Lauren Kisser featured

Inspirational Woman: Lauren Kisser | Director of Alexa AI, Amazon

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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Dipika Sawhney

Dipika Sawhney | Amazon

Dipika Sawhney

I have been 'entrepreneurial' all my life-using tech to power businesses.

I have started my career by using my tech/software engineering and marketing skills to build two successful, London based, tech start-ups. I followed this with MBA from Cambridge University, where I won the ‘Best and Brightest MBA Award’ for my commitment to diversity and volunteering-all whilst raising two young daughters. I followed this by joining Amazon to build and create a new line of retail business-by identifying what customers are looking for at Amazon and then sourcing and offering them these exact products-thereby creating Amazon's fastest growing category.

Following this, I built and led an European team in advertising services-to serve new and upcoming advertisers from our retail business-In essence, helping new and growing start-ups within Amazon I also champions diversity in my wok and is focused on recruiting and retaining more women into senior and tech roles. In addition, I also act as a mentor for emerging business leaders on how to be successful in the tech sector. I have been recognized amongst the top 5 tech female superstars at Amazon last year. My focus for 2020-2021 is to also build a new tech offering at Amazon which will offer free educational resources (books, games, apps, webinars and Alexa skills) for learners.


Suzie-Miller-Amazon-featured

Inspirational Woman: Suzie Miller | Solutions Architect, Amazon Web Services

 

Suzie Miller Amazon

Suzie Miller is a Solutions Architect for Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Chair of the company’s People With Disabilities employee affinity group in the UK.

People With Disabilities supports Amazon employees with disabilities, allies and carers – by raising awareness, supporting career development, participating in community outreach and improving accessibility both for Amazonians and their customers.

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

In my day-to-day role, I’m a Solutions Architect for Amazon Web Services (AWS) – a varied role that involves helping companies with their web service journey and cloud adoption. We help companies to design the right web architecture for their business, so they can focus on building incredible products.

I am also proud to be Chair of People With Disabilities (PWD) for Amazon in the UK, an employee-run affinity group that is focused on helping both employees and customers with awareness, accessibility and career aspirations.

Did you ever plan out your career in advance?

I’ll confess: the first time I used the internet was at a university open day in London, when I used AltaVista to search for Eddie Izzard! I could pretend that the heavens shone a light down in that moment to show a bright future ahead of me – but that isn’t completely true.

Due to a mix of different health problems, I couldn’t always study properly and that meant I failed my maths A Level and parts of my degree. I wanted to do Robotics at university, but I ended up studying Software Engineering because I had enjoyed programming in my GCSE and A Levels.

The dotcom bubble then conspired to burst just as I graduated, which made it much harder to find entry-level jobs, but I managed to get a job running Windows desktop support. At the time, I was hopeful that the tech industry would recover – and so it did!

So there was no planning, but a lot of determination and opportunism. Living with disabilities, I had to jump from contract to contract looking for flexibility that would accommodate my mobility and health. Throughout that early period of my career, I didn’t feel confident enough to request flexibility and I was living with conditions that weren’t even diagnosed, so it was near-impossible to justify a request for extra support.

What challenges have you faced along the way?

All things considered, it’s been a pretty bumpy journey. A mix of different health problems, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, meant I couldn’t study or attend lectures. This meant I graduated after the rest of my year – but I got there in the end.

There have also been problems with some managers in previous companies I worked at relating to inclusion: not only with my chronic fatigue and autism, among other things, but also as a member of the LGBT+ community.

I am also very conscious of the fact I may not be able to work in the future. I have a condition called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (hEDS) which impacts my joints and causes a lot of pain, dislocations and other symptoms, which can make working difficult in lots of ways.

