This summer (2016), SEPTA is expected to roll out its long-awaited new smart cards to replace tokens, monthly passes or the pesky need for exact change, all for a smoother public transit ride.
The woman overseeing the technology behind the SEPTA Key smart card is Margaret “Peggy” Burns ’79, a Xerox senior vice president and chief engineer of Americas Transportation for the Public Sector Industry Business Group in Germantown, Md.
Burns lives for exactly this kind of technology, one that is everyday practical and impacts the lives of millions. Over her long career, the Gaithersburg, Md. resident has shifted from working on technologies that few us even knew about (top-secret intelligence satellites) to more ubiquitous devices such as GPS and now smart transit cards. “Now, I work on stuff where I use it, and people I know use it,” she says. “[It] shapes how you think about that product and your commitment. It becomes more and more personal.”
Practicality has driven her entire career and education.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Burns knew she wanted to pursue math and science but wasn’t sure of a career. At Drexel, she started as a math major but a first co-op at the Pentagon exposed her to the field of engineering and how math could be put to real use.
“As beautiful as math is, it’s even more beautiful when it’s describing real things,” she says. “Math became a language of how things worked.”
Burns changed to an electrical engineering major, and by senior year, she was recruited for a job at C&P Telephone Company in the Washington, D.C. area, a part of the country she loved for its diversity of people and commitment to government service.
After a stint with a small consulting firm, she joined IBM’s Federal Systems Division in 1982, and then through a series of acquisitions, she became part of Lockheed Martin by the mid-90s, where she worked on satellite command and control. “I love space,” says Burns, a licensed private pilot. “If I had lived in another time, maybe I would have been an astronaut.”
Instead, she spent nearly three decades working on satellites, first on classified intelligence projects and then on improving the GPS signal. Burns says she felt a great sense of responsibility to the public.
“We couldn’t let that ball drop,” she says of the latter project, “because so many people depended on that GPS signal.”
In 2004, Burns was promoted to vice president of engineering for Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems & Solutions, where she oversaw 8,000 engineers. She received the 2004 NOVA award, the company’s highest recognition, for her GPS work. She also worked as a vice president overseeing $500 million in annual sales in information systems infrastructure for government agencies that included the Social Security Administration, FBI and EPA.
In 2011, Burns jumped to Xerox to work on development of transportation products that included EZPass, those red light cameras (“I get speeding tickets from my own cameras,” she says.), street parking management with dynamic pricing and open payment systems (SEPTA Key, for one).
Burns credits Drexel for her career path.
“First of all, it was a really good education,” she says. “Second, the most important reason to go to Drexel is the co-op. How do you imagine what you can do unless you try it? Someone like me, I didn’t know any engineers when I was a kid. I knew nurses. I knew teachers. I knew moms. But I didn’t know any engineers.”
To pay it back—and forward—Burns established the Peggy Burns Fund for Engineering in 2011 to support students who need seed money for projects. That same year, she was inducted into the College of Engineering Alumni Circle of Distinction.
She also is a Drexel 100 and on the President’s Leadership Council and College of Engineering Dean’s Engineering Advisory Board, which she joined this year.
“I went off to have a really fulfilling career, doing lots of interesting things,” she says, “and it’s because of Drexel.”
By Lini S. Kadaba