Carnegie Mellon University

Christine DeFilippo and Dean Dammon at speakers event

August 24, 2020

W.L. Mellon Speaker Series: Apple’s Christine DeFilippo Urges Tepper MBAs to Find Their Sweet Spot

Christine DeFilippo (BS 1990, MSIA 1994), Director of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Siri Operations at Apple spoke as part of the W.L. Mellon Speaker Series.

She has been told to smile more. She has had a senior executive predict that after having children, she would only come back to work part-time. She has watched other people win positions that she knew were a perfect fit for her skill sets and experience.

But ultimately, Christine DeFilippo (BS 1990, MSIA 1994) has had the last laugh.

It seems only fitting that a woman who navigated her way through every career obstacle imaginable — including Seinfeld-esque moment when eating a poppy seed bagel caused her to erroneously fail a drug test — would be the one who turned around Apple’s Maps initiative. Today, as the Director of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Siri Operations at Apple Inc., she is at the top of her game at one of the world’s most successful companies. And she has a word of advice for young MBAs: If the situation does not fit, get out and move on — because capability and passion are crucial to career success.

“You really have to be firing on all cylinders,” DeFilippo told an audience of students at the Tepper Quad, where she spoke as part of the W.L. Mellon Speaker Series. She noted how she always chased and followed jobs that were great for her and were geared toward her strongest skills.

Which isn’t to say that DeFilippo stuck to a linear career path; on the contrary, she moved from finance to operations with a short foray into investor relations, despite the fact that she had initially planned to stay in finance and once aspired to becoming a chief financial officer.

She started out in banking, but despite her capability, “I kind of got fatigued by the industry, to be honest,” she said. So she moved to The Walt Disney Co., where she held a business development role — and where her passion for the company really accelerated her career.

She was recruited away from Disney by a large manufacturer that was closer to her childhood home, but she realized almost immediately that it was not a good fit when her move was canceled because eating a poppy seed bagel caused her to fail a drug screen. When she pressed for an explanation, a more refined test exonerated her, but she began her first week on the job angry, and it never got better.

Recounting that experience, as well as a specific instance in which a senior executive repeatedly criticized her for having children and influenced others to pass her over for promotions, DeFilippo explained that there are two different ways to handle difficult situations. When an employer behaves in an unintentionally biased way, it might be worthwhile to help them understand how they are coming across, she said.

But if the person is intentionally difficult or unwilling to give the benefit of the doubt, it’s time to make a change, she advised.

“If you ever get into that situation, just walk. It’s not worth it,” she told the audience. “This was not what I had spent my whole life working really hard for, and so I just moved on.”

She left the manufacturer to take a job leading strategy and marketing operations for mapping and navigation company NAVTEQ, which was acquired by Nokia, before returning to finance to join Apple in 2012. And there, she has truly soared, transitioning to operations early on and building out the company’s Maps program before moving into AI and machine learning, including Apple’s well-known personal assistant, Siri.