Amazon’s Alexa boss on what users are asking during Covid-194 min read . Updated: 28 Sep 2020, 09:18 AM IST
Toni Reid, the woman behind the Echo, explains Amazon’s tough culture, how women in tech can advance and working from home
When Toni Reid, Amazon.com Inc.’s vice president of Alexa experience and Echo devices, sent hundreds of staffers home in early March to work remotely, she had her husband buy a standing desk for their house the next day.
“I knew we were in this for the long run," she said.
Ms. Reid’s job overseeing the consumer experience for one of Amazon’s most popular product lines gives her unique insight into just how many people have embraced staying in during the coronavirus era.
Her staff raced to build new skills into Alexa, the virtual assistant in Echo devices, to give consumers coronavirus safety tips and information about its spread, the same way they teach Alexa to tell jokes and read the news. And people’s interactions with Alexa changed as the pandemic progressed, with more turning to Alexa for at-home exercise tips and recipes. The sheer volume of customers using Alexa-enabled devices jumped 65% from a year earlier between April and June.
Ms. Reid spoke with The Wall Street Journal by phone from her home in Seattle. Here are edited excerpts.
WSJ: Once you understood how serious coronavirus was, how did you think about what might change?
Ms. Reid: We started with hospitals and nursing homes. We donated tens of thousands of Echo devices that allowed hospital staff to communicate with their patients who were in isolation without having to use personal protective equipment each time.
We built a bunch of new Alexa routines for working from home and staying at home. They’re things like reminding you to get up and stretch. Or go eat. Or maybe it’s time to stop working. It’s like a prepackaged routine.
Third-party developers started building skills to help with their situations. In India, the Bengaluru city police created a skill for customers to ask what they can and can’t do during lockdown. The Spanish Red Cross created a way for people to donate by talking to Alexa, and then offered guidance on how to avoid Covid contagion.
WSJ: As people stay home, which consumer habits evolved the fastest?
Ms. Reid: Meditation skills! We’ve seen an increase in things around cooking and recipes. You’re seeing people use reminders and timers to help them with home schooling.
WSJ: What features did the Alexa team crank out that had never been imagined pre-pandemic?
Ms. Reid: We worked on a Covid skill that is sort of a symptom-checker. We started getting a lot of questions around “How do I know if I have Covid? What are the symptoms of Covid?" We work with health authorities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and, depending on the country, we’ll work with local authorities. We built a question-answer tree that helps people assess whether they have Covid or not.
WSJ: I hear people who work on the Echo began to help build Amazon’s own coronavirus-testing capabilities for its staff. How did that happen?
Ms. Reid: They drafted folks across Amazon with different types of expertise. At some point, you go get really smart, passionate people who want to solve a hard problem, and you put them on it.
WSJ: Women hold less than a third of management positions at big tech companies, including Amazon. How did you make it?
Ms. Reid: There are lots of ways in which you can have a career in tech. I tell my own daughters that. There’s industrial design. There’s voice design. There are lots of contributors to building a product like I work on with Alexa.
WSJ: Do you have any advice for other women in tech?
Ms. Reid: There’s an element also of risk-taking that has been part of my career. I was in a leadership role, had been scaling, taking on larger responsibility, and I decided that I wanted to do more consumer-product development and get closer to the customer. So I took a really small role to build Dash Wand, which was part of Amazon Fresh at the time. It was very experimental. That role, interestingly enough, is what led me to my current job.
WSJ: Amazon’s culture is tough and fiercely competitive. How do you explain it to people outside the company?
Ms. Reid: Amazon is a place where builders can come to build, and that appeals to a lot of people. It is fast-paced. There’s been a lot of history made here over the past couple decades. You can actually reinvent yourself in a lot of different ways because of the diversity of businesses that we’re in.
WSJ: What’s it like to manage people in that environment?
Ms. Reid: Any leadership principle or guiding rule or whatever you have, if you take it too far, it can be counterproductive.
How I coach people—and also how I gut-check myself—is balance. From a culture perspective and leadership perspective, seek balance. Bring skeptics into the room to validate your believers or disconfirm your own beliefs. When teams don’t do that, they get more narrow-minded in their approach.
WSJ: Amazon is hiring. Are you?
Ms. Reid: The Alexa organization is full steam ahead. We’ve continued hiring. We’ve put forth investment recommendations. Many of mine were just approved, so we’re gearing up for how we deliver.
Write to Sebastian Herrera at Sebastian.Herrera@wsj.com