Women's Day: Meet the Indian women helping Amazon Alexa build a voice-enabled world
Amazon Alexa is everywhere, especially in India. But even as you buy the newest Echo device, did you know these six women are the brains behind the beloved voice assistant?
Thursday March 05, 2020,
null min Read
Alexa, tell me a joke.
Alexa, book me a cab at 7 pm.
Alexa, read from my Kindle.
Alexa, play some relaxing music.
A few years ago, having a voice assistant at one’s beck and call may have seemed futuristic. But the truth is, the future is here – way before we imagined it would be.
Amazon Alexa, a voice-controlled virtual assistant available on several devices, has taken the country by storm. In fact, the global tech giant claims that Indians have the most active engagement with Alexa.
One simply cannot ignore the reach of Alexa and its Echo devices, which were launched in India in 2017. According to the company, it has seen a 5x growth in smart home customers using Alexa in the last 12 months. On an average, customers ask Alexa to control a device almost five times every second.
Today, Amazon Alexa comes with more than 800 skills available in Hindi as well, making it truly desi.
Powering Alexa in India is a group of dynamic young women who are tirelessly working towards enabling a voice-enabled world. From editorial and personality to customer experience, marketing and tech, these women are the heart (and brains) of what Alexa does to make our lives simpler and smarter.
Indu Prasad – Thinking of why Alexa says
As the Managing Editor for Alexa, Amazon India, 41-year-old Indu Prasad and her team work on making Alexa everything she is known for.
She says, “We think of why she says the things she does, how she would form opinions, how she would communicate, her sense of humour, how she would articulate her perception of humans or even her own sense of self. And yes, this involves responding to proposals and declarations of love!”
Indu believes part of it is also Alexa's Zeitgeist – how aware is she of what is happening around her, if she has a take or opinion on cultural events and news. The team works closely with partners – internal and external – to take the voice assistant beyond Echo devices so that people get familiar with Amazon Alexa, its Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities, and want to talk to her more and get to know her closely.
Indu joined Alexa in 2017 and has more than two decades of experience in journalism, with various stints with brands like Star and Zee.
She says, every time a customer discovers a delightful conversation – like Alexa's response to "Can you laugh" or when they love her enough to express, it is a success.
“People turn to Alexa when they don't feel ready to talk to anyone else – like when they tell her they are feeling suicidal or are depressed. Things for which they really need to get help. Walking that line between empathy and help is a challenge definitely,” she says.
Teena Sidana – Taking the voice further
As Lead – Alexa Voice Services, Amazon India, Teena Sidana has been a part of the team since its launch. She is responsible for connecting Amazon Alexa to third-party brands, expanding its reach beyond Amazon’s own Echo devices.
Teena says, “The beauty of this role is that the possibilities of products and brands you can work with are endless and it allows me to know what an offline retailer is saying about Alexa and its functionality, and how a 15-year-old is using it on their latest BoaT speaker.”
“I also get to build the ‘Make in India’ story and narrative with India-based ODMs and System integrators building India-first low cost devices,” she adds.
An electronics and telecom engineer, Teena worked with Airtel before she joined the Alexa team. And since then, she says, every day has brought interesting propositions.
“Alexa has something new to offer every day. We don’t even know what all products and segments people want to get voice enabled in and that surprises me. From the ability to talk to a device in two languages simultaneously to getting the largest brands as our influencers, customer experience is key to winning this market,” she says.
The biggest success in the past two-and-a-half-years, according to her, is seeing a change in the ecosystem.
Teena says, “From having to explain to stakeholders and brands alike what Alexa Voice Service (AVS) is and how is Alexa not the same as Echo, we have built a solid use case for how brands can give their devices a voice. Having an India-first SI and ODM has also helped us scale quicker.”
Ramya Poosarla – Building experiences
Hailing from a small town near Visakhapatnam, Ramya Poosarla joined Amazon straight from her BITS Pilani Hyderabad campus. A graduate in Computer Science, she works as a software developer, building experiences for Alexa.
