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As the vice president and general manager of consumer robotics at Amazon, Dr. Ken Washington ’82 ’83 ’86 leads the team behind Astro, its first household robot. (Illustration by Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo.)

A little girl is playing with a new toy while talking to her grandma on a screen. “Astro, follow me,” the child says as she pushes the toy around the room. The screen, mounted on a small, cute robot the size of a housecat, follows her with smart technology. The conversation continues as if the grandparent were in the room while the pair play together.

A man is at a party when he gets a notification on his phone that something has activated the security alarm at his house. He sends Astro to check it out and smiles in relief as Astro’s camera reveals the disturbance was simply a mischievous raccoon.

An older man is in his kitchen, preparing a snack. Astro rolls up with a cheerful expression on-screen. “Message from Steve,” Astro says pleasantly. “Remember to eat something green today, Dad.” Happy to comply, the man takes a bite of pistachio ice cream.

This is the world that Dr. Ken Washington ’82 ’83 ’86 is creating: A world where personal robots enhance the quality of life for people everywhere by providing convenience, connection and peace of mind. More than simply imagining this future, Washington is working to realize it. He is the vice president and general manager of consumer robotics at Amazon, where he leads the team behind Astro, Amazon’s first household robot. The position is the latest in a distinguished career in future-focused innovation, as he’s worked on everything from nuclear safety and space technology to autonomous vehicles.

In five years, where we’re at with robots will be unrecognizable. I want to say I was part of what made that happen.
- Dr. Ken Washington ’82 ’83 ’86

Tackling complex problems with no clear solution is the kind of work that excites Washington. From his days as a student at Texas A&M University to his positions of progressive leadership across a broad swath of the tech industry, he has honed his skill at deconstructing a project, understanding its component parts and finding a way to make everything work together successfully. More than that, he understands how to communicate effectively with technical and non-technical people to get a job done well.

Astro is just the tip of the iceberg, said Washington. Right now, he explained, you may be thinking, “A personal robot? What would I do with that?” But soon, people will ask, “What would I do without it?” Like smartphones, this technology will rapidly become an integral and ubiquitous part of our lives. “We are at the beginning of the home robot revolution,” he said. “In five years, where we’re at with robots will be unrecognizable. I want to say I was part of what made that happen.”

Seeing the Future

Washington has always been a restless tinkerer with the kind of mind that can’t sit still. Growing up in Chicago’s southside in the 1960s, he was your typical science nerd, building things with his Erector set and taking apart the family television to understand how it worked. By age 12, he knew his future would eventually include earning a Ph.D. That was the year his father finished his own doctoral studies and the family moved to the Milwaukee suburbs, where the newly minted Dr. Washington began teaching at Marquette University.

“It was not lost on me that the quality of our life changed drastically from when my dad was an inner-city schoolteacher,” he recalled. “I watched him become a professor at a relatively large university, and our lifestyle changed. I could put two and two together. I did the math and thought, ‘Okay, good education means good career means better quality of life.’”

By middle school, the family relocated to Texas. The gas shortages and political unrest of the 1970s energy crisis informed Washington’s path as he considered college. “Nuclear energy seemed like it could be an important part of the answer to energy independence,” he said. At that time, the only place in Texas with a dedicated nuclear engineering department with a top-rated graduate school was Texas A&M. It was an easy decision.

Dr. Ken Washington ’82 ’83 ’86 is creating a world where personal robots enhance the quality of life for people everywhere by providing convenience, connection and peace of mind.

He attended Texas A&M for eight years, obtaining three degrees in nuclear engineering and maintaining a nearly perfect 4.0. (His one B was in a nuclear experimentation class, a recollection that still galls him 40 years later.) He kept his nose to the grindstone, but he also “had the full Aggie experience,” he said, including football, friends and Northgate on a Friday night. “I had such a great experience at Texas A&M. It seemed like I was there forever when I was young and in my 20s, but now it’s like a blip on the timeline,” he said.

As a student, Washington learned how to approach complicated problems without a clear solution. “Some of the problems in those classes were so hard. I had no way of knowing how to solve them,” he said. “There was no recipe, only trial and error and building relationships with other people who might have new approaches.” What he learned was not information but a process.

