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The Alexa Podcast - Episode 9

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

Guest: Dave Isbitski, Chief Evangelist for Alexa and Echo, Amazon

Duration: 32 minutes, 31 seconds

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Bradley Metrock: [00:00:11] Hi, and welcome back to the Alexa Podcast. This is Episode 9 for March 2018. My name is Bradley Metrock, I'm CEO of a company called Score Publishing here in Nashville, Tennessee. My cohost is Kevin Old. Kevin, say hello.


Kevin Old: [00:00:30] Hey Bradley.


Bradley Metrock: [00:00:31] Kevin is a software developer at LifeWay here in town. Kevin, it's great to be back with you.


Kevin Old: [00:00:35] Yes, it's great to be back for our first episode of the year.


Bradley Metrock: [00:00:39] This is our second episode of the year. It feels like the first.


Kevin Old: [00:00:42] Better edit that out. (all laugh)


Dave Isbitski: [00:00:45] Keep it in, keep it in!


Bradley Metrock: [00:00:46] Yeah, we'll keep it in. Actually, what I would have said if I had not looked at that literally two seconds ago....that's all that needs to be said, that it's been too long. Kevin, this will be fun. Our guest on the show today is Dave Isbitsky, chief evangelist of Alexa and Echo. Say hello, Dave.


Dave Isbitski: [00:01:08] Hello Dave. (all chuckle) I am super corny, sorry. Pleasure to be here Bradley. It's been long overdue.


Bradley Metrock: [00:01:17] We appreciate you giving us this time, giving our audience this time. Just right off the bat I want to ask you're a well-known guy. You're out there on Twitter and you're out in social media and you're out at live events. You really are doing a phenomenal job evangelizing Alexa. Share with us what exactly the scope of your job is. I mean, we all think we know what the scope of your job is. But tell us what the scope of your job is and some of the ways that Amazon measures your success.


Dave Isbitski: [00:01:49] Oh sure, and first, thank you for those comments. I'm humbled. I'm one of many people in Alexa. I just happened to be lucky enough that I've been around a while, right? That's a great career question. I would say....I'll break it out in two ways. The first way is that I have been fortunate enough to work at a company like Amazon, where Amazon, if you see a need for something, you can basically create the role. Entire organizations and entire teams have been created around just ideas that Amazonians have had. And you just hear about all the different stories out there. And so for me, I was given an opportunity. This goes back end of 2014, and I was in the the devices group so if you have a Kindle Fire, you may have a Fire TV. I got to launch all of that stuff while I was at Amazon, along with the Fire Phone. We were hearing about the speaker and we didn't know what it was either. It was interesting to get your head around that space, and you got to remember 2014, which seems like forever ago. I was even like what is IoT? What is smart home? Right that's what people were asking? What are the all these connected devices and what does that mean? And it's funny.


Dave Isbitski: [00:03:24] I remember going at one of my first conferences, which was a Bluetooth conference, and people were talking about things like, "We need a unifying technology that'll make it easier for consumers to kind of adopt all this stuff." And I was like, "I got it! It's talking." And it was really trying to figure out what all that was back then. So my job started out by looking, and it was one engineer....and not all the people that worked on it. The engineer that worked on what was called Echo app SDK, and you may have seen me Tweet some of those old screenshots of when we had sign ups, and I remember sitting with the engineer and saying, "How do you explain to somebody what an utterance and an intent is and then have them write a service?" And you have to remember back then, there was no AWS integration. There was nothing in the free tier. We were having discussions around, "If this becomes successful, this is a restful service in the cloud? What does that mean to host something like that?" So I scrapped together these slides, showed it to the engineering team, we all agreed that this was pretty good. I actually internally trained all the people who were starting, like we had some BDMs that were going around and talking about things, and they were all my guinea pigs, and I was like alright I need to get this out here. And that was GDC 2015. You may have seen me just Tweet about that. We need to just go talk about this. And if anybody is a gamer, did you see my Bard's Tale Tweet? It's crazy. There are a lot of people who wrote games back in the days that are now in the voice space...


