- Tell us more about your background & your college life?
I’m a New Delhi based Conversational Design Engineer and my expertise is in creating top-notch conversational experiences for some of the biggest brands around the globe. When I’m not doing that, I’m most likely to be found binge-watching a Dystopian or a Sci-Fi web series, or working on some side project for an Alexa Hackathon, which I have a knack of winning quite a few times.
I just finished my engineering degree from Cluster Innovation Centre, the University of Delhi, majoring in IT, Mathematical Innovations, and Management. What my course lacked in terms of college life, it made up for it by pushing us towards career readiness from the first-year itself. We had compulsory internships for every student from the first year, and that pushed us towards getting out there, searching for real-world opportunities, and upskilling ourselves continuously over the last four years.
Currently, I am working as an Independent Contractor with different Amazon Alexa recommended agencies based across the UK, US, and India. I also have a strong personal presence on online freelance platforms and have delivered over 300 different projects related to Alexa Skill Development, Actions on Google Development, and Bixby Capsule Development across multiple industries and use cases.
- How did you decide to take up coding and how did you understand your interest in this field?
Being a student from a CS background in school, and the fact that one of my majors in college was going to be IT, coding was naturally going be one of the prospective career choices for me. But as a student from a college of only 40 students per year, the luxury of having varied mindsets around me wasn’t possible. Thus, to expand my horizons and learn about what other people around me were doing in tech I started attending a lot of events, meetups, and other workshops in my city.
Eventually, I tried a lot of different paths like mobile development, web development, and all the common ones that most tech students go through. But in most of them, I had this feeling like I am trying to put in hard work and at the end of the day, I may excel in it. But when I started building for Alexa, from the very initial point I was getting the feeling that I have a real good chance of excelling and that’s the difference which tempted me to go forward in this field.
- What inspired you towards Alexa?
My journey in voice started back in 2017. I believe the first time I heard about Alexa was in an episode of a web series called Mr. Robot where the character talked to a device and it lit up and spoke back to her. That was quite mesmerizing for me.
Later in the same year, the Amazon Alexa team had their first-ever Alexa Dev Days workshop in India and that happened to be in my city. I attended that session and at the end of the day, I had this gut feeling that this is the field I’m built for and will love building for.
Since then I have devoted myself completely to the voice-first paradigm building a lot of Alexa Skills across multiple domains and industries for small and medium scale businesses to big brands and artists as well. I worked with Amazon Alexa recommended agencies, various voice-tech product start-ups, and I was also a part of the Google Summer of Code 2019 with my project revolving around, guess what, – an Alexa skill!
During my journey, I also participated in a lot of Alexa Hackathons and won quite a few of them. I’m also a winner in the Alexa track of the Smart India Hackathon 2020.
I also lead the Alexa Community Delhi-NCR conducting meetups, hands-on workshops, and events across different colleges and institutes for students as well as professional developers. For my efforts towards the Alexa community, Amazon recognized me as an Alexa Pioneer and also the winner of the Alexa Community Evangelist of the Year Award for 2018 and 2019.
- How did you manage to win so many hackathons and coding competitions and how can a student aspiring the same, approach it?
Since 2017 there have been 7 Alexa Hackathons conducted in India, and I have won a prize in each one of them. I have won the first prize in 4 of them and finished in the top three positions or won a category prize in the rest 3.
One thing which works for me in a hackathon is that they have preset themes. My ideas are bound by those themes and all my focus is aligned in that direction. When I’m building an Alexa Skill which is not for a hackathon, then it’s in an open world environment and I have a lot of things to think about, different directions I can go in. But say that there is a hackathon and the theme is productivity, then I only have to look into that direction and think of ideas of how Alexa devices can make the user’s life more productive. Once I have the theme then I start bringing in ideas from my daily life and try to build something that I will use myself.
Finally, a good demo is what it takes to get you the prize. In offline hackathons, the demo is the most important thing. Even if you have a half-baked product, if you can demo it working perfectly then the game is yours because you’re not expected to have a fully-fledged product in 24 hours. You just need an MVP and it should showcase everything that you have. In online hackathons, it’s the reverse. You have to have a full-fledged product with a good demo and everything. That’s my thought process behind every hackathon.
- What inspires you in life and keeps you going?