At AWS specifically, I have found my feet thanks to the ‘Day 1’ culture, and the way anyone can submit a narrative to drive changes within the company. I’ve also found so many people dedicated to driving accessibility and inclusive design who have taught me so much, but that has also made me more confident that my peculiar strengths would be appreciated. That’s why I felt comfortable enough to self-declare to HR and my manager, and it led me to establish AmazonPWD in the UK in order to help others.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

A few years back, when struggling physically with 80-hour working weeks mostly from home in a previous company, I worked with a brilliant coach who helped me to take a step back. With her support, I realised that I wasn’t struggling with the nature of the work, rather it was the culture and industry that wasn’t working for me. We put together a plan to stop doing roles with on-call and out-of-hours demands, which set me on a path to be a Solutions Architect working across a range of different industries.

Although I have never worked with a mentor formally, I had some brilliant managers who took the time to understand my peculiarities and who recognised my strengths – even when I was struggling to see my own strengths!

Outside of work, I volunteer as an Independent Visitor through a government programme that matches adult volunteers with young people in care. As volunteers, we’re there to build long-term friendships and we’re truly ‘independent’, operating outside of the care system and giving that young person much-needed continuity.

When it comes to diversity, what do you want to see happen within the next five years to move things forward?

It’s now well-established that diversity is not only important for companies, it’s also good for their bottom line because diversity of thought drives innovation and creativity.

Personally I would highlight the importance of ‘inclusion’ as a concept. When businesses invest significantly to recruit a technical specialist, it’s illogical to manage that talent as it if it were a resource on a spreadsheet without a unique personality and a unique set of needs. Giving people space to be themselves will always maximise their talent. ‘Inclusion’ means more than meeting diversity targets – it’s about getting the most out of your talent. And it doesn’t just apply to disabled people, women or members of LGBT+ and BAME communities, in fact it’s vital for those groups that we avoid accusations of ‘special treatment’ by working towards inclusion for all.

In reality, everybody will need support in their life: either through a disability or long-term sickness, or by acting as a parent or carer, or by going through a bereavement or divorce. You never know what’s around the corner, so having a safety net at work is vital.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Unfortunately, many NDAs over the years mean I can’t be too specific! But I will say that through various projects I have saved millions of pounds of wasted expenditure and helped to stop major outages that my colleagues had not spotted.

Living with dyslexia and autism, I often see things that other people miss, or I think of solutions that are a bit unconventional. It’s been a pleasure to apply that unconventional thinking within my profession.

I have also been privileged to work with some amazing people who have supported Amazon’s PWD group, which has led to so many great opportunities that we’re now putting into action.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

I’m super excited to see how Amazon Web Services grows through the exciting and creative way that customers put our ‘building blocks’ into action.

In general, I’m excited to see how the tech industry builds on the huge developments of the last 20 years – particularly through the focus on collaborative working practices, which can only be a good thing for the industry.

I also want to be a disability advocate, both within Amazon and for our customers, by championing the importance of inclusive design and accessibility. And I want to go beyond accessibility of products and services to make working practices fully inclusive and considerate of disabled users.

What are the biggest challenges within improving disability rights at work and how can we tackle them?

According to Scope, 19 per cent of working-age adults are disabled and over 3.4 million disabled people are in employment. So if organisations are not creating an inclusive and accessible workplace, they are missing out on unique expertise and diverse perspectives that will enable them to better serve the millions of disabled customers out there.

Accessibility is not just about access ramps and dropped kerbs, it’s about aspiring to design products and processes in the most inclusive way possible.

Organisations also need easy and transparent mechanisms to request special accommodations and support, including flexi-time, desk adjustments and extra software. These need to be streamlined and available from the first point of contact.

Although as a society we’re making great strides forward, I also know that those living with disabilities do not always feel comfortable declaring their conditions – in fact they may not even be diagnosed, or they may not consider themselves disabled. The fear of unconscious bias and stigma is very real, so clearly signposting support in areas like mental health is vital.

Where can organisations find further support in this area?

Charities such as Scope or Mind’s ‘Time to Change’ programme can be invaluable in supporting disabled colleagues while raising awareness and providing recommendations. The government’s Access to Work scheme is also a good port of call and helps businesses to cover the costs around accommodations.

Across a large organisation, taking part in national events such as Worlds Aids Day on the December 1st or the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3rd can be really beneficial. I also love PurpleSpace and their #PurpleLightUp campaign.

