Beth Holmes

Inspirational Woman: Beth Holmes | Principal Knowledge Engineer, Amazon Alexa

Beth HolmesBeth Holmes is a Principal Knowledge Engineer at Amazon Alexa. She began her career in academia with a PhD in Group Theory Maths, before retraining in engineering at a startup that went on to be acquired by Amazon.

She now helps lead teams to make sure Alexa says the right thing at the right time, while being a proud advocate for greater awareness of and respect for autism in the workplace, after a late diagnosis at 44.

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

It all started with a passion for academic subjects at school. I decided to pursue a maths degree at university because I found it easier in terms of workload than humanities. There was no need to write essays and I enjoyed solving complex equations. After I finished my PhD, I did a few fellowships before I moved out of academia to join a startup. They took me on as a knowledge engineer, helping with an AI program that processed natural language questions. This was an unexpected pivot as I had no experience in the area, but they wanted someone who could learn quickly, and I found myself able to pick it up and progressed through the ranks there to become a manager. A few years later, Amazon acquired the company, and I am now part of the Alexa team at Amazon, as a Principal Knowledge Engineer, helping to make sure Alexa gives the right response at the right time.

In my current role, I lead a program to drive consistency and quality across ontologies. An ontology is a model of real-world concepts and the relationships between them. I also lead a DEI initiative aimed at helping Amazon women to progress their careers in technical fields.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I’ve never really sat down and planned my career – Since my schooldays I’ve always had a wide variety of interests and was never sure which one I’d end up working in. I’ve also seen how external circumstances often cause plans to change. So I don’t bother to look too far ahead. Instead I generally pick up whatever new opportunity looks most interesting at the time.

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

Having to leave academia was obviously a strange time, but in hindsight it was the right thing to do as I love what I do now. Also, a few years ago I found myself at a crossroads at work, with some of my technical skills becoming less relevant to the projects I was working on at that time. I found that quite challenging, but my managers were very supportive and guided me in re-evaluating what I would do next. They helped me switch to other projects with exposure to different technologies and now I’m thriving. I also spent many years in the workplace with undiagnosed autism (I was only officially diagnosed at 44 years old)  which made me feel different. I would get quite frustrated with my difficulty in communicating ideas and navigating relationships. Recognising that I am autistic changed my relationship to work, and meant I felt more comfortable within myself.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Helping our startup to get acquired by Amazon. The acquisition process involved a lot of questions, diving deep into our technology. I was proud of what we had built and to receive Amazon’s backing was phenomenal.

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

I think the lessons I learned from raising a child as a single mother have been key, and learning to balance priorities as a result. That made it a lot easier to deliver results across varied projects at work. I’m in awe of those women who balance a career with a large family!

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

Tip 1 – If you find yourself getting frustrated with something at work, that usually means either a) there is a problem which you can help fix, or b) you are misunderstanding something. Either way, it’s worth exploring. Raise the issue with your team and/or manager, propose alternative solutions, listen to their perspectives. People will start to see you as a leader if you regularly drive such improvements.

Tip 2 – Keep your skills fresh. Don’t let yourself get too locked into any one technology. There are great online resources for learning new skills, such as blog posts, self-paced tutorials and formal taught courses, and never be afraid to ask your company for extra training on new technologies or areas that interest you.

Tip 3 – If shifting careers like I did, don’t be afraid to get your foot in the door with an entry level role. Then dive into learning new skills, and you’ll find you can always progress quickly in tech as you learn.

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

The pandemic has helped companies reassess their working policies and most allow greater flexibility, but there is still work to be done. For example I know schoolteachers who do job-sharing and would love for this to become more common in theworkplace.

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

Create more ways to path into technical roles. There are plenty of women with strong transferable skills but who started their careers in less technical subjects, such as languages or people-centric roles. Companies can set up proactive ways to help them retrain. For example Amazon set up a program to path suitable non-technical employees into software engineering.

There are currently only 21 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?

