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Big Nerd Ranch Lassos Alexa with Amazon Alliance

by Kristyn Back

Amazon’s dive into hands-free voice command is making a splash with their ever-insightful Alexa – which according to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, could become the 4th pillar of the illustrious Amazon offerings. In order to keep the pace with competitors on the market, the colossal e-commerce and cloud computing company has instilled the help of Big Nerd Ranch to teach developers how to build out “skills” for Alexa.

Hypepotamus recently sat down with Tasha Schroeder and Nicola Smith, marketing mavens at Big Nerd Ranch, to find out what their team of tech teachers do to stay ahead of the learning curve and how they are paving a path for future innovation.

Big Nerd Ranch is working with Amazon on Alexa development training. How did you land that deal?

Schroeder: It’s a relationship we’ve been fostering over time. Big Nerd Ranch has always been on the cutting edge, so when we started talking about Alexa we were very excited to take it on.

Our CEO, Aaron Hillegass, began by talking with Amazon about what they might need and positioned us as a great provider for building out that curriculum and training.

You’ve already kicked off the training. Can you tell us a little bit about the curriculum and what you have planned?

Smith: The coursework we are working on is in lockstep with Amazon to make sure we are accomplishing their goals and that we are structuring the training in a way that is really going to give developers the skills they need to immediately go out and start building on the platform.

That, to me, is really the impetus of the partnership. They need people trained to build Alexa skills so that they can actually grow the user base and make this viable. It’s basically like the early days of mobile. You can build apps, but until you actually train people to do it and put a marketplace out there and have functional, usable apps that are valuable to the consumer, the technology isn’t going to catch on because the use case isn’t there. This is why we are working with Amazon – it’s a training component, but it’s actually building up the marketplace need from the consumer perspective as well.

Are you throwing things against the wall to see what sticks or are there certain angles that you’re approaching when it comes to building out apps for Alexa?

Schroeder: What’s interesting about Alexa in particular, is that we don’t yet know where the limits are, so we are all working together and exploring. It really is a new approach to development.

Smith: Josh Skeen, who wrote the first portion of our blog series on Alexa development, has built a Mad Libs-style skill that allows Alexa reads the story back to you.

He also built a flight-tracking tool called Airport Info that’s detailed in the posts. Imagine if you were staying at a hotel and you could say, “Alexa, is my flight still on time?” The skill could pull relevant flight data and say, “Yes.” Or “No, it’s going to 15 minutes late.”

We know how to build, so now it’s a matter of what can we build, what’s out there, and what we can experiment with. Josh and Juan Pablo Claude, who wrote a portion of the blog series and is working on training videos with Josh, are coming up with ideas of fun and technically-interesting things that we can use in the training.

You have to be ahead of the people who are ahead of innovation. How does Big Nerd Ranch handle all of that?

Smith: To me, it’s a combination of things. We have developers who are really passionate about what they do and they are always proactively looking for new personal challenges, and that helps lead us into new platforms and new technologies. Those are going to be where challenges lie and are like the wild west, which is exciting for people to be part of.

Some of the work I’m doing with the leadership team is looking at what’s next. What should we be preparing for? Where should we be putting our time? We are trying to be really strategic about what we focus on and when. We’re also passionate about what we do, so we tend to do that kind of research at work and on our own time as well.

Schroeder: We are very intentional about bringing people on board who know how to learn and have interests in always improving their skill sets. We have a long history of knowing how to teach well, so we hire very inquisitive folks who then say, “Ok, so I had to learn this myself, here’s what’s great, here’s what works, here’s what’s going to trip you up and here’s how to get over those hurdles.” That is really one of our strongest suits.

How do you see this morphing in the future? Do you think this will continue to see this growing outside of Amazon and how will you handle that if you’re able to train those folks?

Smith: This is a component of a broader trend we are seeing, which is a shift into zero-UI interfaces. We are talking about everything from voice gesture to devices and experiences that are controlled by people’s minds. I know that is further out there, but as I look at technological trends, I see this shift into technologies that have more of an ambient interaction component.

To me, that is where I think human interaction with technology is going and so if we aren’t on the cutting edge of understanding what those behaviour elements are, what we need to do on the technological side, and what the impacts might be, then we are doing a disservice to the industry and our clients.

Amazon is on the west coast and chose an Atlanta-based company to do their training. What do you think this says about the city and how we’re emerging as a technology hub?

Smith: I think it really speaks to the strength of the tech community in Atlanta. It’s also very much aligned with where both the city and the state are looking to drive business growth. It’s an indicator that the Silicon Valley is no longer the center of technological innovation. For the last 15 years or so, that’s where it’s really been centered, but we are seeing that get disrupted by smaller markets like Atlanta that are putting a focus on growing that skill set within their community. I would love to see even more of this type of work coming out of Atlanta.

Atlanta is becoming a place where companies that are considering emerging technologies can come, and they can plug into a very active and engaged community. While in some cases there’s competition, Atlanta is a place where people are also very much willing to help. The fact that we are a smaller community means people are willing to pitch in, to connect, to direct and to help build your network, which is a huge value when you’re playing with an emerging technology.


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