Geek of the Week: Amazon Robotics’ Beth Marcus helps machines and humans work better together

Beth Marcus of Amazon Robotics. (Photo courtesy of Beth Marcus)

After founding and leading several successful startups, Beth Marcus took a job with Amazon because it afforded a greater chance to have a huge impact fast. As a senior principal technologist at Amazon Robotics, Marcus is seeing her intentions realized in the form of innovation at the tech giant’s fulfillment centers.

Marcus holds a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, where she also served as a faculty member in the Mechanical Engineering department, helping teach the senior mechanical engineering capstone project class. She received a Ph.D. in Biomechanics from the Imperial College in London, where she was a Marshall Scholar and is currently serving as a mentor to the Enterprise Laboratory.

She’s also GeekWire’s latest Geek of the Week.

Her startup background included a mobile device peripherals company, a children’s app technology company and, most notably, EXOS, Inc., creator of the SideWinder force-feedback joystick, which was venture backed and sold to a multinational technology company in 1996. Marcus said she has helped guide more than 30 startups in a variety of fields as a founder, investor, or advisor and she’s an acknowledged expert in the hand-device interface space and a leader in the field of virtual reality.

It’s clear what Marcus brought to Amazon Robotics, but what made her want to join the company?

“What attracted me was the great group of people with diverse technical backgrounds, the difficulty of the problems they were solving, the willingness to try things and fail fast like a startup, and the impact of the solutions once developed on the Amazon Fulfillment facilities worldwide.,” Marcus said. “Saying it differently, being creative and entrepreneurial at Amazon allows for the ability to have a huge impact fast without the constraints normally experienced in a startup.”

Despite the fact that Marcus’ work focuses on robotic automation, she appreciates the fact that her work allows her to continue to understand that humans are uniquely capable and adaptive.

“As an industry, our job is to identify tasks that can be automated and look for ways humans and robots can work together to gain a better result,” Marcus said. “At Amazon, it’s exciting to see robots helping our full-time employees at our fulfillment centers and fueling superfast delivery on behalf of customers.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Beth Marcus:

What do you do, and why do you do it? “I am a senior principal at Amazon Robotics where I’m working with some of the smartest people in the industry to solve the hardest problems in robotics. I love working on challenges that will have a significant impact and seeing my solutions in action in the real world almost immediately at Amazon fulfillment centers. I especially love mentoring young engineers and women to innovate and create the future.”

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “We are on the precipice of huge advances in the field of robotics with the potential for new technology to become more deeply integrated into our every day lives. Contrary to what some may say, robotics simply make tasks more efficient and allow people to shift their focus to more sophisticated activities. It’s exciting to see the pace of innovation and the potential that exists in robotics.”

Where do you find your inspiration? “I find personal inspiration from nature, poetry and people I admire like Maya Angelou and my coworkers.”

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “My cell phone! Text messaging is the primary method of communication and connection I have with my teenage daughter.”

A robot goes through the motions at Amazon’s Dupot, Wash., fulfillment center. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “I have several workspaces, both at the office and in my home. My favorite workspace is my home office where I frequently work remotely. It has two large windows overlooking the nearby conservation area and I’m able to watch animals like geese, deer, coyotes, foxes and woodchucks passby. Those scenes bring me clarity. It also has a wall of books and no door so I am always connected to my family. At Amazon Robotics I am across from one of our many coffee stations, which I love because it makes it easy to socialize with my coworkers throughout the day. We love laughing, telling stories and sharing ideas.”

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “Family and health first and then try to do fun things like cooking classes, Djembe drumming circles and painting whenever possible to offer balance. Regularly take a day to do nothing or next to nothing: read, talk to friends or invite your neighbor for tea (my neighbors are lovely people!). When you feel stuck and unproductive, be social! It may rejuvenate you, but if it doesn’t, go home and hug your family, dog or a friend, and start again when you feel refreshed. When you’ve achieved something, stop to pat yourself and those around you on the back. Don’t take any of life’s ups and downs personally.

Mac, Windows or Linux? “Mac.”

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “In general I prefer the strong woman leader, however my favorite ‘Star Trek’ character is Geordi La Forge — I love the concept of the visor.”

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “It’s a tie between all three: Transporter because I’d be able to visit friends around the world more easily or see the top of Kilamanjaro, polar ice caps and many other things without the difficulty of getting there. Time machine because I’d like to redo some of my less-than-shining moments and appreciate my mother more while she was alive. Cloak of Invisibility because I could play pranks without getting caught.”

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “Not start another company myself! I’ve launched five startups and I know how hard they are, so I’d probably put half in medium aggressive traditional investments and take the other half and invest in five startups and help them succeed without being in the hot seat myself.”

I once waited in line for … “Many years ago I was in Japan on the Emperor’s birthday, the only day of the year that the general public is allowed into the palace. I stood with a friend in a huge line as people were slowly let in. When it was almost time to close the gates to the palace everyone stayed in line and jogged into the Palace grounds. I was amazed that the scenario resulted in anything other than chaos!”

Your role models: “When I was younger I wanted to be many things — successful, generous, impactful, cool and funny. Now I’d settle for having as much energy as some of my mentors in the industry!”

Greatest game in history: “Historical events like the first Tour de France are my favorite ‘games’ when it comes to athletic competition. Today, ‘Pokemon Go’ has my devotion.”

Best gadget ever: “iPhone.”

First computer: “Compaq luggable. It was so heavy!”

Current phone: “iPhone 7 Plus.”

Favorite app: “For fun it’s Prism, favorite game is ‘Pokeman Go,’ and Audible for listening to books on tape every night.”

Favorite cause: “Broadly I support anything that helps animals and education. On a personal level, I’m passionate about supporting the Alzheimer’s Association as my mother passed away from this disease.”

Most important technology of 2016: “Amazon Echo Show!”

Most important technology of 2018: “Stay tuned, I’m still working on it! (Just kidding)”

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Don’t take yourself too seriously. Always be open to collaboration as the result will likely be better, you’ll find and work through failures faster, and you’ll have an opportunity to mentor or be mentored. And, allow yourself to think big, experiment, simplify and fail quickly to iterate upon a successful solution.”

Website: Amazon Robotics

Twitter: @startupdoc

LinkedIn: Beth Marcus