To me, the most important thing that keeps me going is having a job that I love to do. Being self-employed gives me the luxury of picking what I want to work upon, and spend my time according to how I want.
Building for voice enables my product to reach people in the most natural way they can interact with tech. We have been talking to each other since we were kids, and voice assistants provide this ability to interface with tech. The learning curve for using these devices, even for kids, or aged people, is literally non-existent and you just have to start speaking as you would do to another person. With no GUI involved, voice just feels so much more natural, user friendly, and conversational. With voice, technology bends for us and not the other way round and that’s how it should be.
This inspires me to burn the midnight oil and put all my efforts into this next big paradigm shift.
- What is your idea of success or your mantra in life?
For me, success isn’t always defined by money, awards, or achievements. They are just byproducts. For me, success is synonymous with happiness or the self-satisfaction I get from committing my time to something. It can be a project I’m building, or it can be a community event that I’m volunteering in, or just binge-watching a web series. If at the end of the day, I am relaxed and see my efforts paying off to the level I expected from that task, that’s success to me.
Just keep up the good work and your work will define your success when the time is right.
- How beneficial is it to be a coder?
I will say knowing how to code in today’s world is becoming somewhat similar to knowing mathematics. At least everyone should give it a shot sometime and try to build something they want. You don’t need to have a CS degree, or a strong interest and years of experience to build a small software and having fun with your idea. There are a lot of No-Code or Low-Code tools available as well in the market to make your life easier.
Having the power in your hands to create something can be considered as a trait of a superhero!
- What have been some of your biggest challenges and learnings from what you do?
When I first started with Alexa Development, the biggest challenge for me was definitely getting the resources to learn. I started almost three years ago, and at that time it was a very niche community so I only had the docs to refer to. But today I’m glad for that because the best way to be a good software developer is having the ability to read the tech docs properly and in detail. A YouTube video or a blog post will just touch the surface of a topic, but if you go through the official documentation, the learnings from that are second to none.
Another big challenge that I have been continuously facing while building voice apps is working under people who don’t yet understand how the technology works. For example, if I work with technical managers who are coming from a mobile or web app background, the hardest thing is to convince them that what works there doesn’t work here. I usually have to go through how the design differs, how to rethink all the interactions from a voice-first perspective, and how Alexa cannot be used as a dictation machine or maintain context or states by itself. All of these technical nitty-gritty are the biggest pain in my life right now.
Learning to deal with situations like these, working with distributed and diverse teams, all this experience has been very handy to me in evolving from just being a software developer to a tech lead of sorts so early in my career.
- What did you do in current role that makes you feel really proud of yourself?
From being a student who started college with literally zero ideas of what he is going to do with his life, to making a name for myself on the global stage and being financially independent before my graduation is the thing, I’m proud of the most. It hasn’t been an overnight success story and definitely wasn’t achievable without the support of tons of people across all levels that I interacted along the way.
Being in this role has helped the introvert in me in finding a new lease of life and has given me some lifelong friends, mentors, and also a lot of amazing mentees that I’m proud to have helped and pass on my knowledge as well!
- What were the key challenges you faced during your journey of coding and how you overcame those?
No journey is made up of only a bed of roses, and I surely had my fair share of challenges and a lot of disappointments along the way. All these highs and lows hold an equal place in my heart.
There were days where I lacked a sense of direction and tried everything that I could without much success. But Alexa has surely turned my life upside down. The biggest difference has been that my work is being recognized. The major reason for that to happen is because I took the leap of faith by leaving everything I was involved with and chose to go down this single path devoting all my time to it.
I have always believed in being a master of something, rather than being a jack of all trades.
We have to work smart to make sure that if we are good at something, we better end up trying to be the best at it. Otherwise, if your focus is divided or you keep on pushing towards something where you yourself know you’re not good at, at best you will most likely reach mediocrity at the end.
People might have divided opinions on this, but working on your weaknesses isn’t as fruitful as the time you spend on focusing on your strengths. Be so good as something that people stop talking about your weaknesses. Having unadulterated faith and refined focus towards working on your strengths is very important.
- What skills do you think are most important for any student and how they should learn it?
If you’re a student in tech, learning to code should definitely be on your to-do list. It’s not something that everyone should specialize in but having a little overview of the tools and technologies can always come handy.
