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February 15, 2018Jennifer King
With a degree in computer science and mathematics, Kesha Williams is no stranger to coding. But even after 23 years of working in IT, the software engineer discovered a new passion and one she wants to inspire other women to pursue—voice.
“I love being a software engineer because I’m able to bring ideas to life,” says Williams. “When Echo came out, just the thought of talking to a computer and having it understand me was intriguing. That's what inspired me to play around with Alexa and learn how to build skills.”
Kesha started coding when she was in high school, though she claims it was “just playing” on the computer to her. Her love for technology has followed her throughout her career and inspired her to build Alexa skills for use both in the home and in the workplace. And today, she uses Alexa to teach, inspire, and encourage more women to pursue opportunities in technology.
“It's a very exciting time to be in technology, especially in voice technology,” says Williams. “If anyone out there is considering a career change, I would recommend computer science and voice.”
Williams, a mother of three children, keeps a busy schedule, given her full-time job as a software engineer. When she bought her first Echo, she wanted to build an Alexa skill to help organize her day. The result was Live Plan Eat, a skill to help her plan the family’s weekly meals.
“My kids are always asking me what’s for dinner, and sometimes even I can’t remember,” says Williams. “So my first skill was really just to make my life easier.”
According to Williams, Live Plan Eat helps her—and all its users—plan ahead and keep track of what they’re going to cook each day. Users can ask Alexa for a recipe recommendation for a variety of cuisines, as well as to add recipes for breakfast, snack, or dinner for a given day of the week. Williams loaded many of her favorite recipes into Amazon DynamoDB, where she also persists user data for her skill.
“Live Plan Eat is helping families across the country plan out their meals,” says Williams. “For the really enthusiastic ones, I have a website where people can sign up to make requests and find out about upcoming features. Next I’m thinking about letting users’ see their recipes and pictures on a calendar—or maybe even on Echo Show.”
The experience building Live Plan Eat inspired Williams to bring Alexa to work. She has been writing software for the IT department at Chick-fil-A in Atlanta, Georgia, for the last 13 years. The company hosts Innovation Day, where it encourages employees to step outside their day-to-day responsibilities and think “outside the box.” Being in headquarters, Williams had access to an assortment of cutting-edge devices in the company’s innovation lab—including an Echo device.
“I immediately wanted to see how the company might use this new technology,” says Williams. “I asked myself how could we use voice to improve customer experiences both inside and outside the restaurant? How could we make our restaurant Operators lives easier?”
As part of Innovation Day, Williams’ team prototyped three skills. The first was aimed at health-conscious customers, allowing them to ask Alexa for nutrition information about the restaurant’s products.
The other two prototypes, however, were for restaurant Operators. Her “On the Clock” skill allows the Operator to track which team members are clocked in, not yet clocked in, or have clocked in late. The other skill provides them a snapshot of their sales figures, by asking Alexa “What are my lunch sales?” or “What are my drive-through sales?”
“We wanted to use Alexa to let them know, in real time, what's going on at the restaurant,” says Williams. “Alexa provides information they can use to make real business decisions.”
Outside of work, Williams is an advocate for increasing education and involvement in STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics—especially for women. She’s spoken about building Alexa skills at Women Who Code’s We RISE Tech Conference in Atlanta, an event to empower women with skills they need to thrive in IT. William’s also teaches Java as an adjunct instructor with the University of California.
Lately, Williams is using her newfound love of Alexa to raise women’s awareness and interest in what have traditionally been male-dominated fields.
“I'm very passionate about increasing diversity in STEM fields,” says Williams. “One way we can do that is by providing positive role models. That’s why I built STEM Women.”
Her STEM Women skill highlights women’s achievements and contributions in various STEM fields. Users can ask Alexa to tell them about a woman in a particular STEM field, such as technology or math, and Alexa will name the person, her background and what they're doing to move their own field forward.
“Technology has opened a lot of doors for me, and it’s a great feeling to share with others the lessons I’ve learned with voice,” Williams says. “If there's anything I can do to help someone find their way to that path, I feel that's really what I'm meant to do.”
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