Exposing senior leadership and junior colleagues to conversations around the challenges faced by disabled people is another great way to reduce discrimination and unconscious bias.

Anyone can become disabled at any time, so businesses shouldn’t risk losing valued members of staff because of perceived negative stereotypes or a lack of inclusivity frameworks. This kind of support is not only the right thing to do, it also boosts productivity and spreads a positive message to the next generation of professionals that being in the minority should not put a limit on your career aspirations.


'Amazon Future Engineer' launches to help children from low-income backgrounds build careers in Computer Science

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'Amazon Future Engineer' launches in the UK to help children and young adults from low-income backgrounds build careers in Computer Science.

The UK needs an additional 38,000 workers with computer science-related skills, including 21,000 computer science graduates, to meet labour demands every year – or the economy could lose out on an estimated £33 billion a year by 2030, according to new research by Capital Economics.

To help close that gap, Amazon is launching Amazon Future Engineer in the UK – a comprehensive childhood-to-career programme to inspire, educate, and enable children and young adults to try computer science. By supporting the recruitment and training of 50 secondary school computer science teachers and over 200 ‘Careers Leaders’, launching robotics workshops for 10,000 children and creating other opportunities to experience computer science, Amazon Future Engineer is set to reach more than one million children and young people across the UK over the next two years.

Through Amazon Future Engineer, ten thousand primary school pupils will have the opportunity to take part in free robotics workshops at Amazon fulfilment centres across the UK over the next two years, learning to program robots which use similar technology to what is used by Amazon to fulfil customer orders. The workshops, created alongside Fire Tech, are designed to give children first-hand experience of how technology works in the real world and have been accredited by the British Science Association. Amazon will also embark on a road trip across the UK, bringing the robotics workshops to primary schools around the country.

Additionally, Amazon has helped create an interactive dance-themed online coding tutorial together with non-profit organisation Code.org, featuring songs from leading artists, with the aim of reaching a million children in the UK. Globally, tens of millions of children and young people have already participated in Hour of Code tutorials since 2013. One hour of learning through Hour of Code is proven to have a positive impact on students, with a significant increase in the number of students saying they like computer science and perform better in computer science tasks.

Speaking about the programme, Doug Gurr, UK Country Manager, Amazon, said, "Research shows the UK needs 21,000 more computer science graduates on average, every year, to meet the demands of the digital economy."

"By making computer science skills more widely accessible from childhood to career, we hope Amazon Future Engineer will inspire and empower young people, regardless of their background, to take up careers in computer science.”

RT Hon Gavin Williamson CBE MP, Secretary of State for Education added, "Today’s school pupils will go on to do jobs that don’t even exist yet because the world of technology and computing is progressing so quickly."

"This is why we’re making sure our schools and teachers equip young people with the skills and knowledge they’ll need to be successful in the future by expanding our IoT programme and investing an extra £14bn in schools over the next three years."

"The work of Amazon Future Engineer will support us in just that by harnessing  Amazon’s reach and know-how to make sure that pupils from all backgrounds can access a cutting edge education and I look forward to seeing it in action.”

Amazon Future Engineer is part of the Amazon in the Community programme, which aims to ensure more children and young adults have the resources and skills they need to build their best and brightest futures, especially those from low-income communities in the areas where Amazon has a physical presence.

You can find out about Amazon Future Engineer at http://www.amazonfutureengineer.co.uk, and more about the Amazon in the Community programme at https://www.aboutamazon.co.uk/amazon-in-the-community.


Marija Pinkute

Marija Pinkute | Amazon

I am a Software Development Engineer at Amazon's Development Centre in Edinburgh, Scotland. Originally from Lithuania, I have lived, studied and worked in four different countries. I graduated from Edinburgh University in 2015 and was awarded a first class honours undergraduate Master's degree in Informatics a year early, and completed an internship at Amazon during the summer before my final year at university. After I graduated, I joined the company on a full-time basis as a Software Development Engineer.

