“As a leader you have to create an environment where people feel that they can make a difference.”
For San Jose City Manager David Sykes, ’91 BS, ’95 MS, Civil Engineering, a road is never just a road. It connotes service—curbs with trash and recycling pickup, sewers and sidewalks maintained by the city, streetlights and pavement designed to keep residents safe. One such example is Towers Lane, once dubbed the “last unpaved road in San Jose,” where residents lived without city services before Sykes and the Public Works team worked to incorporate the road. There is a framed photograph of Towers Lane in his 17th floor office in San Jose’s City Hall.
“I know what a difference that project made in people’s lives,” Sykes says. “The most important part of my job is to make sure that we are providing services that meet the needs of the community, whether that’s police and fire, libraries, community centers or infrastructure basics. Local government is where you have the biggest opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Hired as an engineering trainee in 1987, Sykes was appointed city manager in 2017. Every project reveals a story about people he met along the way—how they solved problems and brought neighbors together. Sykes recalls when the city and university collaborated to close campus on Seventh, Ninth and San Carlos Streets, making SJSU a cohesive unit in the heart of America’s 10th largest city. Between coordinating emergency responses, working to bring Google to San Jose and developing initiatives to help the homeless, Sykes envisions making the town he grew up in an inclusive, vibrant place for everyone who calls it home.
“What matters is knowing that you are making a difference person by person,” says Sykes, who was awarded the Engineering Award of Distinction by SJSU’s Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering in 2019. “It’s all about people.”