Lauren Kisser | Director, Amazon Web ServicesLauren Kisser is Director at Amazon’s Development Centre in Cambridge, the U.K and Director of Alexa International Q&A.

In this role she leads a globally diverse team of knowledge engineers, product/program managers, business and data analysts to ensure Alexa can answer any question ever asked in any language. She is a prominent sponsor of projects promoting women into STEM and up the ladder, such as Amazon’s Future Engineer Program and Code Club.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

Last time we spoke I was the Director of Engineering at Amazon Web Services (AWS S3) focused on building cloud storage. I’ve since moved to be Director in Alexa AI based at Amazon’s Development centre in Cambridge. In this role I lead a globally diverse team of knowledge engineers, product/program managers, and business analysts working on making Alexa smarter.

My team ensures Alexa can answer questions in a range of languages. Quite the task and one I’m relishing! I really enjoy working on Alexa because the technology is always getting smarter and new features are continually being added. I’m motivated by Alexa’s goal to make life easier and more fun for everyone. I’m particularly inspired by how technology can transform life for people with disabilities. Like how voice assistant technology is helping the lives of blind and partially sighted people.

One major challenge and opportunity facing anyone working in science, technology and engineering fields is how to inspire and engage young people so that we have more people joining these fields, particularly from more diverse backgrounds. Research shows that the UK needs 21,000 more computer science graduates each year and one of the best ways to ensure we have a pipeline of talent is by taking steps to inspire kids to get involved in technology. If I want to hire the next generation I should help build it too.

In addition to my role on Alexa I’m an executive sponsor of Amazon’s Future Engineer Programme. Amazon Future Engineer is a childhood-to-career programme aimed at inspiring and educating students from underrepresented and underserved communities each year to try computer science and coding.

A recent Amazon Future Engineer programme is the Amazon Longitude Explorer Prize in partnership with NESTA which is all about helping the leaders of tomorrow and the next generation of innovators. The challenge for young people was to find new ways to use technology to make the world a better place; this year’s list includes innovations like sea-cleaning robots and AI to help teach sign language.

There are so may yet to be invented solutions and we need a diverse workforce to help invent on behalf of all customers. Recently, I was named one of the 20 Amazing Women Leading Europe’s Tech Revolution by mindquest talent for my efforts. I’m incredibly honoured to be occasionally recognized for my work on improving diversity in technology. More importantly, I hope to inspire others to do the same.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I’m a big believer that you own your own career. You can’t wait for a manager or the company to identify development opportunities. In order to get the most out of what you do you need to be intentional about what you focus on. But how do you determine where to spend your energies?

The best career advice I was given was to plan for the role after the next role. As you plan your career don’t immediately think about the next role but envision the role after that. Think about where you want to be. Where do you see yourself? What is the role that you’re interested in? Envision your future self. Not in this role or the one after that, but the next role. Think two roles down the line. What are you doing in that role? What are the skills required? What will you have accomplished in that role?

Once you’ve identified the role after the next one then you can research qualities that make someone successful in that role. Can you think of maybe somebody that’s doing something similar? What’s in their job description? What are the skills and qualifications required? Does it require communication skills? Are you going to have to be presenting your ideas to others?

Once you’ve identified those qualifications assess where you are against that list of qualities. Do a self-assessment. Do you need to take a class? Learn a new skill? Find a mentor? How proficient are you? This will give you a rough idea of skills you need to build to get the role after the next one.

I use four key words for this career planning:

Role. Qualifications. Skills. Plan.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

The challenges I have faced in growing my career are not unique. It’s tricky to navigate a growing family and career that’s going places. One of the most difficult transitions I had to make was returning to work after maternity leave. The timing of my departure coincided with a re-organization of my team, which worried me.

In retrospect, I wish I had let go more and recognised that when you step out of the working world for something so life changing as having a baby you’re not going to be the same person when you return (if you choose to return), so it really is a chance to reinvent yourself. One of my mentors once told me you don’t have to be the same person tomorrow you are today. That is a very freeing feeling that you can continually redefine who you are and how you operate.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

There is so much that I’m proud of in my 25+ year career in the tech industry. Working for Amazon for the last 15 years has given me many opportunities. I’ve navigated five major career transitions – starting in information security, then moving to ecommerce, to leading teams in robotics, cloud computing and now in voice forward technology. I’ve collected four patents and been recognized in industry as a diversity champion and successful leader. But what I’m most proud of are the leaders I have helped shape along the way. I see my primary skill as growing and developing future leaders and there is nothing better than helping someone else achieve their dreams.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I can attribute my success to three things – resilience; a growth mind set; and an amazing partner.

My resilience was heavily influenced by playing sport in my youth. I played team sports such as basketball and lacrosse but also individual sport like swimming and horseback riding. Later in life I got into mountain climbing. I’m a big proponent of getting girls into sports early. There is a strong corelation with sport and leadership that I think needs more attention. According to a recent study by EY and ESPN “94% of women executives have a background in sport, and over half participated at university levels”. I’m a testament to this, the skills I developed playing team and individual sport has definitely shaped me into a better leader.