For the last three years I have been working in a team that creates factual relationships between products in the Amazon Catalog using machine learning. The relationships that we create ensure a smoother product search and discovery for customers. For example, I contributed towards developing relationships between books and authors to power Author Pages amongst other features of the website. Recently, I have been designing workflow capabilities for teams that have business goals around the relationships we create. We want to ensure the input received via the workflows is used both to fix the customer experience and as training data for our machine learning models.

I am an active member of the Amazon Women in Engineering affinity group and I am passionate about supporting women in technology. A colleague and I developed and pitched the 'Amazon Early Insights' programme, which enables young women from all backgrounds to build their confidence in the technology industry. For the last two years we invited first-year and second-year female university students from across the EU to spend a week at the Amazon Development Centre to develop an Alexa skill. The programme has been a great success with potential to expand to other locations. Two participants from the 2017 programme applied, interviewed for and completed internships at the centre this summer. I also volunteer with the students, find them mentors and arrange talks and networking options.

I have a relentless enthusiasm for exploring new ideas and meeting people in the tech community. I often attend talks, career fairs and diversity conferences on behalf of Amazon. Recently, I gave a talk at a Scotland Women in Technology “The World of Data” event.


Lauren Gemmell | Amazon

I grew up with technology from a very young age, as both my parents taught Computing Studies at High School. I attended the University of Glasgow originally for a Mathematics and Computer Science joint degree, but quickly flipped into pure Computer Science because I loved the problem solving and being able to build products. During my final year I attended a talk by Amazon Development Centre Scotland’s Managing Director at the time, Matt Round, and was inspired by the way Matt passionately talked about life at Amazon as well as the interesting challenges the business was facing and solving. I joined the Development Centre in Edinburgh after graduating in 2006.

Following this, I worked across a variety of teams as a Software Engineer including Amazon’s worldwide Dynamic Merchandising and Dynamic Advertising teams, where I found my passion in building useful products for customers and honed my skills. Slowly I became more interested in big wider projects and have now held a management position for over half a decade.

In 2015, I took the opportunity to create my own software engineering team as part of Amazon Registry Services, which at the time was a new product offering for Amazon. My group is responsible for enabling customers to discover, create, and maintain their presence on Amazon’s top-level internet domains such as .moi.

Building the team from scratch, I am now responsible for running a team of over 17 engineers in the Edinburgh Development Centre, and Amazon’s global headquarter in Seattle, United States.

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Aparna Mahadevan

Inspirational Women: Aparna Mahadevan | Senior Solutions Architect in the Alexa Skills Team at Amazon

 

Aparna Mahadevan, is a Senior Solutions Architect in the Alexa Skills Team at Amazon.

Apama

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I did just once, three years into my professional career, when I realised I wasn’t using my skills to my absolute best in the job I was doing at the time. The outcome of that exercise was my decision to do an MBA, which eventually opened up multiple avenues for me. Now, my activities at work revolve much more closely around my professional goals. That approach taught me to be receptive to the countless opportunities that exist in today’s world.

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

One of the biggest challenges I faced so far was at the start of my career journey when I had to think about where I wanted to be in the future and how to get there. I had so many options to decide between and I didn’t have a framework to help give me clarity. So I decided to take advice from different people with different backgrounds who I had a lot of respect for. I listened carefully to their success or failure stories, wrote down what I thought my biggest assets were and what my goals were for my personal life.

Having put all of these together, I was able to narrow it down to a few options that I considered and made a final decision to do an MBA. Being open to different perspectives and relying on a framework helped me make a decision that was not just emotionally driven, but had some long-term thinking behind it.

The other challenge I faced was having a constant desire to manage all aspects of my life – be it my career, my classes, managing relationships and running a household - with perfection. I soon however realised that the need for perfection in all aspects of my life was taking a real emotional toll on me, so I approached women leaders I knew to get their help and advice, and I was surprised to see how many of them understood what I was going through. It really resonated with me! Now, I am more organised in both my personal and professional life.

Every morning, I decide the three most important tasks for the day that I want to execute perfectly, instead of splitting my energy and focus on every little aspect of my daily life. The little things in a day that don’t go perfectly now don’t fluster me as much as they used to.

