Ken Washington came to Ford Motor Co. seven years ago as a complete outsider. He admittedly wasn't a car guy, because he was actually a rocket scientist — and not in the metaphorical way.
Washington, who has a doctorate in nuclear engineering, was working in Lockheed Martin's space program when newly installed Ford CEO Mark Fields lured him to focus on more earthly transportation. The BBC dubbed him "Ford's rocket man" in a 2015 story, and he helped give the automaker credibility on autonomous vehicles just as the industry was starting to talk about them as more than a sci-fi fantasy.
He was the first of multiple outside hires Fields made for his management team. At the time, it was a pretty novel idea for Ford, which had a long-established culture of promoting company lifers (former CEO Alan Mulally being the most notable and successful of the rare exceptions).
"I'm not your typical car guy," Washington, whose first car was a Mustang, told me in 2015, "so I'm not like a gearhead, but I always loved cars. I always thought they were great emotive things."
Most of the others brought on board soon after — including investment banker John Casesa and data guru Paul Ballew — are long gone, as is Fields. But Washington became a stable presence among Ford's executive ranks, becoming chief technology officer a few days after Jim Hackett became CEO in 2017 and staying nearly a year into Jim Farley's tenure.
He also helped open a talent pipeline into Ford from Silicon Valley that the automaker hopes to leverage in the coming years and beyond, as technology continues to become a bigger part of the automaker's business.
He also showed Ford that, unfortunately, the pipeline can go both ways. Next month, Washington, 60, is leaving to become Amazon's vice president of software engineering. But I doubt he'll be thought of as the tech company's rocket man.
After lasting longer at Ford than many Detroit 3 executives do these days, and helping a stodgy old automaker navigate an industry that's changing faster by the day, his Amazon colleagues will probably think of him as the new car guy.