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Paul Burke ‘17 Engineers His Own Path

Paul Burke in front of a Cisco sign.

By Cameron Walker

Even before he applied to NC State, Wilson College of Textiles alumnus Paul Burke ‘17 had a deep connection here. His grandfather, J. Perry Watson, served as music director at NC State from 1960 until his retirement in 1991.

“He was responsible for composing and writing the ‘Red and White Song’ and our former alma mater ‘I Wanna Go Back,’” said Burke. “I am reminded of his legacy constantly while watching our basketball and football games, and I am so honored that I could carry on the music tradition in our family through a cappella at NC State.”

Thanks to the generosity of the North Carolina Textile Foundation and their impactful donors, I was awarded a Centennial Scholarship, which not only paid for some of my education, but connected me with influential leaders in the textile industry and gave me an opportunity to give back to the college.

While in school, Burke was a member of the award-winning Grains of Time a capella group, founded in 1968 during his grandfather’s tenure. A Centennial Scholar, he majored in both Textile Engineering (TE) and Chemical Engineering, while participating in the University Honors Program, the Textile Engineering Society, Sigma Tau Sigma Textile Honor Society, Kappa Tau Beta Leadership Fraternity, and the University Ambassadors. He also worked as a team leader at Chick-fil-A, served as assistant to the IT support specialist in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, was a research technician for Tethis (a company focusing on bio-based and compostable superabsorbents), and served as an energy technology intern for nonprofit research institute RTI International.  

Originally from Raleigh, he now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works as pre-sales systems engineer for IT, networking and cybersecurity company Cisco Systems. We spoke with Burke about his life and career after graduation, why he chose to attend Wilson College, what his job search was like and more. Read on for our discussion.

Describe a recent day at work.

My role is pretty unique in that I am both a salesperson and an engineer, which is what attracted me to the opportunity from the start. I am responsible for guiding the technology and business-impacting decisions for audiences ranging from distinguished network engineers to C-level executives at Fortune 500 companies. My primary goal is to solve business challenges through connecting my customers to the right resources—both people and technology—and being the bridge between those relationships throughout.

My favorite part of my job is spending time with both my team members and customers and providing value through communication and expertise on all things Cisco. An example of what this looks like can be described by a recent day, which began by waking up at a hotel in beautiful Bend, Oregon—a sunny, outdoorsy town in Central Oregon, well known for their access to ski resorts, phenomenal craft breweries and the last still-operating Blockbuster in the U.S. (look it up, you won’t be disappointed). I spent some time at the hotel eating breakfast and reviewing my notes for a presentation I was about to give on the latest release of the Wifi 6 standard. I then went to a local coffee shop and met up with a team member to talk about upcoming projects. Next, I headed to the airport to pick up an expert on all things Cisco Wireless technology, who would be supporting me in my presentation. We headed over to grab lunch with our customer. After lunch, we spent time with the customer getting into their current pain points and business needs, which involved some whiteboarding and plenty of witty banter—a frequent favorite amongst this bunch. I shared with them how our latest enhancements in wifi would make their jobs easier and give them time back to the business, then we capped off the day at 10 Barrel Brewing (if you’re lucky, you can find some of their brews at bottle shops in Raleigh).

It is easy to make the job sound glamorous at times, but in reality, it is also lots of hard work, preparation and learning, with plenty of speed bumps and difficult conversations. Additionally, there has been a significant learning curve changing industries right out of college, but my time at NC State and the Wilson College of Textiles prepared me immeasurably for the transition into this position.

What drew you to textiles?

In high school I had strong passions for math, chemistry, technology and apparel. My school guidance counselor connected these drivers to the textile field and pointed me in that direction. Not long after, we had a Polymer and Color Chemistry (PCC) student come as an ambassador to my high school AP Chemistry class and I was sold.

Paul Burke and friends with Kent Hester at a NC State tailgate.
Paul Burke (top right, in red shirt) and friends with Kent Hester (middle, in red jacket)

Why did you choose to attend Wilson College?

The classroom visit certainly set my sights on the Wilson College of Textiles, but additionally, I knew if I wanted to pursue textiles there was no better place to do it than NC State. Between the hands-on learning, classroom experience, industry connections, and the faculty and staff, it was honestly an easy decision. Then I met [now retired director of Student and Career Services] Kent Hester. Not only did Kent connect me with scholarship opportunities, but his care and dedication to the students at Wilson was infectious. He was instrumental in my decision-making. Then, thanks to the generosity of the North Carolina Textile Foundation and their impactful donors, I was awarded a Centennial Scholarship, which not only paid for some of my education, but connected me with influential leaders in the textile industry and gave me an opportunity to give back to the college through additional chances to serve throughout each year. Lastly, I quickly learned about all of the degree paths and opportunities and saw a chance to secure two engineering degrees in the fields for which I had a passion: textiles and chemistry.

