Alumnus Tom Taylor’s journey from mechanical engineering student to senior vice president at Amazon Alexa followed some simple principles: ‘Stay curious, stay healthy, and always raise your hand.’
When Tom Taylor '84 started his first job out of Virginia Tech as a brake engineer for General Motors, he worried that he’d missed mechanical engineering’s apex by at least 100 years.
“I thought the heyday of mechanical engineering – the era of turning natural energy into electricity and machine power – was probably in the mid-1800s,” Taylor said. “My grandfather worked on turbines in the Grand Coulee Dam. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of ever working on something that big and important.”
Taylor got to be part of a trailblazing era in engineering – just not in the way he expected.
In his 23-year career at Amazon, Taylor led Payments and Fulfillment by Amazon to unprecedented success in an internet-connected world and helped make an AI voice assistant called Alexa a mainstay in millions of households worldwide.
After retiring in December 2022, Taylor is now relishing what he refers to as the “third quarter” of his life. He and his wife, Julie, are taking time to travel and enjoy boating and skiing near their home in Kirkland, Washington. He’s also moving into a “teaching” phase of his career – mentoring executives, advising fledgling companies, and contemplating the best ways to give back in the spirit of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).
“Leading a 10,000-person organization at a Fortune 5 tech company with a vision to developing general artificial intelligence is certainly not what I was planning when I graduated Virginia Tech in 1984,” he said. “While I can look backward and see the winding path – an engineering degree gave me systems thinking, working at a GM plant gave me tools to manage larger teams, working internationally gave me a more global perspective, starting a small business gave me a founder’s passion for customers and growth – I accept there was a good deal of luck and serendipity along the way. Staying curious and always raising my hand to try new things has been an important element of getting here.”
Learning to become a leader
Growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, the son of an Episcopalian minister and a stay-at-home mother, Taylor was awed by the DuPont engineers in his church and community who seemed effortlessly able to solve everyday problems (like getting a giant Christmas tree through a small door) using math. He was also heavily influenced by his father, who was a caring leader of his congregation.
“If anyone called at any time, night or day, he went to support them,” he said. “My dad taught me that it was OK to answer whenever the phone rang because he enjoyed helping others. That was one of my earliest examples of leadership.”
Taylor chose Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering based on its reputation for excellence and the fact that it was far enough away from home to pose an adventure. Rooming in Pritchard Hall his freshman year, he lived among upperclassmen engineering students eager to show him the ropes and help him succeed.
“Surround yourself with other smart people, be willing to ask for help – these were life skills I learned at Virginia Tech,” he said. “I may not have had the clarity then, but I believe being with other good people raises all boats, so choosing a top-ranked engineering school was important to me. Looking back, I appreciate that Virginia Tech had a practical engineering focus rather than just advanced research. Its motto, Ut Prosim, and the historical military school ethos of the Honor Code provided early leadership opportunities.”
At the urging of another student in his residence hall, Taylor joined the Virginia Tech Rescue Squad. During his junior year, he was elected squad president.
“It was fun to be part of a highly dedicated group of students that were willing to pull all-night shifts to serve the community in addition to their school workload,” he said. “I followed my curiosity to participate in several clubs that were outside the sphere of engineering, but the people I worked with and the emergency medical service we provided on campus was the most rewarding thing I did in college.”
After graduating in 1984, Taylor took a job as a brake engineer at GM working on early Antilock Brake Systems. At GM, Taylor applied systems thinking acquired at Virginia Tech along with new skills, such as statistical process control and lean manufacturing, to improve quality and operational efficiencies in the brake division.
Five years into his career, Taylor won a coveted GM fellowship to earn dual master’s degrees at MIT in engineering and management. While completing his fellowship in Boston, he met his future wife, Julie, an MIT materials engineering graduate and classmate in the dual-degree master’s program.
Returning to GM in 1991, Taylor was put on the factory floor as a plant manager overseeing the production of brake components.
“The environment at the time was unfortunately confrontational between management and the union workers,” he said. “I couldn’t touch the equipment or try to make any process improvements. I had to learn to lead through my instructions, vision, conversations, and relationships with people. This was a great lesson in how to influence people by finding common ground and focusing on what’s important. When you can’t lead from the front, you have to push from the side.”
In 1995, Julie and Tom made the decision to move to Washington state – Julie to work in business development at Medtronic and Tom to become plant manager for K2 Skis and Snowboards. Over the next five years, he led the company’s ski and snowboard operation through rapid changes in fiberglass manufacturing processes and back into profitability, making it one of Fortune’s “50 Best Places to Work.”
‘Always raise your hand’
By 1999, Taylor had his eye on the next place he wanted to work: Amazon, a growing Seattle startup and online book seller.
“I kept trying to apply at Amazon and got rebuffed a bunch of times,” he said. “They said, ‘You’re a manufacturing person and we need a warehouse person.’”
Undaunted, Taylor reached out to another MIT alumnus that he’d never met before, Jeff Wilke, who was then Amazon’s vice president and general manager of operations (Wilke retired as CEO of Amazon Worldwide Operations in 2021).