Bradley Metrock: [00:05:03] I saw that. And just to interject right here, We have been fortunate to have Teri Bertram on this show.


Dave Isbitski: [00:05:10] Oh, awesome.


Bradley Metrock: [00:05:10] She works for Sony, and she is currently involved in creating PlayStation VR content. But she had taken Colossal Cave Adventure and ported it over to Alexa, and I had a fascinating conversation with her. Anyway, I digress. Keep going.


Dave Isbitski: [00:05:30] And you and I have talked about some of our gaming routes. And so that was what was great about me....well, what was fun for me. It's not like it's great about me. When things are great for me, is when I can take a concept like that and paint a picture for people who are going to do the real work. They're going to drive things forward. And for me, it was painting a picture back then for game dev. I just did a keynote at Enterprise Connect, and I realized it's so similar. It's painting pictures for people for what does Alexa and voice mean in business. And it was that same thing. When you get up and you talk about it, it's polarizing. And you guys made me see this, when you're talking on the podcast, because you get people who get it, and then you get other people like, "What do you mean?" This is change. And I think people look at change like that. And so I've always looked at my job, even before Amazon, as things are going to happen with or without me. But what I am, is I'm a catalyst for change. I'm the person that can come out there and be like, "No no no. It's not difficult. This is what this really is. This is what all the pieces look like. And this is what you need to be thinking about now and this is what you need to be thinking about a year from now. Start spending your time here and then really be that person who goes back to the people who are creating." And in this case, Amazon engineering team are the people who are actually creating Alexa, doing the real computer science of, "Hey! Wouldn't it be great to do this?" and "What do we need in order to make developers successful and companies successful?".


Dave Isbitski: [00:07:09] And so the job, it's a big overview, right? But the job in and of itself has evolved, because in the beginning, we didn't have content. So my job was creating even the most basic slides to explain concepts. And there was no community. And I am just a huge fan of community. I feel like my job is to put myself out of business. If a community exists that can help each other, and it's self-sustaining, then you don't need me to be involved right. You just need me to be an advocate internally so that we're actually creating what the community needs. And I started something called "Office Hours", and it was a place for everybody to jump on and talk, and they could also talk to each other. And it was out of that that I started to really see the community grow. I'll give you an example. In the early days, I would hear people in Office Hours like, "You should check out so and so's." or "You should check out FlaskAsk and all the Bespoken tools." You start to hear names. And that was great because that wasn't anything that was trickling in through any official means. It was a community that was bubbling up work that they felt was really well done and that they were actually using. And so the job for that first year was really making sure that that community was listened to, that we were delivering what needed to be delivered. You may have heard me say this before like when I get asked about the actual like title of evangelist, because there's different roles, and I've worked at different companies when I do that. And the way I like to look at it, it's pain transference. It's like if the community was feeling pain, I needed to make sure that we were feeling that same pain until it went away.


Bradley Metrock: [00:09:01] That's a really good segue into my next question for you. And I appreciate that background. It's really interesting. The story last of our VoiceFirst.FM shows is This Week In Voice. And so as a result of that, we've got this front row seat in terms of how everything is progressing, the evolution of all of this....we really see it from, not a completely comprehensive way I guess, but a fairly comprehensive way. The story last year seemed to of the major stories was monetization, in terms strictly of Alexa. Monetization. People wanted different monetization options, and as the year went along, Amazon rolled out more and more and gave more wrinkles to the developer payment program and more avenues of payment there and then in Skill payment and this, that, and the other. They really listened and responded. Now it's my opinion that the next sort of theme that we're seeing is data security. And I want to get your thoughts on this. It's privacy. Facebook. Everybody's talking about Facebook right now. I've thought Facebook was garbage for a long time. I deleted my account a couple years ago. Then I reinstituted it because I needed to run a couple of corporate accounts we have, and plus my mom really likes to post pictures. And so I'm guilted into being on there. So Facebook....the conversation with Facebook used to be years ago, "Wouldn't it be great if Facebook could capture all this data so that Facebook could make my experience better. I'm tired of seeing Uncle Johnny post the Confederate flag every week. I really wish I didn't have to see that. I wish this thing knew I didn't want to see that." or "I'm tired of hearing about Suzy's tiff with her best friend. I wish it knew me better." and "I wish the News Feed would be better. I wish it would capture my data." That was a huge narrative three or four years ago maybe sooner.


