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The Alexa Podcast - Episode 8

Co-hosts: Bradley Metrock (CEO, Score Publishing) and Kevin Old (software developer, LifeWay)

Guest: Jackson Stone, Senior Software Engineer, Skuid

Duration: 18 minutes, 10 seconds

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Bradley Metrock: [00:00:11] Hi. And welcome back to The Alexa Podcast. It's a brand new season for 2018. I am here with my co-host, Kevin Old - Kevin, how are you?


Kevin Old: [00:00:22] I'm doing well, Bradley. How about yourself?


Bradley Metrock: [00:00:24] I'm doing fine. So your schedule didn't permit being on the interview with Jackson Stone of Skuid, which is our special guest for The Alexa Podcast this month. We're going to get to that interview in just a moment. It was a great conversation with him. Jackson will be speaking at The Alexa Conference next week - January 18 through the 20th, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Jackson is Senior Software Engineer at Skuid. He's a fascinating guy. You're going to enjoy that interview in just a moment. Kevin Old also will be speaking at The Alexa Conference next week. Are you excited, Kevin?


Kevin Old: [00:01:00] I am. I'm really excited to attend, and talk with folks about what they're doing with Alexa, and just share ideas and what I've learned with folks just around deploying Alexa Skills.


Bradley Metrock: [00:01:16] It's going to be great. It's just going to be fantastic. We did just move the conference to the Chattanooga Public Library, which is a much better venue, as people will see. It's more centrally located, more accessible - we're excited about that. Thursday night - special #VoiceFirst.FM Reception at the one and only Songbirds Guitar Museum - one of the more interesting music museums in the country. One of the highest valued portfolios of guitars around, that they've got. It's just going to be great. The whole thing is going to be awesome. We're looking forward to it.


Bradley Metrock: [00:01:50] Kevin, looking forward to a great 2018 with you, co-hosting The Alexa Podcast. We're going to have a lot of fantastic guests over the course of the year. We had a great 2017. I'm looking forward to celebrating with you at the #VoiceFirst.FM reception next week. It's going to be fun.


Kevin Old: [00:02:06] Absolutely. I think that this year, we're going to see a lot from the Alexa platform and the alignment with different vendors. I know that a coworker of mine was just talking about his preference of using the SmartThings Hub, and light bulbs, and all that because of their integration with the Alexa. So I'm excited to see vendors continue to adopt that, and to hone in on what they do. And then, of course, that platform just to expand. I think we're going to have lots to talk about, and lots of interesting guests that are using the platform in different ways. And then I think Amazon, too, is going to kind of step up their game and continue to reveal pieces to us that they're working with, Alexa voice service providers that they may have had in development for a while. So I'm excited to just see what the year holds for that.


Bradley Metrock: [00:03:09] It's going to be exciting. We're going to be here to talk about it every month. So, with that, we will get to the interview with Jackson Stone, Senior Software Engineer at Skuid. Enjoy.


Bradley Metrock: [00:03:22] We are thrilled, to have as our guest today, Jackson Stone of Skuid. Jackson, say hello.


Jackson Stone: [00:03:29] Hey!


Bradley Metrock: [00:03:31] Jackson, thank you for joining us. So we've got The Alexa Conference coming up, and there's no better topic for the Alexa podcast than to cover a company right here, in Chattanooga, doing amazing work with technology that will be at The Alexa Conference. Skuid is a sponsor of The Alexa Conference, a great partner of ours. Jackson, before I get into what you do, Let me read....I've got this description about Skuid in front of me. It's so good, I want to just actually start the podcast by reading this. Skuid was founded in 2013 on the simple belief that enterprise software should stop forcing people to behave like machines. Instead, apps should behave more like the humans who use them, so everyone can thrive in the digital world. With Skuid's simple-to-use, but incredibly robust, cloud front-end design and deploy platform, anyone can connect to disparate data sources, assemble highly complex made-to-order applications, instantly make changes, all without writing code. More than 5 million users across 35 countries use Skuid to engage with each other, with data, and with new customers in meaningful ways. You guys are growing like a weed. Boil that down for me even further. What do y'all do, in one sentence, and what do you do as Senior Software Engineer for Skuid?


Jackson Stone: [00:04:56] Yeah, sure. As you said, I'm an engineer. So I'll give the engineering answer to what we do.


Bradley Metrock: [00:05:01] Sure.


Jackson Stone: [00:05:02] Oftentimes, with IT departments, the most volatile parts of their internal applications is the UI … the user interface for all these small, or sometimes large, internal applications that an IT team is required to produce and maintain for the various departments. The thing that changes the most, typically, is the UI. Skuid looks to provide a rapid UI constructing tool. That allows the IT department to actually decentralize UI development to the departments themselves. So what we strive to do, as a product with zero code, is allow you to compose these user interfaces. Ideally to where the IT team can put it in the hands of the department that's actually using the application to modify their own user interface. From a developer perspective, that is how I would explain Skuid.


