Early in her own science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, Amazon Senior Technical Curriculum Developer Kabila Williams recognized that developing a robust understanding of first principles and fundamentals got her much further and faster than rote memorization.
Today, as she develops an innovative new technical curricula for Amazon Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based voice service available on hundreds of millions of devices, Williams applies the understanding that how people learn is as important as what they learn.
“When I’m designing content, I focus on how my audience acquires knowledge as well as how knowledge is retained and applied,” Williams says.
“Making highly technical concepts easier to understand makes them more accessible to everyone which is really important to me.”
Williams works in the team responsible for building the Alexa Learning Lab, which was announced at Alexa Live 2022 with the goal of helping developers build with Alexa. The Alexa Learning Lab creates andpublishes a variety of e-learning paths and online courses designed to serve the needs of developers of all experience levels, from novice to expert.
“We’re in the beginning stages of developing this suite of learning paths for developers,” Williams says. “Our goal is to help the skill builders master fundamental concepts and receive real-time feedback in a state-of-the-art e-learning solution, which will enable them to build engaging experiences with Alexa.”
The Alexa Learning Lab courses feature short, one-on-one videos that feature deep dives into particular topics, along with instructions on how to code for a specific technical component. For example, developers can learn how to use the Alexa Presentation Language (APL) to build interactive voice and visual experiences across Alexa-enabled devices.
APL provides developers with flexible tools and resources to translate voice-first experiences to the screen. Customers have responded positively to experiences across the device landscape that combine video and voice. For multi-modal devices made by Amazon’s partners – devices like TVs, PCs, smart displays, and tablets – Alexa's active user base has grown by almost 3X since 2020.
Understanding that many people in the technical field learn most effectively through hands-on experience,Williams and her team included a code sandbox as part of every course. The code sandbox serves as an online testing environment where developers can test their code and learn through trial and error. They write and submit their code for validation, then receive detailed feedback as Alexa Learning Lab runs the code in a real-time simulation.
“We encourage developers to experiment with the code sandbox to see how things will render differently,”Williams says. “They learn by writing code, this allows them to see what they like and what’s working.”
Since she was a child, Williams has had a passion for understanding how people learn. Growing up in Massachusetts, she enjoyed playing the role of “teacher” at home, instructing imaginary students whoused TV Guide magazines as stand-ins for notebooks. Later, Williams attended Mount Holyoke College and majored in mathematics. The National Science Foundation named her a STEM Teaching Scholar in 1999. Williams went on to receive her Masters of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, with a specialty in secondary mathematics education.
“When you’re solving something that’s challenging, and you can explain it to somebody else, that’s when you really know you understand it,” says Williams. “The ‘aha!’ moment is addictive.”
Williams worked as the math department chair at The Lab School in Washington in Washington, DC for five years. As a private school teacher, Williams had the freedom to determine her own curriculum. She focused on cultivating students’ understanding of STEM material beyond the simple memorization of formulas.
“I asked myself: What can students do to demonstrate understanding?” Williams recalls. “How can they apply conceptual knowledge independently and fluidly?” She started developing assessments by hand to extend her students’ thinking. Her work led to a career in developing standardized math assessments for clients ranging from individual states to the College Board. “It’s a really creative experience to read the standard that you want to assess and think about the myriad ways that you can demonstrate proficiency,” says Williams.
In 2015, Williams was hired as a Senior Mathematics Assessment Specialist for TenMarks Education, a subsidiary of Amazon at the time. At TenMarks, Williams worked on the curriculum and lesson plans for the company’s web-based math program for grades K–12. She joined Amazon Alexa in 2018 as the Senior Learning and Development Specialist for Alexa Excellence, a hybrid engineering and program management team tasked with increasing the stability and performance of Alexa, providing tools to reduce development friction, and disseminating best practices to the Alexa engineering community.
Williams says her father was the first college graduate in her family. Despite being intellectually curious and passionate about learning, her mother and grandmother were unable to further their education beyond high school due to circumstances in their lives. In part to pay homage to their legacy, Williams decided to pursue a second master’s degree in 2020. She is on track to receive a master’s in computer science from Northeastern University in the fall of 2023.
“I am fulfilling a long-term goal of mine, to prove to myself that this is something that I can do,” Williams says. “I want to be that example that I did not see. I did not see many examples of individuals who looked like me in STEM, who were female and Black American.”
“It’s still a rarity, and I think we need to work on being more visible. That’s why I’m using my voice more and being more active, both internally at Amazon and externally in the broader STEM community. I’m also focused on developing simple and intuitive experiences like the Alexa Learning Lab to make learning complex technical concepts more accessible to everyone, no matter their background.”
To help fulfill her vision to make artificial intelligence more accessible, Williams is working on a learning path that will serve as a road map for how individuals with little or no prior coding experience can get started in developing Alexa skills.
“People speak about diversity of thought. I’d like to extend this idea to include diversity of building skills,”says Williams. “Who are our skill builders? Where are they coming from? Formal education level or prior coding experience shouldn’t be deterrents to building a skill that will be used by everyone.”
“I think the beauty of this is that we all think differently. We all come with our own innate abilities and experiences. I think that tapping into that, even when you’re doing something like building skills, is a powerful thing.”
Williams and her team at the Alexa Learning Lab see their suite of courses as an opportunity to boost inclusivity in STEM. “We want it to be the starting point for folks who go on to develop Alexa skills that are engaging, but also to do even more fantastic things,” says Williams. “We want to remove the roadblocks and the churn that tend to discourage people from exploring STEM. You really don’t know what people are capable of doing until they’re given the opportunity to do it.”
Williams and her team at Alexa are also seeking to bring Alexa skill building into high school and college classrooms so that students gain earlier exposure to coding and other related skills. For Williams, this means playing an even more active role in STEM programs in the community.
“I’m very happy about the current state and future pipeline of our community outreach projects,” Williams says. “We’re going to be bringing this content and these capabilities to people from underserved communities at younger ages. I think it’s going to be life changing.”