What advice would you give someone who wishes to move in to a leadership position for the first time?

From my experience, I can say with confidence that no amount of preparation before taking on leadership roles and activities can make you the best leader. You only need the courage to take risks and responsibilities, and experience hones and shapes your leadership abilities.

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

I would decide based on two factors – what unique quality they each bring to the team, and which one of these two qualities completes the picture and makes the team more rounded.

How do you manage your own boss?

A core objective for my role is to help my boss by taking on a number of responsibilities on his behalf to ensure the team achieves its goals, so I work closely with him to understand the framework he’s set to achieve the team’s goals.

Not only do I seek assistance from my boss when handling a task or prioritising my work, but I also challenge him when I strongly believe it does not help deliver what we want to achieve. I am fortunate enough to have worked with unique bosses throughout my career, but the common thread with all of them has been that honesty is always appreciated and builds trust.

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

I’ve experimented with different working styles and this one works best for me - I start my workday reading emails and writing down the list of all tasks on my plate for the day. I then prioritise tasks based on three categories – must dos, nice to dos and will not do. The last bucket is a conscious attempt to be an essentialist and internalise the decision to not over-indulge. Towards the end of the day, I assess my task completion rate and if any tasks need to be moved to the next day. On longer days, I attempt to make a mental note at the end to see what went well and what can be improved.

What advice can you give to our members about raising their profiles within their own organisations?

Identify what makes leaders in your organisation successful to better understand what success can also look like for you. Adopting and tailoring those qualities to your own personality, combined with having the right attitude and patience, I believe helps raise your own profile in your organisation.

How have you benefited from coaching or mentoring?

Yes! I am the biggest believer in having a mentor, who can not only guide you in making big decision such as which career path to take; but also help in removing everyday hurdles such as efficiency and productivity. It is important to adopt a mentor that works best for you to suit your leadership style and abilities.

Do you think networking is important and if so, what three tips would you give to a newbee networker?

Networking is an absolute must. It not only helps in knowing what the world is like outside of what you do, but also a chance for the world to know who you are. My three tips for networking are:

  1. Reach out to people and ask for help – most people love sharing their experiences and insights, and these always help at some point in life, if not immediately
  2. Be in touch regularly with your network – you will be amazed to see how you’ll get help in different points of life. Also, it’s not great when you only reach out to someone when you are in need of urgent help
  3. When networking, be prepared but also be yourself – the other person needs to know what you uniquely bring to the table and needs to remember you. They need to know about you as much as you know about them.
What does the future hold for you?

The future holds countless opportunities. Technology has been revolutionising different sectors and as a professional in tech, I cannot wait to be a part of the never-ending wave.

Tell us three things about yourself that would surprise us
  1. I trained for Indian classical singing for seven years but after that, I have not sung outside the bathroom in the last 10 years.
  2. I set up and ran a library with a small collection of books out of my friend’s place when I was 11 years old.
  3. I can speak five different Indian languages and read/write in three of them.

Charlotte Woffindin featured

Inspirational Women: Charlotte Woffindin | Senior Program Manager at Amazon (London)

 

Charlotte Woffindin, is a Senior Program Manager at Amazon (London).

Charlotte Amazon

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

To be honest, no. I have always done things that interest me and that I enjoy – I think that is really important, otherwise the days just drag. I spent five years working for a big high-street bank before joining Amazon. Whilst there I “tried on” different roles in agricultural banking, strategy, and communications before finding I really enjoyed designing training curriculums. That’s how I got into Amazon and working with the tech community designing onboarding training for Amazon’s global SDE hires. I have loved every minute of it and learn something new every hour!

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

I love a challenge! I studied IT and web design at A-level then went on to major in business at university, so starting at Amazon was a huge challenge as the engineers I worked with appeared to speak a different language, and designing training programs where I knew nothing about the content really stretched me. But I found that asking questions was the way for me to find out more, and identify the people who could really help me. The people who first helped me three years ago are still helping me today – they just bring more engineers to the conversation!