Another of those skills is a growth mindset. A growth mindset focuses on skills development and turning failings into learnings. When playing sport you envision what the match or game is going to look like and train for various scenarios. This helped me see that skills can be developed over time and it’s important that you don’t get tripped up on thinking you’ve failed. More on that below.

And finally, I couldn’t have done any of this without a supportive partner. It is so important to choose a partner who is supportive and encouraging. In my case, my partner took a step back in his career to become a full-time parent as we navigated my growing career and a relocation to a new country. It hasn’t always been a comfortable path. He had to navigate being the outsider when we moved to a new country and introduced our kids to a new school system. I recognise that having a stay-at-home partner isn’t always an option for people, but I firmly believe that we need more support for families and partners who equally share the load of domestic tasks. It’s not easy to go against societal norms but the more people that make the change the easier it will become.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Two things come to mind. First, find a mechanism to fight the imposter syndrome. It so easy to listen to that inner voice that says you’re not good enough or you don’t belong. When that happens for me, I take a step back and assess why it is happening. I become stubborn about telling myself that I do belong and that my voice matters. A trick I use in meetings when I may not be comfortable sharing my own personal opinion is to take the view of our customers. I’ll chime in and express my own opinions through the lens of our customers.

Secondly, get your elbows on the table. By that I mean don’t take a back seat in meetings. Find a way to be at the main table and don’t be afraid to speak you mind (use the above tip if you’re not comfortable). In today’s virtual working world this means turn on the camera and let your work be seen – don’t hide yourself.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

At Amazon we partnered with WISE two years ago for a UK study, and found that the top two barriers for women working in STEM careers identified were a lack of confidence (84 per cent) and having to adapt to a male dominated environment (75 per cent). It’s going to take a lot of effort at all levels of society to break down these barriers. I think it comes down to getting more diversity into all levels and roles. Women need to be in senior roles, on boards of directors, they need to be at the front lines, and innovating new products. Equality in leadership should be expected and when it’s not visible we should challenge the status quo.

What do you think companies can do to support to progress the careers of women working in technology?

Companies can have a major impact on the career progress of women. The role of employers in providing an inclusive culture which encourages innovation from all employees is reinforced by that research we conducted with WISE two years ago. The evidence shows that there is a serious and significant gap in support for women who do not feel accepted by their colleagues. It was also evident that employers must be much more aware of the importance of flexible career paths and influential opportunities if they are to encourage more women innovators.

Three recommendations stand out for me:

  1. Make returning to work easier – Our research showed that for women in STEM Innovation the ability to return to work easily after maternity leave was ranked highly amongst the factors that companies could influence..:
  2. Be intentional about giving women exposure on new initiatives and building new skills. Our interviews highlighted that, for many women, their involvement in true innovation came first through some type of special project or assignment, not as part of their day job. This is a low risk option to increase confidence and build skills.
  3. Provide training on manging diverse teams – Organisations that invest in training employees and line managers in how to lead diverse teams ensure everyone has the opportunity to perform to the best of their ability.

There is currently only 17 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

Change needs to occur on so many levels – with policies that inspire and enable people from all backgrounds and experiences to engage and contribute to research and innovation and show that science is for everyone that support; and in education with improved science and technology curricula to encourage the uptake of STEM skills and subjects. Individuals can play a big role in being the change we need to see.

On the individual level I do have some tips to share;

  1. Apply, apply, apply
  2. Make time to learn
  3. Find a mentor, be a mentor
  4. Plan with intention
  5. Don’t dwell on mistakes

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I’m a big believer in continuous learning, so I really try to find the time to read, watch and listen to things that’ll help me. Warren Buffet’s quote resonates with me “Read 500 pages every week. That’s how knowledge builds up, like compound interest.”

One thing I realized when I finished my two master’s degrees was how little I really knew. You have to dedicate time to learning for it to pay off. These books have shaped my thinking and I still rely on them many years after I’ve read them.

  • Getting Stuff Done (Allen)
  • Crucial Conversations (Patterson & Grenny)
  • Leadership on the Line (Heifetz & Linsky)
  • Getting to Yes (Fisher)
  • The Medici Effect (Johansson)
  • The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement (Goldratt)

I am lucky to work at Amazon where we have a strong writing culture. There is no shortage of projects to catch up on by reading project updates. Also, I hold a regular dive deep session with our engineering team. In these sessions, I’ll ask for an overview of a particular technology or system where I can get an overview of how the system works this helps connect what’s really happening at the system level.

Learning doesn’t always have to be a huge time commitment. I keep up with what’s happening in the industry on my LinkedIn feed; better understand leadership tools and techniques by skimming articles in the HBR monthly magazine; and read the latest science applications on a few blogs like the Amazon Science Homepage.


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