Robotics Software Engineer

Karen Orton as a child and now.

From an early age, Karen Orton dreamed of working at NASA. Growing up during the era of the launch and subsequent successful landing of the Mars Rover had a significant impact on Karen, as she remembers the excitement surrounding the mission.

A natural outlet for this excitement in robotics and automation was the FIRST® LEGO League (FLL). FLL is a global robotics community preparing young people for the future. FLL is a guided, global robotics competition built around theme-based Challenges for kids ages 9-16. When a program didn’t exist at her school, Karen’s mom and aunt started a team. That led to years of competitions for Karen and her brother and cousins – and a few friends they talked into joining!

Left: After learning so much from participating in FIRST Lego League as a young student, Karen mentored this young lego league team and shared her knowledge and passion with them. Right: Karen and her Lego League team excited to participate in a competition and show off what they had accomplished during the season.

Karen began participating in FLL in 4th grade, and continued to do so through her freshman year in high school when, as she says, “I got too old and they kicked me out.” Since her aunt was the coach, the challenge was always set up in her basement – which means that Karen spent family gatherings in the basement working on the robot. The hard work paid off as her team earned 2nd place and had the opportunity to advance to the state competition. She loved it so much that even after she was too old to participate, she went on to mentor a team throughout high school.

Karen’s passion for robotics and her unquenchable desire to learn has propelled her into her career and allowed her to fulfill those dreams of childhood. We recently had the opportunity to talk with Karen about her career in robotics, and how she sees the future of robotics.

Karen Orton at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Karen posing with the sign for NASA’s JPL on her first day as an intern there. It was truly a dream come true for her.

What is the coolest project you worked on or contributed to prior to joining IAM Robotics? 

I had the opportunity to work on many incredible projects throughout my time as a student. One of my favorites was working on Robonaut at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. I had always dreamed of working at NASA and fulfilling that dream was incredible. My internship project with Robonaut was the first software project where I had to understand a very large, mature code base in order to complete my task within that. I loved the challenge of learning all about how Robonaut functioned. That was a truly incredible summer.

Karen Orton testing her software developed for robonaut at Johnson Space Center.
Testing her software developed for robonaut in a testing setup that could simulate low gravity at Johnson Space Center.

What motivates you? 

I am motivated every day by my love of learning. I just truly enjoy getting a new exciting challenge that I can spend time learning about and wrestling with until I can find the solution. The satisfaction of learning something new and conquering the challenge keeps me constantly motivated.

What is your go-to spot in Pittsburgh?

I have a lot of favorite places, and not surprisingly most of them involve food in one way or another. If I had to choose a favorite I’d have to say Condado Tacos. They have delicious tacos, good margaritas, and a pretty decent happy hour too!

What is your favorite travel spot? 

My favorite travel spot would probably be anywhere in South America. I just love the culture and the people. I’ve explored some of it but there’s definitely a ton more I would love to see.

While studying abroad in Paraguay Karen was given the chance to learn and perform a traditional Paraguayan dance.

Please provide a quote that is a reflection of your personality

“When you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.” That’s one of my favorite quotes because life is crazy and unexpected and I try to always embrace the unexpected and enjoy what comes my way. I also really enjoy dancing, so I’ll never pass up a chance to dance.

What is your favorite part about working for IAM Robotics? 

I absolutely love the culture and the people here. Everyone is motivated, intelligent, and passionate about what they do and that’s just a great environment to work in. There is also a very open helpful culture where I never feel afraid to ask questions and everyone is always willing to help out. Waking up every day to go tackle hard interesting problems with this group of people is exactly how I want to spend my time.

The culture at IAM Robotics is similar to what I experienced at NASA – groups of people who are really excited about what they are doing and what they are working on.  The big difference, of course, is the size – NASA is huge and takes a long time to have an idea come to fruition. At IAM Robotics – if you have a cool idea, it is easy to try and test it and see if it is going to be useful. While NASA was open to new ideas, implementation was cumbersome due to the size and approval process; whereas the impact of new ideas at IAM Robotics is much more immediate.   

What do you think the future has in store for robotics?

I think robotics is the future. Our population on this earth is growing far beyond what can naturally be supported and I believe the only way to support this kind of global growth is with automation and robotics. That’s why I love this field so much, its growing rapidly and making huge impacts in the world, so in a way I feel like I’m contributing to those impacts in a small way.

Thank you, Karen, for taking the time to share your unique path to IAM Robotics – we would not be leading the way in robotics without team members like Karen who are passionate about their work, and committed to making a difference in the future of robotics.  And we are just getting warmed up.