Bradley Metrock: And now here we are where people are screaming, saying Facebook is abusing data. And they're right. Facebook is absolutely abusing data. And the pendulum swung the other way. With Amazon, with Alexa. It's just interesting with the privacy conversation, because as you pointed out just a moment ago, developers were talking about just as recently as a couple of years ago. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a unifying tool. One ring to rule them all, so to speak, in terms of a voice ecosystem. And Alexa has come forward. Amazon's had incredible market leadership and here we are. Alexa leads the market. And now you're getting people coming forth and they're saying, "Oh wait a minute. No, never mind. We can't trust Amazon, this big baseless corporate juggernaut with our data and information. We take it all back. We need smaller players who will respect our privacy." From your job standpoint, in your role within Amazon to evangelize the technology. How do you wrestle with that debate when you're in live events or you're talking to people out in the field and you're on the front lines, what do you say to people who are concerned about whether or not Amazon will protect their data or not?


Dave Isbitski: [00:12:39] Yes. So obviously I can't talk about what other companies are doing or Facebook or anything, but what I could say is that privacy, that conversation has never gone away from me. That's just part of actually having a conversation with an intelligent AI. That's been there since the very beginning. Anybody who thinks that this is like a growing concern in the voice space....I could tell you it hasn't been for me. I've always felt the same way. Like you should know if you're having a conversation. There's a device that's recording around you. Where's that go? Am I in control of it? And what's going on? And so we've always tried to be very open and transparent about that. So to answer your question, it's a great story to tell. What I start with is what we talked about internally, you need to put people in control. A lot of people don't know this, but the mute button on the Echoes. I'll use that in this example.


Dave Isbitski: Your phone, it could be an Android phone, iPhone whatever. Your phone, when you put that thing in airplane mode, somebody can still hack it because it's software. The Echo devices, since the very beginning have had this mute button on that when you touch it, it actually cuts the power at a silicon level. Literally, that microphone....there's nothing, there's nothing there. That person has complete control. And if you've been using an Echo for a while, you may have seen this. It's been there since the very beginning. It wasn't something that was an afterthought. It's the ability to put on a chime, so you can have a chime at every time Alexa begins to record, and a chime every time she ends recording. The visual indicators on the devices. All of the devices, even the devices with screens, you will see visual indicators when the recording is actually happening. And all of that was because of the thought process of you need to put the customer in control.


Dave Isbitski: [00:14:40] What's interesting about privacy in conversational UI is that there is an expectation as you start to have more and more conversations that it's not the same conversation over again. AIs need to learn about you. The conversation needs to evolve. In fact, one of the best practices I talk with people all the time about your Skill is if I've already given you information like you should be able to just like us talking today, if we talk in the future, we'll remember this conversation. So in order to do that, you need to be able to have that. And be able to understand better and better by having that data. And so what we did was we said you know what if a customer decides that it's more important that they have control and they can delete certain things, then since the very beginning, one, you could just call up Amazon and say delete everything that I've ever had in my history with Echo. And then it's going to be like talking to a new Alexa. Because she hasn't had any conversations with you. And then the second thing is you could go in right in the app, or you could just go to in a browser and see every single thing that was ever recorded. You could delete all of it, or you can delete some of it. And when I talk to people like that about that, and they realize it's transparent and you're in control, it becomes a good conversation. And I think that's where if you handle privacy in a term where there's any kind of gray areas, or you don't put people in control....this is me personally, I would have an issue with that.


Kevin Old: [00:16:15] Following up on that, what resources around educating consumers have you guys created that we could point them to?


