This article is sponsored by Amazon.
It’s not every day you meet a Developer Evangelist. Azi Farjad is one impressive woman, and in case you’re wondering, her role as a Developer Evangelist at Amazon involves teaching developers to build voice experiences using Alexa. Azi has been a developer for over fifteen years, and stepped into her dream role at Amazon last year.
Azi is passionate about teaching, and sharing the latest industry trends. She regularly leads workshops at tech conferences like AWS re:Invent, and NDC (a conference for software developers), and runs Alexa Dev Days teaching developers and UX designers how to create voice experiences. We sat down to talk the future of voice technology, why diversity is the key to building the best results, and why she jumped at the chance to work on Amazon Alexa.
You started your tech journey as a junior software engineer back in 2001. What initially sparked your interest in software development and tech?
My mother had definitely a big impact on me choosing to go into technology. She is very much into science and space and when I was a kid, she used to explain how engineers and scientists can use technology to solve problems that humans are facing. That’s what got me interested to study engineering and computer science at university.
In 2018, only 28% of the workforce working in tech in Australia compromised of women. What do you think stops women from working in tech industries today?
The obvious one is the lack of female role models. It’s so interesting that the first computer programmer was a female [Ada Lovelace in the 1840s], but in the years after there was a culture shift and for many decades the image of a tech person was a nerdy male character. And that image persists today, even the entertainment industry is trying to change this perception.
Another perception that women have to deal with is their perceived role as a female in society and the different expectations on work-life balance compared to males. So, if you decide to be in a demanding tech role, you need support from your life partner to spend time on what you are passionate about. I was lucky to have support from my husband. My role is very demanding, I need to travel a lot and sometimes I need to work on weekends or late at night. But he encouraged and mentored me to become a better version of myself and joined many of my events whenever he could to help.
Gender diversity is the responsibility of everyone. If men want to be a part of the change, we need more of these acts to make it easier for women to become leaders and to feel good about it.
Is working in a male-dominated field something you have found challenging?
The first company I worked for as a software developer was female-dominated which is pretty rare. It was later on in my career that I realised there are not enough females in the field.
I didn’t necessarily find it challenging to work in a male or female-dominated team, but I prefer a gender diversified team. I’ve noticed a team with gender diversity works better and has a better culture. You’re also able to better solve problems with diverse opinions and different ways of thinking.
You’ve worked in a variety of software development roles. What’s been your favourite aspect of working within the tech industry?
I enjoy problem-solving and dealing with new challenges. I like to try new things and in the tech industry, you never get bored. You don’t solve the same problem twice, and you definitely learn from each experience and use it to power your analytical thinking. Each day is different, and you deal with different technologies, domains, teams, and problems, and that is beautiful for me.
You can also choose your own adventure and decide on which domain you want to have more impact on – it could be using technology to help a social cause, health, the environment, finance and more.
I also enjoy the fact that I don’t need to have extensive tools to build a technical solution. All I need is my laptop and the internet and I can do my job anywhere and anytime.
How did you come to work at Amazon and on Alexa?
Amazon has its own culture. ‘Amazonians’ have embedded 14 leadership principles into the way they work. So, I benchmarked my values with Amazon’s principles to see if it was going to be the right fit. For me, it was a match and I knew I was signing up for the right company.
For Alexa, it was love at first sight. I purchased the Amazon Echo device a year before applying for the Alexa role and I really enjoyed interacting with it. I was excited about the fact that with the advancement of technology, we finally got to the point to converse with technology naturally. So, when I saw the Alexa role, I knew I wanted to be part of this revolution.
What are the main benefits of creating voice experiences using Alexa?
For me, voice is a new paradigm. There are many cases that we can do tasks easier and much faster through voice. It is also the most natural form of interaction, but up until now, technology wasn’t able to interact with machines using voice.
At the same time, this new way to interact with technology has opened up new opportunities that we’ve never explored before. For example, to design voice games instead of games with graphical user interfaces. The first time I played a game with voice, I was fascinated by the fact that it opened up my imagination. I started imagining characters and game atmosphere based on what I was hearing. There was no user interface to describe the scenes for me and that was very new and fun.
Now that the technology is available, it is up to us to decide what to build with it next, and I am very passionate to explore and teach how we can build these experiences.
How did your role transition from a software developer to a developer evangelist? Was the transition to running workshops and conducting talks difficult?
The transition was natural for me as I enjoy teaching a lot. I like to find ways to break something complex into small and easy steps so that others can learn faster and easier and to put the knowledge into practice.
I also enjoy the interaction. I meet so many talented people through my events. It always makes my day when I see attendees leave the events happy and excited about what they learned and are ready to build a voice experience that solves a problem.
What are your favourite things to do outside of work?
Hiking in nature is my favourite activity. It helps me to get more centred and to recharge my brain for a busy week. I am also very much into healthy eating and enjoy learning new recipes of delicious foods made of simple and natural ingredients.
What advice would you give to women reading this who are thinking about pursuing a career in tech?
If you enjoy problem-solving and you are passionate about technology, just join the force. I don’t believe there is any fundamental reason that this field should be male-dominated, females can choose to be active in the field and to be successful in the same way.
By pursuing your career in tech as a female, you also help the tech industry to be more gender diversified. I am a big believer in diversity. A diverse team in any shape or form can better solve problems and come up with more informative and innovative solutions. I also like this quote from Rebecca Parsons, CTO of ThoughtWorks:
“As technologists, it’s our responsibility to ensure the software powering our world is built by a workforce reflective of the society we serve.”
Alexa Skills are like apps that allow you to personalise your Alexa experience; explore skills by visiting www.amazon.com.au/alexaskills If you’d like to learn about building for voice, or join the Alexa Developer community, we’ve got great resources to get started here.