This strategy served him well throughout his career. When you’re building the technology of the future, there’s no playbook—only collaboration, persistence and a willingness to creatively engage with the problem for as long as it takes to find a way forward. “It doesn’t matter what the challenge is. I’ve got the method of how to go about it, how to build relationships with other people and how to do the research,” he added.

One of Washington’s most formative relationships at Texas A&M was forged not in the classroom but on a porch. A student who lived in his building often sat on the stoop, strumming a guitar. Washington thought he might like to learn to play, so he struck up a friendship with the man, who was named Dave. In addition to music, Washington learned he and Dave had another shared interest: computers. Each had a Commodore 64, one of the first widely available personal computers. Dave taught him some songs on the guitar as well as how to program a computer. Washington was fascinated.

“I just fell in love with tinkering with this computer thing. I was hooked…by the time I finished my Ph.D., I had become a full-fledged computer geek,” he said. His self-taught software development skills and nuclear expertise led to his first job after graduation creating nuclear safety software for Sandia National Laboratories. “It was a dream,” he said. “I loved it. It allowed me to jump right in and be successful.”

I learned that when you’re leading a team, their success is more important than yours.
- Dr. Ken Washington ’82 ’83 ’86

Supercomputers and Human Capital

Washington's gift is seeing three steps ahead, predicting possible problems and then troubleshooting to ensure the best possible outcome. This was an integral part of his job at Sandia, as developing computers used to test the status of nuclear weapons is a tricky business. He created computer architectures used to certify the safety and performance of the national nuclear stockpile—a process that required a tremendous amount of computing power. Previously, scientists would have used custom-built supercomputers costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Instead, Washington’s team was the first in the world to figure out how to make off-the-shelf PCs link together to work like a supercomputer.

“When we put it all together, it was the fifth-fastest computer in the world at just a fraction of the cost. That was cool,” he said. “This proved to the world that you can build a fast, viable computer for scientific purposes using relatively low-cost components.” Knowing that every major corporation from Google to Facebook now uses this same strategy, well, “That’s very satisfying,” he said.

After a few years at Sandia, he had to adopt a new skillset as he was rapidly promoted from manager to director to leading the distributed computing group at the Sandia California site and, eventually, to chief information officer. “I wasn’t even 30 years old when I became a manager. I was managing people who were much more senior than I was,” he recalled. “I learned to lead by being humble about what works and what doesn’t and by listening to feedback from my team.”

Accustomed to being among the smartest and most capable people in a room, it was tough for him to sit back and let others try things. “I learned that when you’re leading a team, their success is more important than yours,” he said. “Before becoming a manager, the most important thing was me having the answer and knowing how to get something done. I had to learn to motivate others to solve the problem rather than solving it myself, even if it took longer for them to do it. They needed to know I had their back more than they needed to know I was smart.”

In the long run, the strategy pays big dividends. “Leadership is all about getting the best out of others at scale. It doesn’t scale if you do everything yourself,” he said. Just like building a supercomputer out of thousands of individual PCs, Washington learned how to unite a team with a vision and equip them to communicate efficiently to create an impact much larger than the sum of the parts.

He went on to work for Lockheed Martin, the aerospace and defense firm, where he specialized in the new frontier of cybersecurity in the internet’s early days as the organization’s first chief privacy officer. As he moved up the corporate food chain, he built new skills once again. No longer a player-coach, he started managing managers. He learned to skate above the details of each group or project and inspire teams with visionary ideas that ignited passion. His gift for seeing the bigger picture and translating technology to external audiences enabled him to provide his teams with what they needed to be successful.

Washington is as good at solving equations as he is at working a room. He’s intense and incredibly intelligent but has a joyful, infectious energy that puts people at ease while firing them up to produce great work. He’s also a gifted communicator, a trait he credits to his mother’s influence. She would often ask about what he was learning at Texas A&M. He found that if he could explain his highly technical work in a way his mother could comprehend, then he had mastered the concepts.