Dave Isbitski: [00:16:22] There's all the information about privacy in the Alexa app, you can click on links, you can click on it, and information on Amazon. If from a developer perspective, if you're interested in getting more technical, we have our whole Alexa Skills kit security testing, we have a whole URL. Every Skill that gets put out that Alexa can run, we've looked at, and we've looked at the security. Every developer has to have a privacy policy. And so it's something that's been taken very seriously. So all of that's online, I'll give you guys a couple links. It might be good, if you folks want to check it out and drill in deeper and deeper into it.


Kevin Old: [00:17:00] Awesome. Yeah, I think that would be great just to have as part of the resource of this podcast in the transcript. So moving out from the talk about privacy. From a developer perspective, what have you done that you think has been extremely successful in onboarding more developers that are potentially at companies helping them realize the use case for this voice technology? And then do you think about designing Skills for voice beyond just the information rehaul. I think a lot of enterprises can see if they were a bank with a user may want to have their balance read to them for their checking account. Those are the low hanging fruit, but just wondering what your thoughts are on the current educating developers and companies about adoption and then how to design for the next generation of just outside of information recall.


Dave Isbitski: [00:18:03] Great questions. So I'll break it into two parts. The first part is....we talked a little bit about my job evolving, right? And so as our team expanded, we were fortunate enough that we hired lots of people, so we have folks now who are creating content. We have folks that are just out there doing events and are doing hackathons. And my role has evolved in that it's enabled me to do exactly what you're talking about, painting a picture for companies and for brands. And I'll give you an example, because you used a bank one. But what I like to do in order for people to get past what's obvious, because basically what's obvious is what you do on mobile. And conversation changes all of that. I'll give you an example I told someone, and I won't say the name or anything. They were in the travel industry. They allowed people to book locations for stays. They were thinking about doing something where it was almost a booking Skill where you could say, "Hey, what's the cheapest available room in..." And I was like, "You need to get past that." What are you going to do....let's say you're going to take a trip and you're not going to use technology today. How are you going to have a conversation with someone?


Dave Isbitski: And they're like....I'll give you an example. I'm going to go travel to Switzerland. Maybe I know some people who went to Zurich. I'm going to ask them where they stayed, what they did, what I need to know. You have an opportunity within this space when you have a conversation to really connect with your customer in ways that you haven't before. I feel like mobile's just very, very service-focused. And what it does, it takes your brand and it makes you the same as everybody else. So then it's like, "Why wouldn't I just use whatever app I used before?" What I told them was, "You need to have a concierge service." Do you have a status for people who travel? Do you have gold or whatever? So maybe it could be that. Once you have status with us, you could just have a conversation with Alexa and get all sorts of advice and tips that you're not going to regularly find online. You're going to find it because we know about it and we're local and we're that concierge that you would normally get when you walked into the hotel lobby, but you're actually getting us in your home before you sit on a plane.


Dave Isbitski: [00:20:23] And that's what I think people really need to start thinking about. People can get to know me outside of these "on ramps" that we've given them, where we've said, "No, you need to use buttons and drop downs and tabs and you swipe from the top and this is what we say a touch interface is like." Forget that. You can control the type of conversation that you're having, and you can ascend to almost a trusted adviser position. I think that's where you see success in the things that are weighted, too. It's valued like that. It's the ability to start having a conversation.


Kevin Old: [00:21:05] How do we go about educating the consumer on that interface. If I create a new Skill, and Skills that I've interacted with, I'm less comfortable as a consumer, and I put that hat on, than I am if I had a screen in front of me. So what is the iteration that we need to have as far as educating the user about what's available in a voice Skill?


