My Journey into the Voice First World

Every now and then, I get questions about opportunities in the Voice First space, and if they can make a career out of it. I thought it would be a good idea to detail my journey so far into the voice first world and the opportunities I came across, to give a broad answer to the questions I get.

Late 2017, after I shut down the company I started – I was keen on being an individual contributor and building stuff myself.

The Freelancing Phase

So I started freelancing again and went back to coding iOS apps on Swift. I had a couple of great clients who gave me some challenging work. Life was good.

One of the apps I built during this time was ‎Lightdogs: Unplug & Focus on the App Store, a focus timer app that helps people be productive by building their own pet library, every time you choose to not engage with your phone.

Working with a tiny but remotely distributed team, I loved the process of building iOS apps. While there is nothing to be loved about dealing with auto-layouts and constraints in XCode, what I totally loved was deep diving into the Timer APIs on iOS to make the app work. Cam, who runs Lightdogs, is a great guy to work with and pushed for a high quality bar on design. Out of all the apps I have worked on so far – if I had to pick a favorite, Lightdogs has to be the one.

While freelancing was great, I would often miss the camaraderie of a team. I would be holed up in a co-working cabin the entire day and not have someone to ask for help from, when stuck on an issue or share findings about a certain idea. Naturally I wanted to change that, and was looking for opportunities to do so.

My first Alexa Project

One of the clients I worked with during this time was Steve from Dabble Lab. I was working with him on a couple of mobile apps, when one fine day he asked me if I can help him with an issue in Alexa skill.

He was working on an Alexa skill that would integrate with your Xero Dashboard and answer questions like “What’s my sales for this month so far?” or “What’s my sales target for this month”. Always up for exploring new interfaces, I took on the work. I remember spending the next few days trying to get Account Linking with Xero. When I finally got it working, I was struck by how easy it was to build an Alexa Skill.

But what really got me hooked was the accessibility and easiness of using Voice as a medium for Computing. I could walk into a room and say Alexa, ask business reports how am I doing on my sales target this month – and I would get an answer. The traditional way would be to turn to the web / mobile app, do a few clicks and consume the information visually.

Skills and other things!

At Dabble Lab, Steve’s vision was (and I think still is), that digital assistants are the next paradigm of how people will interact with computers. And that represents a huge opportunity for developers to build solutions for these users.

The next few months, I had the opportunity to explore different digital assistant platforms like Twilio Autopilot, Google Actions etc full time at Dabble Lab. With our experiments growing, our team equally grew up and soon I was leading a small but highly energetic team working on all kinds of challenges with voice and digital assistants.

While there are a lot of cool projects we worked on, what I am thankful for, is making coding videos for Dabble Lab’s Youtube channel. Building for Alexa and other platforms bought us face to face with the lack of online resources for builders exploring this platform. With a bit of push from Steve, I got in front of the camera and started making videos on solving certain development issues, you would face while building.

I ended up making videos for Skill Templates, which was a quick code starter for Alexa Skills and an entire series on getting started with Google’s Dialogflow. This was a huge step-up for me in terms of learning, and for getting out of my comfort zone. I learnt how to make better videos (or still learning rather), and how to stream effectively. Preparing a video on a topic takes you down the rabbit hole of APIs, and my understanding of the entire platform has only improved because of all this research.

I have had instances, when people would meet me at my workshops and talk about that one specific video which helped them solve their issues. And for a builder, there is no greater satisfaction than seeing stuff you create solve problems for people.

While working for Dabble Lab, I had the opportunity to visit the Alexa Agency Partner Summit @ Bangalore. This was the first time, I had the chance to meet folks from the Amazon Alexa team and got a first hand experience of their thought process into how they see Alexa evolving in the next few years.

Interviewing with Amazon

When I came back, it was time for me to take a small hiatus and get married. I knew Arpita for well over 3 years, and we had talked about it for the past year with all our families and friends. I know a couple of lines won’t warrant the justice to the entire wedding saga, so I would hopefully write another blog post about the eventful wedding I had.

After my wedding, things proceeded as usual and we were settling in – when my now colleague, Sogan told me about an opening with the Alexa team for a Solutions Architect. Having never worked at a big corp before, I was a tad bit nervous and skeptical about joining one. But I decided to give it a shot to see how I would fare.

Finding myself on the other side of the interview table was a bit unnerving at first, but I soon got used to it. Amazon’s Interview process is well detailed, and made me comfortable with what to expect. I went through two phone screens and five on-site interviews, with different rounds grilling me on everything I knew. My initial apprehensions washed away, and I was now enjoying the interview process as I found them a way to talk about Alexa’s strategy with my prospective colleagues.

Having finished all the interview rounds, I was informed one fine day that I cleared the rounds. A tad bit relieved, the first person I talked about this was with Steve. When I shared the news with him, he was incredibly supportive and had an in-depth discussion about the entire voice computing space in general. I don’t think I have ever seen someone as calm and genuine as Steve, when it comes to running a company and I have nothing but high words of praises for him. If you are into the Voice space and looking to work on exciting projects, Dabble Lab is a place I would recommend wholeheartedly.

After a few more discussions with friends at Amazon and mentors, I decided to take up the offer. Due to a small misunderstanding with my recruiter, I signed up my offer letter from the island of Koh Rong Samloem, in Cambodia during my honeymoon – but that’s a story for another day.

It’s still Day One

One thing that struck me about Amazon is it’s self-serve and Day One culture. There are always new challenges to be solved for our customers and all our solutions start with keeping the customers in our mind.

In my role at Amazon, I get to meet developers who are building great voice experiences for users. I have also had the great opportunity to witness the launch of Hindi from close quarters. The launch of Hindi means now developers can target the next billion users who will have access to Alexa in Hindi.

But even after a few eventful months at Amazon, it feels like Day One every day I get to work. There are always new challenges to work on, and new stuff happening all the time.

Just the other day, I was explaining to an aunt how to send messages on Whatsapp. Frustrated by typing on the phone, she noticed the mic icon and asked me what that stood for. When I explained, it would basically transcribe anything you say – she tried it out and has been sending messages now entirely by her voice. The accessibility and easiness of using voice is why I believe in Voice as a new paradigm in interacting with Computers.

At Amazon, we believe we are at the cusp of a great revolution in Voice Computing, and there has never been a better time to get onto the bandwagon.

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