What advice would you give someone who wishes to move into a leadership position for the first time?

Give it a go. I find that I surprise myself more than I surprise the people around me – they know what I’m capable of, more than I do. My advice would be to build a great network around you, find role models and watch what they do. Everything is new once, and until you try it out you’ll never know if you can do it. One of the greatest pleasures throughout my career is when I’m able to help someone reach their goal – whether it’s coaching them to deliver a great presentation, to become a great facilitator or to achieve a result they thought impossible. It’s a great thing to watch and be a part of.

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

Their passion and enthusiasm, and the way they earn trust. At Amazon, that is so important – earning trust opens so many doors, and can often be overlooked. Many of my successes here have been through having the right conversations with great people. When hiring at Amazon, we have fourteen Leadership Principles that help to guide how we work, how our leaders lead and how we all make decisions on behalf of our customers.

These principles aren’t just something we put up on a wall – we use them every day, whether we’re discussing ideas for new projects, deciding on the best solution for a customer’s problem, or interviewing candidates.

Being someone who fulfils these principles is normally the deciding factor for hires.

How do you manage your own boss?

My boss is based in the US, so we don’t get much time to talk. I “manage” him by keeping them informed – regardless of how small a thing it is. I keep him in the know about wins, misses and things I’ve learnt. Especially when I’ve build a new relationship which could benefit the team in other ways.

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

My day usually starts with my cycling to work – it’s a great way to get the blood pumping, some calories burned and me focusing my head on what I need to do. Then I tackle my emails; as my team is mainly Seattle-based, most of my emails come through when I’m asleep. An hour of email-admin then I can know what needs to be done that day (that I might not have known about the day before) and continue working on my big projects. Towards the end of my day is when my team starts to come online, so it’s a few calls with them and state-side partners before I cycle the nine miles home.

What advice can you give to our members about raising their profiles within their own organisations?

Say yes to new opportunities. You are the greatest cheerleader for you and your career. Sometimes you will get lucky and someone will notice you, but most of the time it’s through being seen (and heard). I remember the first time I was asked to speak at an event, and the reason they asked me was because they had seen me doing the introductions at a conference the previous week.

I put my hand up to introduce the keynote and that was the start of something I do pretty regularly now. Saying yes, although scary, can be really powerful for opening up some great opportunities. So whether it’s speaking at new hire inductions, delivering training or working on a difficult project, say yes and don’t look back. You will regret the things you didn’t do more than they things you did!

How have you benefited from coaching or mentoring?

Absolutely! Although it’s usually pretty informal, I’ll ask for help and advice from people around me, and I also try and attend great training about coaching, speaking and other topics I’m interested in. When I’m at conferences I’ll try and speak with interesting people there, as it’s amazing who you meet and what you gain from meeting for coffee (or wine) after.

I find myself surrounded by amazing people all the time, and make the effort to go to events where there are leaders speaking or panels, even if it means I have to work a little later in the day.

Do you think networking is important and if so, what three tips would you give to a newbie networker?

Networking can be scary, but the secret is that most people feel the same way. My top tips would be: [1] go with a friend, it’s easier when you know someone and getting into the first conversation together is a great ice-breaker; [2] take a look at the attendee list before (if it’s available), map out who you want to talk to and have a couple of great questions ready and a short intro about you ready; and [3] join a conversation that is already underway, listen for a while and join in when you feel comfortable. Or if you are like me, stand by the bar – everyone grabs a drink and it’s amazing who you can start talking to there!

What does the future hold for you?

Who knows! I’m just about to start a new role in Amazon Web Services, so that should be a great learning curve and something different. I want to continue working with great people and challenging myself in new areas at Amazon. But as long as I am enjoying my job and continuing to learn, I could be doing anything!

Tell us three things about yourself that would surprise us!
  • I’m a classically trained singer and often asked to sing at weddings
  • I’ve had dinner inside the England Rugby dressing room and
  • I cycled the 100-mile Ride London challenge in seven hours 24 mins for Alzheimer’s Society this July!

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.