When leaders look to find someone to lead a project, they are able to tap into a diverse of talent and experience to find the people who they feel can best manage it, not necessarily only the people in proximity.
There are two types of people who work in aviation — people who enter the airline industry because they have a passion for it and people who fall into it because their career or specialty has led them there. I definitely fall into the first category. It’s still a business — we have finance people, and marketing people, and communication people — every major business function exists in an airline.
When I was looking for internships, I leveraged social media and started to follow accounts that had to do with aviation. One day, I tweeted at the CEO of JetBlue and asked how I could be the next CEO of JetBlue, and he actually replied. He asked what they could do to help me and then I was able to have that conversation with him. I had been reposting Tweets and articles all about aviation, which I am sure played into him replying. I was basically able to build a virtual resume using social media.
How do you know you are in the right job?
So the hardest thing to learn is that in college everything happens at a ridiculous pace and it is not hard to get to the top. You join clubs and then in three years you’re at the top, the president or something. But your career is different. It is 30 to 40 years not four years. It took me some time to realize that at big companies, you have to earn your place at the top. That means you have to sit back a little bit, do your job well, and be willing to grow. For us, we both interned for about a year and then even after that, I was still in an entry-level, full time role and working with these people who have been in these roles for 30 to 40 years. There’s so much to learn, but that’s the best part of having the time to really dig in and develop yourself if you find yourself at a place you love and want to be at.
That being said, this is where I want to be and this is where I want to grow my career. I tell people I started at JetBlue and want to retire here as well! It still has a vibe of a startup. With the industry being so competitive and so cost focused, it’s amazing how they can keep that part of their identity. I love that startup atmosphere and am honestly proud of the company I work for. Like being back at Syracuse, I’ve already had people tell me positive stories about their JetBlue flights and it just makes you proud to be growing your career at that sort of place.
I know I’m in a good role because beyond my day-to-day responsibilities, I don’t feel complacent and see there’s room for growth in my development. I get to learn and challenge myself every day, and interact with different teams and professionals that are similarly invested in making a positive impact in the company. It is great to work in a company where I was not pigeon-holed into one path and encouraged to advance based on my interests and skillset.
As John pointed out, I also enjoy seeing the impact of our company on customers, the communities we serve, and witnessing the memorable
experiences that we create for traveling customers. We also do things as a company that embody our core values and make me proud to be a JetBlue Crewmember, but are not done for publicity or medi coverage. Recent examples include how we fly families of fallen law enforcement and the victims of recent shootings, and how we stepped up to help out communities that were devastated by hurricanes last year. We offered free flights because it is the right thing to do. This is the only kind of company I would want to work at.
What advice do you have for current students?
Take all the opportunities to network that you can. Show up at every event. Show up even if your friends aren’t going. Even if you aren’t a social butterfly and you feel nervous, realize that it’s just as awkward for everyone else in the room. Even if manage to meet one person, you may not know how you may cross paths with that person in the future. It is so important to put yourself out there to meet and surround yourself with like-minded and passionate people. They will only be your cheerleaders and support as you drive forward to future success.
You took mine! Okay then I guess, I would tell people to try to stress a little less about their careers while in school. It’s so easy to get tunnel vision and start applying to every position that comes open and put aside your values or interests or passions. The environment of being in college and trying to get a job is so unnecessarily stressful. Even if the role isn’t perfect, find a company you’re passionate about or an industry you love and find a way in. If we are being totally honest, I didn’t go to career fairs but I knew what I loved and knew where I wanted to go and I just applied myself there. So find something to be nerdy and passionate about and let it take you where it will take you.