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Kiva Systems helps companies such as Zappos and Staples equip their warehouses with a work force of robots
HEAD MATH GEEK: When Kiva engineers need help with an algorithm, Mick Mountz helps them
RIGHT OF WAY: The robots can go 4 feet per second and carry up to 3,000 pounds of inventory.
DIGGING DEMOS: Mountz enjoys client meetings, even if it means he has to shave.
Mick Mountz is a caffeine junkie. On any given day, he downs three or four cups of coffee and a few cans of Mountain Dew. Perhaps Mountz, founder of Kiva Systems, is trying to keep up with his company's indefatigable orange robots, which are rapidly replacing conveyor belts and carousels at the order fulfillment warehouses of retailers such as Zappos, Staples, and Diapers.com (No. 35 on our list). An MIT engineering whiz who got his start at Motorola and Apple, Mountz, 44, spends his days bouncing around Kiva's headquarters in Woburn, Massachusetts, diagramming algorithms and showing off the robots to prospective clients.
I get up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning, go right downstairs, and grab a bowl of cereal. Sometimes it's healthy, sometimes it's not. Lately, it's been Lucky Charms. I wake up with the morning news while I eat. I try to catch the Red Sox score and get a quick dose of the weather. Then I go turn on the coffeemaker.
I head upstairs to my office and get my laptop to see if there are any e-mails I need to respond to quickly. I don't do the BlackBerry. If I'm going to send an e-mail, I want to sit down at a keyboard. I have an iPhone, but I mostly use it to show videos. When I'm at an event, inevitably I'll be explaining our product to someone and the person will say, "I don't understand. Do the robots pick up the products?" I'll say, "No, the robots pick up the shelves." Then I'll show the person a video of the robots in action.
After I check my e-mail in the morning, I'll take a glance at my calendar to remind myself of the key things happening that day. If I have customers coming in, I'll say, "I gotta shave today." Sometimes I have a five-shaver week, and sometimes I have a one-shaver week -- those are my favorite. When I'm in the shower, I'm mentally prepping for the day. Sometimes I get so distracted, I wash my hair twice.
Once I get dressed, I grab my laptop, make a cup of coffee to go, and bolt out the door. It takes 15 minutes to drive to the office from my house in Lexington. On the way, I turn on sports radio and listen to the guys complain about the Sox. I played baseball for four years at MIT, and I'm still a fanatic. I would love to watch a Red Sox game every day if I could, but I usually just catch the box scores.
I wear jeans to work every day. Our rule here is that you can wear whatever kind of clothes make you the most productive. I'm more comfortable in jeans, therefore more productive. We have the same rule for computers. I use a MacBook, the finance team uses PCs with Windows, and the engineers use Linux on both Macs and PCs.
Mornings are a good time to get a two- to three-hour block of serious work done. By 7 a.m., I'm usually in my office and ready for another cup of coffee. I turn on my laptop and check my e-mail again. If I need to get something done for a client meeting later in the day, I'll close the door, which is the sign that I'm trying to crank out a presentation.
During the day, I usually have a handful of scheduled meetings -- there might be a design review for a new customer's system or something related to manufacturing, finance, or the account pipeline.
I keep my own calendar. It's one of those weird things: How do you describe to other people how to prioritize and manage your time? I've been using iCal, Apple's calendar tool, ever since I started the company, so it serves as a kind of history. If I do a search for Gap, the application will tell me every meeting I've had with Gap since 2003. I add everything to my calendar and prioritize on the fly.
Throughout the day I use a lot of visuals. If we're talking about a design for a pod -- the shelves that store inventory -- it's easier to look at a sketch or a picture. Whenever we have a hallway conversation, someone will get a marker and do a quick drawing on one of the whiteboards lining the walls. At management meetings, I draw timelines on the whiteboard to reinforce a sense of urgency about deadlines and encourage coordination between different departments. When I go into the field, I take lots of pictures with my camera so I can show them to my team back at the office. Showing a picture of a fulfillment worker who can't reach a packing-slip printer is better than saying, "The printer is too high." With a simple photo in an e-mail, I can convey the issue to the mechanical design and deployment teams so they can lower the height of the printer shelf and make it easier for the operator to slide packing slips into cartons, with a simple flick of the wrist. When I show a picture, all of a sudden I get comprehension and action.
If I have a half-hour in between meetings, I could try to sit down in my office and do something serious. But I have an open-door policy in the afternoon, so chances are, I'll get interrupted a bunch of times. Instead, after I scan my e-mail and fire off one or two replies, I fill in the white space on my calendar by Ping-Ponging around the office, catching up with people. I may grab a Mountain Dew, go into the engineering office, and ask, "Any breakthroughs today?" I use that phrase instead of "How's it going?" to give the engineers a chance to talk about a tough problem they've been working on and how they solved it. They may be working on a better approach to queuing pods for the pick operators, for example, or trying to get a faster rotation speed during robot lifting motions. If they're having trouble with something, we'll get on the whiteboard. I do that every day, probably two or three times. I enjoy it, because it gives me time with the product. It also gives me a chance to interact with some of my college fraternity brothers who work here.
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