Bradley Metrock: [00:06:00] So when you go to visit family for holidays, you're one of those type of people who nobody has any idea what you do.


Jackson Stone: [00:06:10] Normally, I'd just say I help make websites.


Bradley Metrock: [00:06:13] So you make people's lives easier. People in businesses who work with code love you.


Jackson Stone: [00:06:20] Yes. Well, ideally. That's our target, to help them reduce their backlog. Initially, in our genesis, we actually did have communication with some early developers that think, "You're trying to build a tool that puts us out of a job!" And our typical response would be, "Do you honestly not have a backlog that's way too big? Wouldn't you love it if you could work on other things?"


Bradley Metrock: [00:06:46] People have always thought that technology will put them out of a job, from cars replacing horses and buggies, to elevators getting rid of the elevator operator, now robots taking people's places. There's always something new. There's always a better use for somebody's time, and it sounds like Skuid is pretty successful in helping people find it, because you guys are growing like crazy. Correct me if I'm wrong, you're on the verge of hiring your 200th employee. Or have you already hired 200 employees?


Jackson Stone: [00:07:16] We may have crossed that threshold recently, but that's around about the size we are. When I joined about a year and a half ago, maybe a little more than that, I was around the 74th employee.


Bradley Metrock: [00:07:32] OK.


Jackson Stone: [00:07:33] So it's just been pretty drastic growth. The joke internally was, if you've been in Skuid longer than six months, you've been there longer than half the staff.


Bradley Metrock: [00:07:44] You're a grizzled veteran at that point.


Jackson Stone: [00:07:46] Yeah. Yeah.


Bradley Metrock: [00:07:49] That's great. Because I want people listening to understand, Skuid is carving out a niche for itself that is far beyond Chattanooga. It's a huge Chattanooga success story in every way. But what you guys are doing....a lot more people than just here in Tennessee know who you are. So I wanted to make sure that that was communicated. Let me ask you how you got into software development. And at the same time, I'm interested to hear your background, but I'm also interested with The Alexa Conference coming up next week. Not only share how you got into your line of work, but what sort of intrigues you about where technology is headed in this sort of #VoiceFirst realm of computing that Amazon, Google, that we as a society seem to be moving toward.


Jackson Stone: [00:08:44] Oh, yeah. How I got my career started was actually in college. I got a gig at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It's a large national laboratory here in Tennessee.


Bradley Metrock: [00:09:00] I'm very familiar with that.


Jackson Stone: [00:09:00] Yeah. And I was working on gamification research, actually. Anyway, Chattanooga had their first TEDx event about a year and a half after I did that first initial work. And I applied for a talk, based on my work at Oak Ridge. The talk was accepted, and it was seen by some of the "who's who" in the startup community in Chattanooga.


Bradley Metrock: [00:09:27] OK.


Jackson Stone: [00:09:28] And after that, I got involved in that community, and got into web development, and a few years later, ended up at Skuid. And my current role at Skuid is, I'm the technical team lead of the data sources team. So when Skuid makes connections to external third parties, or wants a deep integration with a third party, my team is typically the one tasked with making that happen.


Bradley Metrock: [00:09:55] A third party, as in another technology provider, or as in a client?


Jackson Stone: [00:10:02] Another technology provider … examples being G Suite, AWS services, Lex being one of those...


Bradley Metrock: [00:10:10] Okay. Very cool. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is a phenomenal place. What a great place to have gotten going. So you're giving a talk at the Alexa conference about Lex and believe it or not, not everybody knows what the difference between Alexa and Lex is. Let's start there. What is the difference between those two things?


Jackson Stone: [00:10:33] Yeah. I suppose how I'd explain it is, Lex is Alexa, when you remove the assumption of a smart home device.


Bradley Metrock: [00:10:46] OK.


Jackson Stone: [00:10:48] Typically, if you have an Alexa Skill, the smart home device is the one kicking off that interaction. And the smart home device is the one submitting some sort of output to the user. Lex is taking out assumptions on where the input or output is going, and exposing those internals for a developer to still produce intense utterances and various chatbots. Does that kind of make sense, just as a high level view?


Bradley Metrock: [00:11:21] It does, it does. So it's Alexa abstracted from the hardware that she lives in.


Jackson Stone: [00:11:27] Yes, and I'm sure that behind the scenes, there's a lot of technological overlap. But, yeah, that's how I would explain it. It's our use of it in Skuid in particular, as we turn the browser into the device that is accepting user voice commands, and the browser then handles the side effects afterwards.


Bradley Metrock: [00:11:50] And that's a tool that you use internally, or that's a tool that you make available to clients, or both?