How did Wilson College of Textiles prepare you for your career? 

Despite diverting from a traditional textiles career path, the ways that my degree prepared me for this career are unmistakable. My time at Wilson College of Textiles first and foremost taught me how to learn, how to think and how to innovate. In my current role, I am required to consume large amounts of technical information, tailor it to a specific audience, and communicate it in a way that makes them care about my message. Many of my courses, but particularly TE Senior Design, cultivated the necessary skill set for this. Dr. Jeff Joines also had a huge impact both as my advisor, but also in his two TE courses, TE 110 and TE 404; they [in particular] ignited a desire for a career in technology and making business-driving decisions.

Paul Burke with Dr. Jeff Joines at graduation.
Paul Burke with Dr. Jeff Joines
Paul Burke with his basketball intramural sports team.

I applied for roles all throughout senior year in the textile and chemical processing fields, as well as a few graduate programs. I had also been introduced to Cisco via a number of networking events in college, and despite not thinking I was at all qualified for a job there, I was enamored with the company culture and mission. Fortunately, I was connected with an early in career track, the Cisco Sales Associate Program (CSAP), which looked for highly motivated and coachable college graduates to invest in a year-long intensive training program—basically getting paid for a year-long “masters” in networking, sales and Cisco. After a lengthy interview process, I was extended an offer and accepted before Thanksgiving senior year. My biggest piece of advice for seniors: start applying early and start networking even earlier. Use the resources at your disposal at Wilson College and NC State.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

A professional basketball player. I am now 6’6” and was always tall for my age; however, I quickly learned I was better at school than basketball and decided to focus my efforts there.

Tell us more about your time here at Wilson College.

My favorite memories of Wilson College center around Kappa Tau Beta (KTB), particularly with the camping trips, beach trips and intramural sports. My last intramural basketball game with KTB was actually our first recorded win in any intramural sport, which capped things off pretty well, I’d say. Many late nights were also spent in the student lounge and the senior design lab, where camaraderie and teamwork made the late night studying bearable, even enjoyable. A common word thrown around in these groups was “family,”and I think those reading this who were a part of those experiences would wholeheartedly agree with the reality of that word, especially as we have stayed in each other’s lives since graduation. I would like to think that’s consistent for many, if not all, students at Wilson College of Textiles.

I was also involved in the Textile Engineering Society, Sigma Tau Sigma, University Ambassadors, the University Honors Program, and most importantly: the Grains of Time. One of the best things about my college years will always be spending countless hours each week making music with my friends. We had the opportunity to compete at the national level and represent the university both on and off campus, including performing at the Wilson Faculty holiday parties.

What is the future of textiles with regard to your corner of the industry?

Paul Burke riding a bike with a scenic view.

Though I may not be directly employed by the textile industry, I do still have an impact on where it is going. One of the customers I work with is Columbia Sportswear, and they are in the midst of a digital transformation when it comes to how they interact with their customers and access their applications and data.

What do you do for fun?

Portland is one of the most, if not the most, cycling-friendly cities in the U.S., so I like to spend a lot of my time exploring the city and its surroundings on my bike. I also love hiking, camping, backpacking and the other outdoor activities you would expect in the “Pacific Wonderland.” During rainier days, I like playing board games and watching Survivor with my roommates—oh, and of course supporting Wolfpack athletics from afar.

I also like to spend my time giving back to my community. Portland has a significant homeless population, and through my church, Door of Hope, I spend time volunteering to feed and give aid to those on the street, but more importantly, having conversations with them to help them feel heard and dignified, as well as fostering relationships to encourage positive life change. I also serve through teaching and music in the children’s ministry at Door of Hope and have found rich friends and community through this outlet.

The Red & White Song

by J. Perry Watson

We’re the Red and White from State

And we know we are the best.

A hand behind our back,

We can take on all the rest.

Come over the hill, Caroline.

Devils and Deacs stand in line.

The Red and White from N.C. State.

Go State!

Paul Burke and the Grains of Time performance.
Paul Burke and the Grains of Time

Follow the Wilson College of Textiles:

Twitter: @NCStateWilson

Instagram: @NCStateWilson