Q&A with Amazon: The Story Behind Alexa Developers

You may have heard the recent news about how Coding Dojo and Amazon are collaborating to train Alexa developers. But in case you haven’t, we announced last month the addition of a new in-person class, video series and hackathon that will train developers to create new capabilities called “skills” for Alexa, the voice service that powers Amazon Echo. Today, Amazon announced the availability of the free series of Alexa-focused Coding Dojo YouTube videos for novice or established developers looking to refine their skill set.

We sat down with Paul Cutsinger, Head of Voice Design Education, Amazon Alexa, to delve deeper into the work we’re doing together and the big investment they’re making with Alexa developers. Here’s some of that conversation:

  1. Why is developing Alexa skills so important for Amazon?

The original inspiration for the Amazon Echo was the Star Trek computer. We wanted to create a computer in the cloud that’s controlled entirely by your voice—you could ask it things, ask it to do things for you, find things for you and it’s easy to converse with in a natural way. We’re a ways off from that, but that was our vision. Voice enables unbelievably simple interactions with technology – it’s the most natural and convenient user interface.

Alexa is the voice service that powers Amazon Echo and other devices such as Amazon Tap and Echo Dot. Alexa provides capabilities, or skills, that enable customers to interact with devices in a more intuitive way using voice. Examples of skills include the ability to play music, answer general questions, set an alarm or timer, or control smart home devices in a hands-free experience. And, because Alexa is built in the cloud, she’s always getting smarter. We can have small teams working fast on specific features, rather than relying on major software updates to add new skills. Plus, with the Alexa Skills Kit, anybody can develop skills, adding more capabilities to Alexa. Alexa skills are making the experience of using Echo and other devices richer and more engaging for customers.

  1. Why is Amazon looking to developers outside of the company to build Alexa skills?

Through a series of free, self-service, public APIs, developers, companies, and hobbyists can integrate Alexa into their products and services, and build new skills for Alexa. You don’t need to have a background in natural language understanding (NLU) or speech recognition to build great voice experiences for Alexa. And so far, the developer reaction has been overwhelmingly positive – we have tens of thousands of developers who have built over 6,000 skills for Alexa.

We’re always inventing and looking at ways to make customers’ lives easier and by expanding Alexa’s skills, she becomes smarter and more useful to customers every day. We launched the Alexa Skills Kit in June 2015 and since then, we have been incredibly inspired by the creativity of the skills created by the developer community at workshops, hackathons, online challenges and at home.

  1. Why did you decide to work with Coding Dojo?

Coding Dojo has been in the business of training the developers of tomorrow for a long time. We were invited to host a couple of Alexa workshops at their campuses in San Jose and Bellevue, and were really impressed by their instructors and students.

We are excited to work with Coding Dojo on several opportunities that will train developers on how to build compelling voice experiences for Alexa. Coding Dojo students will get to learn voice design and Alexa skill building using the Python stack at Coding Dojo’s 14-week onsite and 20-week online coding bootcamp. They will also get the opportunity to create innovative Alexa projects in a hackathon that will be led by our team in February 2017 in San Jose.

We are excited to see the high-quality, creative and unique skills they build for customers.

  1. What kind of programming skills will students learn from working with Alexa?

It starts with voice user interface (UI) design. Students will learn about designing an interaction model to train the Alexa NLU engine including utterances and intents.

To do this, students will learn how to build skills leveraging serverless infrastructure such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) Lambda. In the Coding Dojo curriculum, students can learn to build skills in Python, but the concepts would apply to any web service language. They will also learn about setting up their own testing environment locally.

  1. What are some of the more interesting Alexa skills that have been developed so far at Coding Dojo workshops?

In our past events we have seen a wide variety of skills, from games to study guides. For example, one creative skill was a flash cards experience, where Alexa would prompt you with a word and the customer would define it. This is a perfect use case for English as a second language speakers.

Who knows what we’ll see in the future? It could be conversational UI, virtual reality or Internet of Things. It’s only a question of where developers’ imagination will take them.

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