Another important thing for everyone to master is building their online presence. I’m not advocating for Instagram, or TikTok, or something similar unless of course, that’s important and related to your career in some way. For someone just starting out, LinkedIn and Twitter are the platforms you should capitalize on to build your strong online presence, and if done right, you will have recruiters reach out to you, rather than the other way round.
Making a personal brand is as important in today’s date as having some strong skills. Effective networking abilities is what will get you access to those extra opportunities compared to another student with the same skill level.
Also having some knowledge of wealth and finance management is quite vital and should be normalized among every student irrespective of their domain.
- Should students learn Alexa building skills? If Yes, Why? What are the benefits?
I will tell the students to don’t be shy or hold back in getting started with Alexa development. Most of the students I meet, the initial questions they ask me before even getting to know what an Alexa or a Google Assistant does are – “What is the scope of this thing? Can I get a job doing it? Can I make a career out of it?” These questions pop-up even before sitting through the session or webinar or whatever I’m conducting.
I always reiterate that the industry is still very new and even the most experienced person in this industry will have at maximum maybe five-year experience. Compared to the mobile or web industry where you have people with experience that is probably more than my age. It’s pretty fruitful to be in a field when it’s still in its nascent stages. We are still in the days of early adoption and if you devote time to it and are always open to learning, you will definitely achieve a lot of success here. Since it’s a new industry, all you have to do is work hard, and have faith in your dreams and goals, and get involved with the community. It’s a very small community right now and everyone is so welcoming.
There are lots of opportunities to explore, and learning to build for Alexa is also super easy and fun compared to learning to be a conventional GUI engineer. The barrier to entry is also pretty low. If you don’t like code, there are no-code tools that can help you.
My only advice to students is – Don’t hold back because of concerns like “Is there a career opportunity here?” Look at it as a hobby initially and if you do enjoy building for voice, you can always continue with it and make a career out it.
The primary filter for choosing a career should always be whether or not you love being a part of it!
- What’s your message to encourage students to do internships and live projects?
Getting a real-world experience and working on products that have live users is very important for every student before they graduate. The sooner you start, the sooner you can get closer to figuring out the kind of career you want.
Internships are like the trial experiences that allow you to figure out pathways, while also being a vital stepping stone in the career that awaits you. It gives you a taste of what to expect and helps you understand what’s right for you early on. There’s only so much you can learn from your curriculum, or reading blogs, or watching people share their experiences. Unless you go out there and validate your learnings to yourself, it doesn’t count at all.
Start searching for internships as soon as you’ve acquired enough knowledge of a field. Let others be the judge to your knowledge, rather than delaying it because you feel that you’re not good enough to apply for one yet. Stay clear of the imposter syndrome.
Another thing to keep in mind here is that never get intimidated by someone else who might have a head-start and is already way ahead in his career aspirations than you. Not all of us start equally, but once we do start, all of us get the same time from that point on to improve against no-one but ourselves.
Learn how to channel your connections and network, and constantly work on building a strong profile to land opportunities.
- What are your future plans?
I will most likely be involved in the voice tech industry only for the near future. It is definitely not just another tech fad, and that is supported by the fact that tech giants like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Samsung, Apple, and many more putting in billions of dollars into it.
One of my goals will definitely be to win an international hackathon as well as be recognized as an Alexa Champion. To work towards that goal, I need to keep hustling. I will continue to build more conversational experiences that customers love interacting with, and while growing on a personal level, I will always devote some time to help others aboard this voice tech revolution as well.
As for my dreams, they go on. Bask in the glory, cherish the moment, & then start working towards living it again, has always been my motto!
- What are the top 3 tips or advice you would give to any other student to reach their dreams?
For a college student, it is very confusing and tricky to pick a field that they should go ahead with. Even I tried out and failed miserably in several other domains because there was something missing. The urge of doing something you love. You may hear from the top names in that industry, and get motivated and start outright devoting your time to it. But unless and until you love what you do, you may never get the results.
You have to toil in finding your path, and once you have that, stay true to yourself, and always be humble and open to learning. Work hard and smart while having profound faith in your dreams and never ever give up on them. Have patience, Rome wasn’t built in a day and your career and dreams will surely ask enough efforts of you, before paying off.
And finally, don’t hold back! Speak out whenever and to whomever you want to, there might not be another chance. After all, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
You can connect with Ashish Jha
Interview conducted by our expert Sharon Carl