Ramya says, “The work in Alexa is very different and challenging than my previous team. Until now, I was working with Visual Screen Interfaces, which are good at revealing the possibilities with UI elements (buttons, labels, and images).”
Speaking of her work at Amazon, she adds, “Here, I'm working with Voice interface where there are endless possibilities to how we want to converse with Alexa. We shouldn’t overload the customer and provide a sticky experience. Yet, we have to anticipate customer behaviour and handle all the scenarios and provide a seamless experience. With each passing day, this role makes me realise the immense efforts that go in after I say ‘Alexa’.”
Dipa Balakrishnan – How you doing, Alexa?
As Senior Manager for Alexa Experience and Engagement, Amazon India, Dipa Balakrishnan’s goal is to
make sure that customers who use Alexa have a great experience and value it enough to engage with her more often.
“We do that by ensuring the end-to-end experience work, finding existing and new areas that customers are delighted with that we can create more of. We do this by monitoring how Alexa is performing, taking feedback from customers, and hearing their first-hand stories,” she says.
Prior to joining the Alexa team, Dipa was part of the team that launched Amazon Prime in India, and led Prime marketing through a few firsts – launch, the first Prime Day, the first Prime early access, etc.
“Voice is just a whole new frontier and there’s no playbook that has been proven anywhere in the world for what we are trying to do. So, we are trying to solve some of the hardest engagement problems for a medium of interaction that’s still evolving – this makes the role challenging and exciting at the same time,” says Dipa.
She tells us how working with some of the smartest people trying to solve some of the most difficult problems has been a great learning ground.
“Most projects at Amazon have scale and human impact – there are so many transformation stories that motivate us to do better every day. With Alexa though, there’s an extra dimension – these stories are so personal and touching. Whether it is the tribal school children in Amravati or Bastar learning with Alexa, the neighbourhood Christmas tree or the therapy studio in Bengaluru,” adds Dipa.
Snehal Meshram – Alexa, time kya hai?
Snehal Meshram joined the Amazon Alexa team in September 2013, a year before Alexa was launched in the US. Before that, she worked as a Speech Analyst for Microsoft’s IVR (Interactive Voice Response) acquisition Tellme Networks, and then as Programme Manager for Skype.
Snehal manages the Alexa Natural Language Understanding (NLU) team in India.
She elaborates, “My team powers the Alexa NLU models for Indian English and Hindi, with a focus on continual refinement of expanding Alexa’s understanding of Indian users’ requests.”
“This is a diverse ML team comprising of linguists, language engineers, research/data scientists, T/PMs, and analytics experts. My primary role is to enable and empower my team to both improve the existing Alexa experience for our users and at the same time, ensure that we look for ways to continually delight our users,” she adds.
The biggest challenge so far, Snehal says, has been the launch of Hindi in India.
“We wanted to ensure that we launched an experience for our users that would be no different from how we spoke Hindi at home and with friends. This meant ensuring we enable Alexa to understand both Hindi and Hinglish. It was very exciting to work on this launch, and I am proud of what my teams have achieved,” she adds.
Prachi Mukhija – Making Alexa indispensable
Prachi Mukhija, 32, leads marketing for the Alexa Skills and Voice Services in India. She works closely with Indian developers, brands, and agencies to grow the voice-tech ecosystem, and to increase consumer engagement with Alexa by expanding the number of engaging voice experiences and Alexa-enabled devices.
“My team and I build customer engagement, experience, and retention programmes to make Alexa an indispensable part of user journeys,” she says.
Voice, Prachi believes, is a new paradigm for businesses and consumers alike. “My role requires a high level of collaboration with global teams and leadership, helps me understand the evolving needs of the customer today, and gives me autonomy to solve ambiguities and unheard-of challenges. There are no set best practices and guidelines because we are the ones building these for the future.”
Truly, the future is female.
(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)