By Sebastian Herrera
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
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
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
WSJ: As people stay home, which consumer habits evolved the
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
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
Write to Sebastian Herrera at Sebastian.Herrera@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
September 27, 2020 11:44 ET (15:44 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.