“It drives me crazy when I hear someone explaining something in technical terms to a non-technical audience, and I know they don’t get it,” he said. He has passed that lesson on to his employees. “If you can’t explain this in a way that your mom would get it, then you don’t have the details right yet.”

I wanted to be explicit about expressing to young Black men and women that this path has been taken before by a young Black man, and it landed me successfully.
- Dr. Ken Washington ’82 ’83 ’86

Creating the Creators of Tomorrow

Before joining Amazon in 2021, Washington spent eight years at Ford Motor Co., where he led its global research team in developing the next generation of vehicles, including electric and autonomous vehicles. As the vice president of research and advanced engineering and later chief technology officer, his primary assignment at Ford was to shift it from a manufacturing and mechanical company to a technology company. Vehicles today are so much more than a device to get you from place to place. They are platforms for a host of applications, Washington explained.

In that way, vehicles and robots are similar. They’re both platforms that can be built upon to perform diverse functions. Take Amazon’s Astro, for example. Initially, Astro was designed for home monitoring, said Washington, but that was just the beginning. “There are so many things that it will be able to do as we improve it. We are working on software to make Astro capable of much more in the coming years—to be a better companion, interact differently with your kids than it does with you, help you care for a pet, or give you peace of mind if you have a parent at home who wants to age in place. We can do so many things with this robot now that we have the platform upon which to build and innovate.”

The passion in his voice is apparent as he brainstorms about the future of personal robotics. He truly believes in this work and in making the world a better place through this first-of-its-kind device. If that weren’t the case, he wouldn’t have made the move to Amazon. His career has been diverse, but there are a few common threads, he explained. His work must be meaningful for society, something he can learn from and something that’s technically challenging. Finally, he wants to like the people with whom he works. “Life’s too short to work with jerks,” he said with a chuckle.

Developing a first-of-its-kind device brings numerous challenges beyond the technical. There are policy and privacy concerns, as well as the challenge of shaping the customer mindset and creating demand for something new in the marketplace. “We’re dealing with all of that in real time,” Washington said. “That’s where I spend almost all my time: threading the needle of robots we think we can sell that will make people’s lives better, that will meet safety and regulatory requirements and not create privacy or ethical concerns, but still be good enough to be groundbreaking.”

Astro is the beginning of the home robot revolution, and the team behind its development will work on refining its capabilities over the coming years.

Washington’s extraordinary success has been recognized with election into the National Academy of Engineering and a Black Engineer of the Year Award in Research Leadership. He was also named a Texas A&M University College of Engineering Outstanding Alumnus in 2022. He visited campus to receive his award and enjoyed seeing all the changes to facilities but wished he would have seen more Black students in engineering. When he was a student, there was only one other Black nuclear engineering candidate who eventually left the program. Washington stayed in touch with that student, who later returned to finish his Ph.D. in nuclear engineering, partly inspired by Washington’s success following graduation. There is more diversity in the college now than in his day, but he would like to see it increase.

That desire motivated Washington to touch tomorrow in another way through the Dr. Kenneth E. Washington ’82 Foundation Excellence Award. The endowed scholarship will support Black students in the College of Engineering to help attract greater diversity to the field. “I wanted to be explicit about expressing to young Black men and women that this path has been taken before by a young Black man, and it landed me successfully. I want to help others have that kind of opportunity, too,” he said.

In his 62 years, Washington has lived through a tremendous acceleration of technology. It’s easy to underestimate the speed with which things will change, he reflected. He’s shaped much of his career on betting that technology continues to accelerate at a pace that will change our lives. Whether it’s scholarships or robots, Washington is excited to invest his time, talent and treasure in the tomorrow in which he wants to live.

“Whenever I have a chance to take something that has a sliver of showing promise that could grow and expand and become something big and important for society, I’ve tried to jump at it because I’ve watched things like that happen over and over again. And it always happens faster than can you imagine.”

To learn how you can shape the future with a gift to the College of Engineering, contact Director of Development Patrick Wilson '10 at the bottom of this page.

  • Patrick Wilson '10

  • Director of Development
  • College of Engineering
  • Call: 979.204.8556

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