How chance encounters sparked a career in engineering and robotics


Jovonia Thibert was a teenager when she unexpectedly got the internship that would launch her career. As a senior in high school, she was handing out maps and flyers to attendees at a job fair the St. Louis area, where she grew up. Even though the fair was for graduating college students, Thibert’s mother told her to bring a resume — just in case.

Thibert did, and she ended up stationed next to the Boeing booth, striking up a conversation with the recruiter there. By the end of the event, Thibert — who was already taking college classes while in high school — had landed a summer internship at the aerospace company.

“I was just floored with excitement,” Thibert recalled, crediting her parents’ support. “My parents always prepared us to be ready for when an opportunity presents itself: Show up professionally, showcase who you are, and know that you are just as good as anyone else, because you have skills.”

Holistic leadership

Thibert is now Amazon’s director of robotics strategy, evaluating priorities for how robots can optimize the delivery of products and where automation can drive innovation at Amazon. For the past decade, robots and automation have been a key factor in how Amazon processes orders at fulfillment centers, making work easier (and potentially more meaningful) for employees. “We’re continuing to look at how we develop autonomous systems and improve them so that it’s simple and safe for employees to interact with our technology,” Thibert said.

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While these systems look like other robot arms, they embed advanced technologies that will shape Amazon’s robot fleet for years to come.

Before joining Amazon in early 2020, Thibert worked at Boeing for nearly 20 years in one capacity or another, from her internship to her most recent position as a chief program engineer executive for the 767 fleet. The long stretch at Boeing spans a career marked by steady evolution and advancement.

“As an engineer and leader, I look at the full design life cycle loop of a product or a service, and make sure that we’ve covered every aspect,” Thibert said. She sees her role as getting a team to a place where they understand the customer’s needs, have a good working rhythm, and are getting feedback on how a system is performing so they can iterate. That process is a balance between a sprint and a journey with the customer, she said.

Electrical engineering allows you to go lots of different places, it’s the nucleus for future technologies.

But Thibert’s view of leadership goes beyond this, taking into account how people are doing mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. “All the EQ [emotional intelligence] spaces have to be covered, as a leader,” she said. “It’s not just looking at costs and schedules and what the customer needs.”

Thibert achieves this holistic approach by complementing monthly business reviews with regular check-ins, at both team and individual levels. Her empathic approach to leadership results, in part, from her being “deathly shy” as a kid. “There’s power in being an introvert. I say that because we have the gift of meeting people one-on-one where they are,” she said.

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As an introvert, Thibert recharges with music. Trained on piano and viola, she also sang in church and still does today. At the University of Tulsa, she earned bachelor’s degrees in both music and electrical engineering. She wanted to be the next Herbie Hancock, she said, pointing to the performer’s pioneering union of music and technology. “Electrical engineering allows you to go lots of different places,” she said. “It’s the nucleus for future technologies.”

After graduation, Thibert noted music became “part of my creative and spiritual outlet.” She dove deeper into technology and business, earning master’s degrees in electrical and electronics engineering at Tulsa, and business administration at Seattle Pacific University.

Another fateful meeting

Many years after that fateful job fair meeting in high school, Thibert once again found herself being recruited by chance. In 2019, she met a now former Amazon executive (Darcie Henry, who was then vice president of People eXperience and Technology), on an executive panel at the Pacific Northwest MBA Conference. The two discussed their passions for developing technology and broadening STEM access in K-12 schools.

Thibert wasn’t looking to leave Boeing at the time, but the connection stuck. “I think that’s part of Amazon’s superpower,” Thibert said. “You never know when you’re in an interview, so always be ready.” Several months after their first meeting, Henry reached out to Thibert to see whether she would consider joining Amazon.

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The computer scientist recently finished her second internship at Amazon, where she worked on a new way to estimate the human expression on faces in images.

Thibert saw the opportunity to grow as a technology leader and further Amazon’s efforts in a new arena. In 2020, she joined as Amazon Robotics director, building out a new global team focused on human factors ergonomics innovation. The team’s main goal: enhance and complement employees’ experiences with robots. Thibert noted she brought from Boeing a passion for understanding both internal and external customers, along with her years of maintaining a high bar of safety and reliability.

When hiring people for her teams, she looks across all the Amazon leadership principles, but especially the ability to think big and dive deep. Thinking big means an engineer “can think long-term, not just about their specific subsystem or component, but at the system architecture level,” she said. And diving deep means going beyond the surface of a customer’s needs to look not only at what products they buy today, but what they may need in the future.

“Our teams dive not just into needs, but potential predictive space.,” Thibert said. “That way, we can help the customer before they even realize they need help.”

Lending a hand to young engineers

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Amazon funding will assist with a senior capstone course where students will receive mentorship from Amazon leading researchers, software developers, and engineers.

Before taking on her current role as director of robotics strategy earlier this year, Thibert was an engineering director for Prime Air, where she led drone design, testing, and product field support. During that time, she got involved in a new Amazon program with students at Hampton University, a historically Black research university in Hampton, Virginia.

“I have enjoyed seeing Amazon be intentional in diversifying how we recruit and retain talent,” Thibert said. “Our Hampton collaboration provides an opportunity to look at a new source of talent for our early-career engineers and provide a space for our engineers to develop the next generation.”

Amazon Robotics and Hampton University panel discussion

Jovonia Thibert, director of robotics strategy at Amazon, talks with Alissa Harrison, vice president for Information Technology at Hampton; Jean Muhammad, chair of the Hampton computer science department; and Demetris Geddis, assistant dean at Hampton University.

For those young engineers just starting out, Thibert has three pieces of advice: Stay curious, dream big, and never limit yourself. For established leaders, she has a suggestion exemplified by the Hampton University collaboration.

“Don’t just look forward,” she said. “Continue to reach back and help guide others that are on their journey.”

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