When Melanie Augustin, Zip Code Wilmington’s soon-to-be former executive director, made the decision to move on to find new professional challenges, she also made the decision to stay on until the right person was found to succeed her.
“Passion is important for this role,” said Augustin, who starts her new position as managing director of business development at Wilmington’s Epic Research in early October. “It can’t just be a job, you’ve got to really love the school and our mission.”
She recommended Desa Burton, who had been working with Zip Code since 2017 and spearheaded its scholarship program for veterans. A 10-year United States Navy and Navy Reserve vet herself, Burton had found her passion in the coding bootcamp as it helped fellow veterans transition into software programming jobs.
Starting next week, Burton will be Zip Code’s new executive director.
The connection was first formed when Liberty USO, Greater Philadelphia’s United Service Organizations chapter where Burton served on the board, approached InterDigital, Inc., where Burton previously worked as assistant general counsel of intellectual property, about providing STEM career transition services for active duty military.
“[Liberty USO’s] executive director at the time, Joe Brooks, found Zip Code Wilmington through his connections and said, ‘This should be the platform that we use’ — we could provide scholarships to Zip Code Wilmington on the front end, and on the back end, the corporate partners would be hiring veterans to come in and work at their companies as programmers,” Burton told Technical.ly.
“So it didn’t matter if you were [on active duty patrol] last month, within three months of coming back and transitioning out of the military — you could have a job sitting down at one of the partner companies doing programming. We thought that was fabulous, so InterDigital jumped all over it,” she said. “They put down significant startup money to help fund that scholarship. As a board member, I was helping to manage that relationship.”
In the process, Burton became close with Augustin, and the program itself.
“I remember the first time I went to Zip Code Wilmington, I could not believe the phenomenal success they were having in this space — they were changing the trajectory of people’s lives on a daily basis,” Burton said. “It was amazing to see people transforming from baristas, truck drivers, retail, into software programmers. It was a very exciting thing to be a part of.”
One day over lunch, Burton let Augustin know she was planning to look for new career opportunities outside of InterDigital.
“I just wanted her to know that even if I left, I was definitely going to stay involved and be active in the role I had maintained up to that time,” Burton said. “And Melanie said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s so interesting — I’m going to be putting out this opportunity for people to apply, and if you’d like to apply, I will definitely let the board know that you’re interested.'”
The opportunity, of course, was Augustin’s own role of executive director.
“She knew she was going to move on and do something else, I knew I was going to move on and do something else, and she said why don’t you apply?” Burton said.
Augustin’s recommendation didn’t make it a done deal.
“I understood in the interview process that there was going to be a lot of people that were going to want this spot, and that whoever [got the job], I was going to 100% support them, because the mission of this organization is on the forefront for me,” Burton said. “I’m extremely passionate about it. So I was really thrilled to know that it was going to be me.”
Burton’s leadership background includes her time as a lieutenant commander in the Navy, an MBA with a focus on tech companies, and years of experience working with tech businesses throughout her career.
“This gives me an opportunity to combine all of those things, to put my professional expertise with my passion, and my passion is service,” she said. “Everything I’ve ever done in my life is service. I was looking to do a little bit more. To be able to do something that I would do on my free time — it’s an amazing combination.”
One of her first projects as ED is Zip Code’s new data engineering program launching in 2020.
“That’s all going to be under Desa’s leadership — an exciting way for her to get started,” said Augustin.
Burton also plans to focus on relationships within the community.
“What I’d like to see is more corporate partners, maintaining and increasing the level of graduates that we have, demonstrating to the tech community that this is an organization that they should partner with,” Burton said. “Create more exposure for the school and its graduates, so that people understand that Wilmington is a great place to do tech.”
In other Zip Code leadership news: The newest member of the tech training nonprofit’s board of directors is DuPont exec and chemist Teri Quinn Gray.