After landing an interview for a staff position in operational excellence, Taylor talked his way into a more senior role as director of operations for Amazon’s U.S. fulfillment centers.
“If I hadn’t raised my hand and let them know that’s what I wanted to do, it never would have happened,” he said. “That’s my number one pro tip to college graduates: Always raise your hand. You’ve got to let people know what you want to do. Don’t be afraid to do that. Every opportunity for growth I’ve had in life came from raising my hand.”
Within a year, Taylor had eliminated the bottlenecks that had plagued Amazon’s underperforming distribution centers and helped transform them into well-oiled machines.
Two years later, Taylor raised his hand again, this time to bring the same operational efficiencies perfected in the U.S. to Europe. His family moved to London for two years as Taylor led Amazon’s European supply chain as director of operations.
‘Work hard, have fun, make history’
Back in Seattle in 2005, Taylor shifted his focus to turn Amazon’s e-commerce platforms into multi-billion-dollar businesses benefiting Amazon, its sellers, and customers. As vice president of seller services, he started up Fulfillment by Amazon, which allows online sellers to utilize Amazon’s warehouses to store and ship the products they sell through the Amazon website. Under Taylor’s leadership, it became one of the company’s leading revenue drivers, providing fulfillment, customer service, shipping, payment processing, customer identity, advertising, and webstore creation to millions of sellers.
“We went from a team of five software folks in a small office with empty white boards on the walls and the feeling of a ‘death march’ project to building a Fortune 100 business that customers and sellers love,” he said. “That was very gratifying for me and so many of the team members who hold that experience as their most educational and fun.”
In 2017, Taylor raised his hand once again to express his interest in running a nascent AI-driven Amazon technology called Alexa. As senior vice president of Alexa, Taylor helped grow the Alexa team to over 10,000 engineers, scientists, and business professionals and bring the AI voice assistant to over 100 million households.
“Amazon’s motto is, ‘Work hard, have fun, make history,’ and I feel like I lived that,” he said. “I went from an unheard-of person in the field to running meetings every Wednesday with the CEO. Amazon was a culture of thinking very long-term and taking big risks. Not every company offers that kind of freedom.”
Using generative AI as a ‘magical tool’
Since he retired last year, Taylor has been focusing on how he wants to contribute and carry the spirit of Ut Prosim into the next phase of his life.
“I don’t want to be a CEO. I’m not looking for a full-time job, but rather where can I start a snowball that turns into an avalanche? How can I help a smaller company become a bigger company? How can I help a CEO become a more effective leader?” he said. “Health and global warming are the two areas I’m learning more about and trying to determine if I can somehow make a difference.”
He has watched the rise of generative AI, which strives to create entirely new data resembling human-created content, with great excitement. A future version of Alexa, previewed by Amazon in September, will be powered by generative AI, with a new large language model custom-built to adapt to cues and converse more like a human.
Taylor says that he sees machine learning and artificial intelligence as “the greatest positive economic and social change of the century” – on par with historical game-changers like electricity and the combustion engine.
“I think AI will be a magical tool that needs to be applied to the big issues of our time; things like health, information, and power generation and storage,” he said. “So, it’s very important that we teach AI so that people understand it in the same way that, 40 years ago, we learned statistical process control. As engineers, we have to always stay curious about new technologies.”
In response to concerns that AI could become a source of trouble, Taylor leans toward optimism.
“To be an innovator or disruptor, you have to be optimistic and believe you can apply technology to make the world a better place,” he said. “Engineers must often see technology trends and put them together in new ways that customers don’t yet understand. Henry Ford said his customers would have asked for a better horse, so he had to invent one on their behalf.”
He continued, “With AI, people are assuming there’s a lot more human intelligence, but it’s simply machine learning trained on data. There are very real questions to work through, like who owns the data, biases in the data, and disruption to roles, but these are all good, interesting questions that have occurred in every other technical change throughout history. I think we’ll get through these things just as we’ve gone from horses to cars. I believe this advancement in technology is ultimately for the good, even if disruptive in the short term.”
A Hokie forever
Taylor remains an active supporter of Virginia Tech and the College of Engineering and is an alumni member of the Academy of Engineering Excellence. He and his wife, Julie, who serves on the college’s Advisory Board, have made many gifts over the years to support scholarships for mechanical engineering students, experiential learning, and the Virginia Tech Rescue Squad. Their two grown children are both engineers.
“Virginia Tech is offering students strong practical experience – you see it not just in the education but also in the clubs and industry partnerships and in the incredible diversity of the students from so many economic and ethnic backgrounds,” he said. “Virginia Tech is a better approximation of the real world than what you might find at Ivy League colleges. The culture of service through Ut Prosim and high standards reinforced through the Honor Code are a distinctive advantage over other schools.”
When asked for parting advice to future graduates and engineers hoping to emulate his success, Taylor said: “Stay curious, stay healthy, and always raise your hand.”
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