Karl Kay gets to spend most working days doing what he loves most: putting technology to use in the service of others. Whether he’s building solutions that help millions of families save time and money or contributing to Walmart’s philanthropic initiatives, his day-to-day efforts touch people around the world. At a time when many feel fortunate to have a job at all, it’s uncommon for work life to align so perfectly with personal aspirations, but Kay is an uncommon guy.
Systems architect. Roboticist. Teacher. Father of 13 children. For most people, one or two of these would be ample responsibility for a lifetime, but Kay juggles all four gracefully. As a senior technologist at Walmart Technology, the defining characteristic of his workload is variety. Some days he codes; others he builds infrastructure. Sometimes he prototypes drones and robots.
“Working at Walmart is really like working at 40 different companies. If you want to build systems for transportation fleets, you can go do that. If you want to write mobile apps for customers, there’s an opportunity to do that. If you want to build thousands of servers in a data center like you’re working at a cloud provider, you have the opportunity to do that,” he said. “There’s a smorgasbord of opportunities, and the work you do can truly impact millions of people very quickly, both here in the U.S. and globally.”
Currently, Kay’s main project is a collaborative effort between Not Impossible Labs and several tech companies, including Walmart Technology, Microsoft, West Communications, RevUnit, Rockfish and InComm. Together, they’re building a service called Hunger: Not Impossible (HNI), which aims to provide “judgment-free” meals to millions of food-insecure Americans through a zero infrastructure that relies on little more than cell phones to operate.
Enrolled participants can place food orders at local restaurants through the HNI smartphone app or a basic SMS text. The orders are funded by anonymous donations. What makes the service unique is that the restaurants aren’t aware of any of this. To them, HNI transactions look like any other order.
“HNI users get this kind of very respectful experience of just walking in and getting their food. The restaurant doesn’t know that they’re food-insecure, just that they’re a customer,” Kay said. “Many of these people, they’re working hard. They’re doing everything they can. They’ve had hard luck, and they’re very appreciative for this opportunity to get help in a dignified way.”
A family affair
Kay says the prospect of enacting positive change both in his local community and beyond was a big part of what drew him to working at Walmart. With his older kids now in college and their own careers not far off, he hopes they’ll weigh similar criteria in choosing their eventual employer. They’ve already played active roles in the development of HNI. The older kids helped test the service and were involved in its design, while the younger ones provided valuable feedback, describing a teenager’s experience using the texting platform.
“I think they all see the positive impact that Walmart has in their community. Even if they don’t end up working here, I think they’ll look for a company that has a similar set of beliefs,” Kay said. “Unfortunately, they’ll find there aren’t a lot of companies out there that are as unique as Walmart in this regard. I’ve worked at a lot of larger organizations, but candidly, most of them were really about, ‘how do I make more money?’ Certainly, Walmart is a for-profit company, but I think there’s really a unique focus on improving people’s lives.”
Robotics as spectator sport
Another passion Kay gets to share with his family is his love of robotics. He teaches classes that prepare students for the annual FIRST Robotics Competition. On a recent evening, Kay led a class while his older son and daughter taught another one a few doors over. Some of his younger kids were among the students.
The robotics competition, he says, is a great opportunity for parents to cheer on kids that are great at STEM disciplines. Since parents generally can’t be there to applaud during a math test, the competition affords a sports-like spectator setting.
The past two years, one of the teams he helped coach, FRC Team 5454 Wildfire, made it all the way to the world championship at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, where the audience numbered around 20,000. He hopes the experience enabled students to forge relationships that will help them pursue future careers in technology.
“When I look at technology, I see a big opportunity to be a positive force for change, whether it’s kids learning new things, or people being able to get a meal, or something we build and deliver to our customers so they have a better experience online or in our stores,” Kay said. “I look at technology as something we can use to really make people’s lives better, and it’s up to us to help do that.”
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