Interview: Toni Reid, VP of Alexa Experience at Amazon

We sat down with the incredible Toni Reid, veteran and the Vice President of Alexa Experience and Echo Devices at the shopping behemoth’s Seattle headquarters.

It’s time for the next interview in our Women With Awesome Jobs series, and we’ve really outdone ourselves this time. We sat down with the incredible Toni Reid, veteran and the Vice President of Alexa Experience and Echo Devices at the shopping behemoth’s Seattle headquarters.

We wanted to know all about her amazing job, how she got there, and whether she’d recommend Amazon to women (spoiler: she would).

Here’s how it went.

Hi Toni. You’re VP of Alexa Experience and Echo Devices – can you tell us about your path to your current job?

I’ve been at Amazon over 20 years so I’ve done a bunch of different things. I’m a product person – I’m a builder. I like to build new things and rebuild other things. And so I took a role working with the Amazon Fresh team, I launched a little thing called Dash Wand – a barcode scanner with voice input – and it was an innovative, ‘let’s see if we can do this’ type project, and we did, we built it and shipped it in 13 months.

And during that process I started working with the speech team – they hadn’t launched yet – and I was introduced to what is now the Echo device and the Alexa voice service through that.

I was a huge believer in voice. I just got it. It didn’t work that well two years prior to launch, but I got it, and was super intrigued by it – I actually really loved it. And so there was an opportunity to come over to the team in 2014, and I jumped at the opportunity.

Your job didn’t exist when you were at school. Do you have any advice to young people who want to prepare themselves and skill up for tech jobs of the future, when they’re kind of an unknown at the moment?

That’s a really good question.

I have a degree in anthropology – I don’t have a tech background – and I have moments where I think “I wish I would’ve gone to get a Computer Science degree,” but then people give me the counter-argument and say “well you might not be who you are today if you didn’t do anthropology.” Maybe I should have gotten a dual degree!

The point is, it is super important to have that Computer Science background, but there are a lot of applications and different functions that can influence and work around technology. You can do things such as design, you can do product packaging, industrial design, product management. I really encourage people to look at traditional computer science, and on the science side, mechanical engineering, but also to look at careers that might be functionally aligned and think about how that could be used to work in and around technology.

I’m lucky in that I ended up there, and it’s a really fun space to be in. It’s super exciting.

Is Amazon a good company to work for?

I love working at Amazon. It’s a place where you can be an inventor, a builder or just extremely customer focused. It’s not something we just say, it’s something that we actually do.

It’s also so large now that you can just reinvent yourself in different ways – you can work on so many different businesses. I’ve had the benefit in 20 years of doing completely different things at the company. And so it’s as if I’ve worked for lots of different companies, but under this umbrella of a company that I really like.

What about for women and people with young families? Are there initiatives, is there support at Amazon?

Absolutely. It’s been much more of a discussion in the industry as a whole in the last few years, and it’s a focus for the company. It’s a focus for our organisation, it’s a focus for me.

I’ve had two children at the company, I’ve gone on maternity leave and come back, and I’ve been promoted during those timeframes. I took on a new role while I was pregnant and I thought “what am I doing?” But someone said “why wouldn’t you do it?” And that was in the early 2000s!

There’s a level playing field, so it’s a good place to be for a wide array of diverse types of people and candidates.

For Alexa, diversity is really important to me because we’re building a voice assistant that’s in the homes of our customers. I have a strong belief that the builders of that product should represent that customer base as well as we can. And so I love to have different voices at the table – gender, background, skillset – just a diverse group of opinions.

It’s very easy when you’re thinking about building products to think about something that you would love, to get in your little box. You know, you’re like “I’m a high tech person, I live in this industry” and that’s not everyone. So I like to create environments where either my direct team or feedback from others challenges our status quo thinking.

Do you have support and networking groups here for women and people of colour?

Absolutely. Amazon has a robust set of affinity groups that are employee-led, they have their own ‘boards’ if you will, and some of them are quite large and active groups. I run a group within the Alexa organisation – it’s kind of ‘women of Alexa,’ but it expands beyond just gender, it’s really around diversity. There are sub teams within that – women of engineering, women of smart home – and you end up with these umbrella groups that help to try to provide some structure and resourcing. And then you have organic teams that spin up as well, to focus on different areas.

We’ve noticed that dogs seem to be a big thing here at HQ, is that part of the culture?

Yeah, apparently we have 4,000 dogs in Seattle. I read we have about 14,000 employees here and 4,000 dogs.

Wow. Are there any cats, though?

No. I don’t think so. I mean, I see a lot of dogs that are the SIZE of cats!

That’s not the same! Less of the fluff favouritism, Amazon.

Well, there it is, people: Toni Reid has an awesome job and Amazon HQ needs a lot more cat lovers. We’ll gladly volunteer.

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