Dave Isbitski: [00:21:23] Everybody has the capability to create a "program". And so when people tell me developers do this, developers do that, I think developers almost have a bad name in that that's somebody who slings code all day. And to me, that's never been the case. You find people who create and tinker and do all sorts of things across all sorts of industries and to me, they're developers too. And what's great about conversational UI is that it's not all about slinging that code anymore. In fact, I'm of the mindset that we're going to get to a point eventually, and this isn't anything Alexa-specific. This is just the way I think this is all going to go. Because as we have more and more common scenarios, much in the same way that everybody knows how to do a logical select statement, and you could probably find a ton of code, and in fact there are IDEs out there, regardless of your language, they will just insert what that code looks like. I think we'll get to a point when it comes to machine learning that they can do that piece. That it's really about the human being having the idea. How we're going to spend less time in there. And so that's what's got me excited. I really feel like everybody can be developers. And so what we've done. There are all sorts of things to help that onroads. There's different areas of concern, right? If you're an experienced developer, what's the best thing we can do for you? The best thing we could do for you is let use the language and the tools you already have, and then give you as many templates and examples in those languages. Right. And so we've tried to do that. There are Github examples in all sorts of numerous languages. You may have seen....I've done podcasts in C# and Python and JavaScript and Java. We just try to support as much as we can there to meet those folks where they are.


Dave Isbitski: [00:23:07] The second is maybe I've never done programming before, and I've seen this a lot in in the Alexa space, which has got me excited too. There are people that start thinking of scenarios at work. I've had people who haven't written code ever. And they're like, "Which language should I pick?" That is such a common question I get now, which I hadn't gotten in any other language before, especially with mobile. If you're an enterprise developer, because I lived through this, I feel like you have to be your own evangelist and your own advocate, because I know when I was in a very large corporation where they were not technology-centered, that was not the business. I was a cost center because I was writing programs. I had to advocate to use these new languages and these technologies because there was a cost to it. So I had to show what was the ROI and why was it going to make things different. I try to help those folks around. What does it mean to actually....what's the impact of voice and conversation so that they can advocate there. And then make it as cost efficient as possible. It's a nice conversation to have now in March 2018, to say, "Hey! I can go create an Alexa Skill for nothing. It doesn't cost us anything. We don't have to pay a fee to sign up. And in fact, we get a million transactions in Lambda if we want to go do it with AWS. That paves....especially in a business setting, it paves the way. To answer your question around how do we, as customers, get them to think. I think there's two things with that. I think, one, we should never force the customer to be educated. They're are always going to be spontaneous. That's what's the real power of voice is. If you go and you look up Amazon Echo reviews. They're like, "She just understood me. I don't even remember what I said." That's what creates that personal connection. It's interesting. Recently, I was having a conversation with someone who does a skill that gives inspiration. And the feedback that person has received, and the feedback I received from from others around the similar skills.


Dave Isbitski: [00:25:08] I've never seen that in mobile. And I was spending the weekend....I'm thinking to myself, "Why is it that when you have a conversation and you hear a human voice give you inspiration that that leaves such an emotional attachment versus seeing it as a notification in your mobile app?" And I think it's because in a conversation you really get each other. There's this emotional connection. And so that's what I focus in on when I need to teach the people that are going to create these conversations. Look, you're not talking to a robot. It's a spontaneous human being with expectations who could be having a good day or a bad day. There are tons of different personality types out there, so the biggest mistake you can make is create one UI, much in the same way we've done mobile. You need to have your Alexa Skill in such a way that it's accessible for everyone and meets them where they are. They ask one question and give them a piece of data. They're going to tell you what they want to see next. So even from the very beginning, you can manage expectations by only delivering what you are promising. If you promise this is going to be.....and again I'm not going to name anything, this is just a fictitious thing in my head. I have a tendency when I get excited to go like, "This is the best thing ever." So if I said this is the best audio game you'll ever play. Do you know what kind of expectations I've just set for human beings that are going to play that? But if I knew people like to be inspired, or they like exercise tips, or they just like funny jokes every day. If I have one, and I continue to give content, and I do it in such a way that I'm learning the type of content that's working, and isn't. You could be very successful. And so it's to remember that this is not the same old thing. Even screens, you mentioned screens.