Make it “cool” for teenage girls and young women to build things. I am not sure what that would look like exactly, but if it became as normal and accepted for girls  to build mobile apps as to pursue more traditional female work and play avenues, it would massively widen the hiring pool. Amazon has some fantastic programmes like AWS GetIT that do this, introducing STEM subjects to women at a young age in the hopes that they explore career options in those fields.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Reddit is a useful website and one that people often miss as a tool. There are various general subs about Computer Science careers and more specific niche subs. I sometimes answer questions on r/Aspergirls and r/Ontology and enjoy the community there. Now physical events are starting to open up again, it is good to attend any local meetups relevant to your industry too, so you can build up your network with people who work nearby. For example I used to go to a “pitch and mix” regular meetup in Cambridge, and recently I’ve been to a couple of local “women in technology” awards shows.


Calling all women in tech! We want to hear about you and your career

Calling all women in tech – we want to hear about you and your career!

WeAreTechWomen have partnered with leading research firm, Ipsos MORI & Tech Talent Charter to conduct a survey to discover the barriers faced by women working in technology.

The results of this survey will enable us to understand how you feel as a woman in tech and the challenges you face around career progression.

A summary of the survey results will be published alongside a set of recommendations to organisations to help them to understand these challenges and to think about how they can put in to place initiatives to support the career progression of their female technologists.

The survey responses are anonymous and your data will not be shared publicly.


In Partnership With

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Catherine Breslin featured

Inspirational Women: Catherine Breslin | Manager, Machine Learning at Amazon Alexa

 

Catherine Breslin, is the Manager of a team of machine learning scientists working on the speech and language technology behind Amazon Alexa (Cambridge, UK).

Catherine Amazon

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I have never sat down and planned out my career in depth, but I’ve always had some idea of my next step and how I should achieve it. I grew up being interested in computers and technology, and I chose to study Engineering at university. It was only in my final year there that I learned about the field of machine learning and I became interested in how we can teach computers to do complex tasks such as understanding speech and language.

I went on to do a masters and PhD on the topic of automatic speech recognition. Since then, I’ve been fortunate that the field has been growing rapidly and many different opportunities have come my way. At times, I’ve had to think hard about which direction to take, but have normally chosen the opportunity that has given me the most scope to learn new skills.

Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?

It is great to be challenged, but it can be daunting and uncomfortable at times. I find the best way to deal with challenges is to prepare well – by reading as much as I can about new topics and talking to others who have faced similar issues. Then I break the larger problem down into smaller chunks that can be tackled one at a time. I do the same for all challenges, whether it’s something at work like tackling a new and complex technical problem, or something at home like working out how best to juggle family life.

When faced with two equally qualified candidates, how would you decide who should have the role?

I would hire them both! As machine learning is such a fast growing field with large potential, we struggle to find enough qualified candidates to fill our roles.

On a typical workday, how do you start your day and how does it end?

My day starts with a strong cup of coffee as I’m not a morning person! After the school run, I sit down at my desk to go over emails. Our daily team ‘standup’ meeting is also in the morning, where I catch up with the team and the status of our work.

We work closely with other teams in both the US and in the EU, and partnering with colleagues in multiple time-zones means that good communication is key.

Hence my workday often ends with a video call between different teams to keep our joint projects on track.

How have you benefited from coaching or mentoring?

I have had a number of great mentors who have helped me at different times in my career. I think that having someone to talk to and bounce ideas off who is outside of your immediate team can be very useful as they have a different perspective and are less influenced by the dynamics of your particular team. Outside of formal mentoring programs, I’m fortunate to know a great network of people to turn to who have a breadth of experience and lots of helpful advice.

What does the future hold for you?

Machine learning has a lot of potential to impact the world, and I think we are only just at the beginning of seeing the benefit it can bring. When I was growing up, the thought of being able to speak naturally to a device and have it respond was still the stuff of sci-fi films. But now, speech and language technology has advanced and is in products like Alexa, and used by a large number of people. Voice is the future and can fundamentally improve the way people will interact with technology.

We are still a long way off being able to converse with a computer in an entirely natural way, but the systems are getting smarter every day.