With so many recent awards and achievements, you’d never guess Ilarna Nche is a newcomer to voice technology. Yet this Cambridge, England native didn’t take her first computer science class until age 16. The class was so enthralling, she decided to study programming at the University of Kent.
It was a gift she gave her mom that was a true glimpse into her future. “I heard about Alexa on TV and got a first-generation Echo Dot for my mom for Christmas,” said Nche. “At first I thought the skills were part of the device. When I realized they were separate and built by third-party developers, I knew I wanted to be part of that.”
When Nche enrolled in computer science in college, she faced a dilemma. With so many options available, how would she choose a career path? She also hesitated to join an industry where she could be the only woman in a room full of men. Soon, though, she stumbled on a fascinating course in multimedia technology and design. The class introduced her to many different technologies that piqued her interest and helped her choose a focus.
“I learned all sorts of things, like web development, games, 3D modeling, and mobile apps,” said Nche. “But what really excited me was building voice apps. I liked that it didn’t rely on visuals, I got to design what the device will say and how people would interact with it.”
With her new interest in voice, Nche began building Alexa skills in here free time and soon received her first Alexa Developer Rewards for Riddle Time. Next she created Music Bop Adventures, one of the winners of the 2017 Devpost Alexa Kids Skill Challenge.
When her Alexa skills started scoring wins in developer contests, Nche decided to postpone post-graduation job hunting for a year. She opted instead to focus on sharpening her skill-building know-how. It seemed like a rash decision at first, but it paid off.
A year after graduation, she went after what she really wanted: a career in voice games. Nche started her own company—Adassa Innovations, which she named after her great grandmother.
“My family played games together with our Echo Dot, and we loved it,” said Nche. “I wanted to continue that tradition by building innovative skills that encourage people to use their imaginations. Voice is perfect for that.”
Besides running her own company, Nche works designs and builds engaging Alexa skills with prominent voice-first companies like Matchbox.io. Amazon has also recognized Nche as an Alexa Champion and thus one of the most engaged developers and contributors in the Alexa developer community.
“For me, becoming an Alexa Champion is the highest honor,” said Nche. “I can’t believe I was recognized among so many talented people. I remember just jumping up and down when I heard the news.”
Nche said she took a risk going into a career in voice and it paid off. However, she knows other women might not have support to do the same thing.
At first, Nche struggled with being the only black woman in the room and wished she’d found more support in the developer community—but she is helping to change that. Today, she speaks on panels, connects through groups for women in voice, and works to break down barriers for others in technology.
“It's so refreshing to have organizations like Women in Voice, Black Girls Code, and Coding Black Females out there today,” said Nche. “It helps to know you're not the only woman in this.”
Besides the community support, Nche said it’s the latest developer tools from Amazon—such as the smart-motion API extension that incorporates motion detection and control for motion-cable devices—that get her excited for the future.
Nche estimates she’s built over 80 Alexa skills since 2016, including Beat the Clock, which gives players 30 seconds to write down as many words as they can in a certain category. Designed to pit players against each other in friendly competition, the game has had an unexpected yet gratifying benefit for some of its players. Nche learned that foreign students used Beat the Clock to improve their English-speaking skills and pronunciation.
“These days I’m focused on building fun, high-quality skills,” said Nche. “I’m looking for a winning combination that everyone will love. There hasn’t been a billion-dollar voice skill yet, but I’m sure it’s coming.”
“I’ve only just started my journey in voice, but I feel like I've already achieved so much,” said Nche. “Voice technology is something I love, and being able to create voice apps full time literally has changed my life for the better.”
“One trend I think we’ll see in voice technology 2021 will be voice in cars. Having Alexa in the car to help you find parking, navigation, and other things that will provide a seamless experience whilst you're driving. I’m very much looking forward to it.”
- Ilarna Nche, Founder, Adassa Innovations