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Alexa? Can you tell me more about digital careers?

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As part of our National Careers Week campaign, we shine the spotlight on Beth Holmes, Knowledge Engineer, Alexa at Amazon.

How long have you been doing what you do?

12 years.

What course did you study and where?

I studied a Maths degree at Aberystwyth University and a PhD in Group Theory at Birmingham University.

I was a research fellow at Birmingham University then moved to Cambridge. After a series of temporary contracts, I found a job with a start-up called Evi, a company which was developing technology to enable automatic answering of customer questions. Amazon acquired Evi in 2012. It’s been a very exciting journey for us, as we never thought we would end up working with a device like Alexa and I feel very proud of how smart, and useful she has become.

What’s a typical day at the office?

We are an international team, so every morning we have meetings with Europe and India and towards the end of the day with the US. Between those meetings I catch up with my team and discuss how we are progressing projects to improve the customer experience.

Do you enjoy it?

Yes! I really enjoy the work that I do and one of the best things about my job is the team of people I get to work with. Everyone is really smart, passionate and genuine about creating a great experience for customers, and I like the creative aspect of IT. We are constantly looking at how we can improve the way Alexa answers our customers’ questions.

Alexa tells jokes – where did that idea come from?

We know people love interacting with Alexa; we add new jokes regularly to keep customers entertained!

The other thing I love is when you read stories about how Alexa has helped people. The leader of a charity for blind people said how much Alexa has helped him, because its users are now able to access RNIB-verified information via voice commands.  Its stories like that are really heart-warming.

Your degree was in maths – and then you ended up in computer science – was there a cross over between the two subjects?

I had to do some programming as part of my PhD, but I wasn’t an expert. However, my degree in maths has helped me a great deal in my role working with Alexa.

What’s been your career path?

I’ve done a wide variety of things. I started as a knowledge engineer; I built up my team and moved into management; then I started managing software developers, machine learning scientists and business intelligence people; then I managed translators.

Now I’ve decided I’m done with chopping and changing and managing different types of people and I want to focus back on my own expertise. So, I’ve switched back to knowledge engineering and want to focus on becoming world-class at it.

Can you share some top tips to get into your career area?

I would say have a go! Anyone can build an Alexa skill, which is a bit like a smartphone app but on Alexa and for voice. There’s a range of different skill complexities, from really easy to build, to more complicated. If you don’t feel confident enough to build your own from scratch, you can go on the Alexa site and there are various templates to copy. For example, there’s a “Trivia Game” template for making your own trivia quizzes – you just replace the sample questions and answers with your own details.

My other piece of advice is to try and meet other people doing similar careers. A lot of cities, such as Cambridge where I’m based, have start-up meetups. You can just turn up and listen to the experiences of other people who work in the industry and let them know you’re interested in learning more.

What about qualifications? Does it matter?

It doesn’t matter too much because knowledge engineering is relatively niche, so we look quite broadly. Good qualifications to have are in linguistics and maths. We also have people with philosophy backgrounds, but now we’re looking for people with more tech skills. Obviously, computer science is good to have but it’s not essential.

How important is it to raise awareness about careers in the digital industries?

People don’t realise the range of opportunities there are, particularly within knowledge engineering. We tend to get more people who don’t have a computer science background than other technical roles, potentially because they didn’t know such careers existed when they were younger and didn’t take much notice of computers. They then realise how interesting this field is and knowledge engineering gives them a route in to what is a fascinating and rewarding career.

What would be your advice to your younger self?

Don’t have too narrow a view of the future. I wouldn’t have imagined I would be in this position, or that I would enjoy it! As a kid I thought office work was boring and dull, had never realised how creative it could be.