If you do a search for Amazon warehouse robots, the results will eventually lead you to a short video that has been viewed more than three million times.
In it, hundreds of orange robots that look like heavy-duty Roombas whir across a cavernous warehouse floor. Their job is to lift and transport yellow storage pods, roughly the size and shape of old-school phone booths, that are filled with individual totes crammed with products ranging from waffle irons to football helmets.
The machines’ movements are so precise and coordinated that it looks like a mechanical ballet. The video title itself perhaps sums it up best: Amazon Warehouse Robots: Mind-Blowing Video.
Even Joe Quinlivan, who has more than 100,000 of these robots under his purview as president and COO of Amazon Robotics, admits that there are moments when seeing that synchronization still feels nothing short of magical. “You see all of these robots working seamlessly and flawlessly to help fill customer orders on [a massive] scale, and it’s pretty amazing,” he says. “You can see even the nuances of the robots’ behavior change over time if you hone your vision.”
In a world that increasingly relies on the purposeful collaboration of humans, robots, and artificial intelligence, there is no question that Amazon will be one of the companies at the forefront. And Quinlivan will have an outsize influence on determining that direction.
A promising start
If he couldn’t possibly have predicted where he’d be when he graduated (in 1988) from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth with an engineering degree—Amazon was years away from launching—he did stand out as a leader early on.
He recalls being quickly promoted at Stratus Computer, his first job out of college. “I was maybe 24 or 25 and managing teams of technical people who had 30 years of experience,” he says incredulously. “I felt like I was doing it by the seat of my pants.”
It was that sense of uncertainty, along with a willingness to grow, that ultimately led him to WPI to get a master’s degree in business administration and management, and then another in computer science. He was eager to learn more about systems engineering and leadership, and WPI offered both the practical programs and the part-time schedule he needed as a busy adult with a career.