Dave Isbitski: [00:26:59] When I teach people about going to a multi-modal experience with Alexa and showing different data, throw out touch. What you know about screen, unfortunately right now is either because you have the controller, or you have something in front of you that you're touching. And that's not what this is. What this is, is you're having a conversation and visual aids pop up on the other side of the room. I can't think of anything that we have that's like that. It's something new. I start to think, and it's just my crazy brain, but I start to think of like, I'm coming in the future and I walk in and like picture frames and stuff in my house, based on my mood, just start to change to other things. And it gives me this feeling of like, "Oh wow!" It just feels really warm and makes me feel great in this space right now. But that's because all the visual aids changed. But it was me, as the human being, having the conversation and the interaction that the AI picked up on that. It picked up on "Oh wow. Dave's having a really hard day today. I'm going to play mellow music and I'm going to show different kinds of paintings on the walls." That kind of thing in the future. And I think we're starting to see the beginnings of that. So if you think along those terms when you're starting to create these experiences, that's where you find success.


Bradley Metrock: [00:28:18] It's an exciting future that we've got with voice technology, and we have a lot of people to thank at Amazon for that. Dave, thank you for sharing your time and your expertise with us. I wanted to say a couple of things. First of all, if you're on Twitter, you need to follow Dave Isbitski. His handle is @theDavedev. Spelled exactly like it sounds. It ought to be. Dave does a phenomenal job, probably the best job I've ever seen of highlighting use cases of the technology that are out there in the field and really staying extremely current on all the different things going on across the spectrum of areas that Alexa touches. If you are interested in Alexa development, and you are on Twitter, and you are not following him on Twitter, you are doing it completely wrong, and you need to go change that because you're going to miss out a lot of information by not following him. The other thing is that we will be fortunate to have Dave join us at Digital Book World which will be in October in Nashville. That's We'll be talking about Alexa and storytelling and then Amazon more broadly. We have them involved with the Alexa Conference presented by VoiceFirst.FM in January, in Chattanooga. We will post links to both of those. Dave, thank you for the time today.


Dave Isbitski: [00:29:41] I enjoyed it. Thank you for the kind words. Always a pleasure.


Bradley Metrock: [00:29:45] Before we let you go, you and I spoke as you alluded to earlier about gaming. What are you playing right now?


Dave Isbitski: [00:29:52] So I guess it shouldn't be embarrassing, because they're releasing a new one. So I'm playing Pillars of Eternity, which I know came out like three years ago, and I was so excited because it was the whole engine of Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale and all that stuff that I was playing in the days. It was the successful Kickstarter project. Obsidian Entertainment are the people who created it, for the folks who don't know. And it was funny because I....the amount of text that....I was having a hard time because the text was small. My mind was drifting and so I was like, "You know what? I really want to get into this." And I saw an announcement for Pillars of Eternity 2. So I picked up a copy for my Xbox and played that on the TV with the fonts being big. It clicked for me. I had just....over the weekend, I just played that thing for eight hours. I've been super into it. So it is Pillars of Eternity for me right now is my main where I'm adventuring through. And then the other thing for me is I play Hearthstone every day. I've been playing it since it came out. For those that don't know, Hearthstone is from a fabulous company called Blizzard Entertainment. They make Overwatch and World of Warcraft. And when I was in the Kindle games, I got to work with some of those folks too for coins and stuff like that, for buying packs. And I play every day when I'm on the treadmill for an hour. And I pay on the rank. So if you've ever had a priest come through who has a dragon deck right now, I apologize.


Bradley Metrock: [00:31:25] You're a guy after my own heart. With the love of gaming, we've discussed this. And I just started playing Ni no Kuni 2 over the weekend, which is excellent. Pillars of Eternity is excellent. If you've never played Divinity Original Sin...


Dave Isbitski: [00:31:41] It was incredible. Divinity Original Sin.


Bradley Metrock: [00:31:44] Yeah I've got a copy of it on PC, I just have not had a chance to get to it. I will have to wait until it comes out on console. But this will have to be a separate discussion. The love of gaming runs deep on the show. Dave, thank you for being so generous. Thank you for the work that you're doing, it really makes what we do a VoiceFirst.FM that much easier. For the Alexa Podcast, thank you for listening. And until next time.

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