Jackson Stone: [00:11:55] Yeah. Our goal at Skuid, as I said earlier, is to allow them to create really functional UIs with no code. The portion Skuid plays in this is: Lex exposes all of these fantastic, server-side declarative interfaces, for creating and configuring your chatbot. Skuid looks to provide the UI end of that interaction … capturing audio, packaging it up for Lex, sending it off. What we try to do is give our Skuid admins, the ones making Skuid pages, the capability to configure their own chatbots for their users.


Bradley Metrock: [00:12:35] Got it. That's a great explanation. So you're the layer that sort of sits in between.


Jackson Stone: [00:12:40] Yes.


Bradley Metrock: [00:12:40] It's very helpful for some of us who are not as technically savvy, like myself. So let's shift gears for a minute. I want to ask you about CES. Have you been paying attention to it?


Jackson Stone: [00:12:54] Yes.


Bradley Metrock: [00:12:54] A new episode of This Week In Voice has hit yesterday, we were talking all about it. With some of the stories that have come out, one of the bigger ones is that Amazon and Google are squaring off. They've been squaring off for a while in the voice space. But it's sort of come to a head with Google buying up every possible advertising nook and cranny out in Vegas, so the story goes, and really competing for as much attention, and to take away as much attention from Amazon as they can. What has stood out to you as the most impressive thing that you've seen at CES? And....well, I'll just start there. What's the most impressive thing you've seen so far?


Jackson Stone: [00:13:38] Intel demoed a really's basically a drone, but it's supposed to carry around people autonomously. And they've got this helicopter as a service thing. That's what they're pitching it as.


Bradley Metrock: [00:13:49] Wow, and does the chip work?


Jackson Stone: [00:13:51] Yes.


Bradley Metrock: [00:13:56] That's a sore subject for them right now.


Jackson Stone: [00:13:59] I bet. I assume you're referring to the recent security compromises that were found?


Bradley Metrock: [00:14:06] Yes. Yes. I'm not just referring to that, I'm also referring to the pretty apparent....the CEO was . ...They’ve got a lot of problems, but it sounds like the drone is not one of them. How big is the drone? I haven't seen it.


Jackson Stone: [00:14:21] I'm calling it a drone. That's probably not the technical name for it but it's, good grief, probably 15 feet by 15 feet.


Bradley Metrock: [00:14:30] Oh, wow.


Jackson Stone: [00:14:32] It's not as big as you'd think, but yeah, a person just sits in it, and their goal is to have the thing flying somewhat autonomously.


Bradley Metrock: [00:14:38] And it just lands on the roof of an urban environment, like a building.


Jackson Stone: [00:14:42] Yep, that's the goal, I think. That was just one interesting thing, and I was'll be interesting to see how that pans out. In terms of voice, I guess the thing that has stuck with me most is just, you can correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems Google's main thrust at this conference is their personal assistant.


Bradley Metrock: [00:15:05] Yeah, there's no doubt.


Jackson Stone: [00:15:06] And it's just....that kind of shows where this technology is at and how big of an impact it has when that is their main focus, and even with their newest Pixel phone, that was a flagship feature. It was the personal assistant integration with it. For me, knowing that Google takes this that seriously, that it's at the forefront of what they're demoing at CES...


Bradley Metrock: [00:15:30] Really, they've got to make a decision....and they made the decision that they're going to compete. I mean they either need to compete with all of their resources and everything they can muster, because if they don't....with Amazon, this is their number one priority. Jeff Bezos has explicitly stated that voice technology is their number one priority. And so if something is Amazon's number one priority, it's got this way of getting done. You know what I mean? It's got this way of being pretty good. So usually, and you know Google, they made the decision to start to advertise more, start to ramp up more heading into the holiday. So yeah, I think that's a huge storyline, and it's just that if there was anyone who didn't know, now it's clear that Google's not ceding anything to Amazon. And as the person who does The Alexa Conference, and I run VoiceFirst.FM, this network of shows - even to me, it is not abundantly obvious what the differences are between the two. I've had to learn that slowly, there are some subtle differences. At one point in time, Google was the only one....Google Assistant was the only one that could recognize different voices. And now Amazon's caught up to that, and there have been some things on either side. But from Skuid's standpoint, in serving your clients, it's going to be very interesting, I would think, for a company like yours that is a service provider to so many different businesses, because you've got to stay up on both. You know what I mean?


Jackson Stone: [00:17:05] Yeah, and we're really excited to see what customers will potentially do with this. And this was at the AWS re:Invent conference. A big thing that Amazon was pushing for was voice in the office. Right? And just the various applications there. And I think that's still recent enough that there's a lot of unsettled dust. And so Skuid is just curious, if we empower a large enough body of users to hand-tailor their own chatbots for their own users, just what they'll be able to come up with.


Jackson Stone: [00:17:39] Thanks for having me Bradley. I look forward to the conference and thanks for your time.


Bradley Metrock: [00:17:45] Absolutely. I look forward to meeting you next week. Thank you, Jackson.

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