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On Track with SAAS Alum Chaffee Burke ’02 & his Career from Policy to Tech

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Written By: Gena Wynkoop, Editorial Content Manager

Chaffee Burke’s career path didn’t unfold as he initially envisioned.

“I would never have guessed that this is where I would go at the beginning of my career,” said Chaffee, Seattle Academy (SAAS) alum from the class of 2002, who works as the Principal Solution Owner at Slalom, a far cry from his early interest in politics, history, and theology in school. 

“I distinctly remember my teachers and the education I got at Seattle Academy. I remember going to college my first year and feeling like my English and History classes were a breeze because I knew the content already, and I knew how to write a strong essay.”

Chaffee was always drawn to the humanities while at SAAS but recalls Youth Legislature with Steve Retz as a big part of his time as a Cardinal, adding that some of the lessons he learned he still carries with him today.

“Youth Legislature was a huge part of my Seattle Academy experience. We got to pretend we were state legislators and go down to Olympia and come up with and hopefully ‘pass’ laws,” said Chaffee. “Having access to activities like those and being armed with the knowledge and confidence to speak up is definitely something that has served me well in life.”

Those academic interests cultivated at SAAS continued to Chaffee’s studies at The University of San Francisco. “I ended up majoring in politics, theology, and history. Go figure, I work in technology,” laughs Chaffee. 

That move to technology happened gradually and organically. After graduating from college, he moved to Washington D.C. with the hopes of getting involved in international politics and policy. “I found out that I didn’t really have the pedigree or access to some of the opportunities that I was hoping for. On top of that, finding a job that was going to pay well was kind of difficult.”

Chaffee then found a job with a small consulting firm in Charlottesville, Virginia, that worked primarily for the EPA, the United Environmental Protection Agency, which worked internationally on carbon registries. Over the years, that small firm became the only firm that monitors all of the emissions from power plants across the entire USA.

Chaffee navigated the intricate landscapes of consulting firm acquisitions in D.C., and during this period, his attention turned toward international policy concerning carbon cap and trade. However, he discovered that his passion was not poring over policy documents.

“I like interacting and talking with people and making things happen to a certain extent. There was more opportunity in ‘making things happen’ in technology, so through luck and opportunity, I kind of stumbled into running large, complicated technology projects.”

Chaffee and his wife returned to Seattle, where Slalom hired him as the Principal Solution Owner. That desire to “make things happen” had solidified into a job role where Chaffee could work with different clients, figure out what they wanted, and then find ways to deliver the software. 

Cue, Kawasaki. “About two years ago, we got the opportunity to work with Kawasaki. They came over to Seattle and basically had this vision of building a platform that would support the future of rail maintenance.”

“They had this idea of autonomous sensors strapped to trains traveling around the rail network, scanning it and determining maintenance needs and then reporting that up to a centralized system.”

“That system can help prioritize and dispatch repair crews to resolve those issues. And then obviously, those same sensors travel across and can confirm that the maintenance has been done,” explained Chaffee. “A further idea is that, hey, if we can be successful with that, once we have the sensors starting to scan things regularly, we can probably build predictive modeling to start to predict when defects will happen before they actually become an issue and proactively fix them.”

Building that predictable model would have a huge financial benefit for the railway companies. “That would help with the company's capital planning, which would reduce the cost of everything and for repairs that might be needed. That way, they can plan more effectively for those situations and significantly reduce costs.”

Chaffee’s role with Slalom was to essentially lead the entire project. “I was in charge of working with Kawasaki to take this idea and figure out how to turn it into a working software. We work with different teams to design the software, plan it out, build it, and determine how to get a viable product release.”

In late 2023, the project was implemented, and was in the beginning stages of using the sensors to collect data along the railways in the US. This project has been a huge success and a personal career milestone for Chaffee.

“Seeing a project through from start to finish is immensely fulfilling. Creating a product that aligns with corporate goals, fits the budget, and captivates users is a significant achievement!”

Chaffee recalls a story about a company dinner with his boss and the Kawasaki clients.

“My colleagues talked about where they went to school and their career backgrounds. I pipe up and tell them I majored in politics and minored in history and theology, and my boss turns around and says, ‘Why the heck did we hire you?’ So I joke about that. In many ways, I think that my liberal arts education has been critical for my success in what I do, and it’s the breadth of knowledge and the understanding to some extent of people and relationships.”

“Those lessons learned at Seattle Academy and beyond that are rooted in liberal arts concepts have been instrumental in my role at work. It enables me to effectively communicate and lead by convincing rather than commanding, and incorporating diverse perspectives into our shared vision.”

Learn more about the Kawasaki project here.