Sonos’ Karen Wickert: Proof That Testing Is Critical When Building Alexa-Enabled Products

Jennifer King Mar 07, 2018
Women of Voice Spotlight Testing & Certification Alexa Voice Service

When Karen Wickert started their career as a mechanical engineer, they never imagined they’d end up building devices with cutting-edge voice technology like Alexa.

“One day my boss asked if I could help test a software project, and right away that just clicked for me,” says Wickert. “I immediately started my transition toward software testing, and I haven’t ever looked back.”

After convincing their employer to give them similar testing roles over 18 months, Wickert eventually joined Sonos as a software test engineer and now serves as a Software Test Manager. Wickert is a powerful force behind the quality of the Sonos One smart speaker, built using the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) Device SDK which enables device makers to integrate Alexa directly into their products.

“I just like the possibilities voice brings,” says Wickert. “It opens my creative brain in a way I really love, thinking about how this technology can be used now, and how it will be used in the future.”

Discovering a Dream Career in Software Testing

Wickert didn’t become a software test manager overnight. Other than taking a couple of software courses at university, Wickert was convinced their path would remain in mechanical engineering, not necessarily programming.

Their passion for software began when a project lead asked if they had time to help out testing some Python code. Wickert developed a knack for taking a piece of software and running it through the wringer to ensure the team delivered the highest quality product possible in the time available. That skill led to Sonos hiring Wickert as a test engineer in 2015.

“Our main goal is to really polish our home sound systems to make sure customers have the best possible experience,” says Wickert. “That means we have to shake out as many issues as quickly as possible, to make sure it’s not going to break in unexpected ways.”

Wickert holds open the possibility of going into software development someday. But for now Wickert is loving the “whole-system touch” they get with testing, not to mention having an outlet for creative thinking and troubleshooting.

“As a software tester, I get to interact with all aspects of a product during the test phases: hardware, software, beta testers, customer care, cloud software, firmware, DevOps—you name it,” says Wickert. “There are very few days I don’t learn something new.”

AVS Integration Changes Sonos Development (and Testing) for the Better

When Wickert first started at Sonos, they focused on testing Sonos speakers and the accompanying web and smartphone apps. These let users access and play music from a variety of streaming services across any number of Sonos devices. However, the company saw the rapid adoption of Alexa and decided to embrace it as a new way of interacting with its customers.

“There's something about voice interaction you can't get with a smartphone,” says Wickert. “It's easier, more interactive, more intuitive. I can be cooking in my kitchen and ask Alexa to play NPR news or whatever I feel like, without even slowing down."

Their first voice-related testing was with the Sonos smart home skill, which allowed users to control their Sonos speakers using any Alexa-enabled device. More recently, their focus has shifted to the new Sonos One, a smart speaker with Alexa built-in.

“With Alexa built right into our speakers, it’s a lot easier to control everything around you, with a lot more interactivity,” says Wickert. “People love using their speakers for playing games with their kids, checking the weather or controlling their lights. I love that it’s not just about music anymore.”

Verifying all the extra functionality means Wickert stays busy. On a typical day, they’ll set up Alexa-enabled Sonos One speakers in the lab, configure them, execute a few test plans, work through a defect list, verify developer’s fixes—and that’s just before lunchtime.

“Our developers are fantastic, but the fact is, you're going to have bugs no matter how well-audited you are,” says Wickert. “My goal is to minimize those defects by the time we go to market, so customers will be completely thrilled with their experience.”

Working to Bring More Diversity to Technology

Wickert says it’s astonishing how far voice technology has come in such a short time.  

“Yet we’re just scratching the surface of what we can do with this technology,” says Wickert. “What’s great is this experience is making developers and testers alike more agile, more willing to take risks, and more willing to challenge the status quo.”

That status quo, according to Wickert, includes a very real struggle for women against a daunting and still-sizable gender gap. Wickert’s deep involvement with Alexa at Sonos shows voice offers far more opportunities than just being a developer, and that it’s worth jumping in and taking the risk. Wickert advises women to search out companies willing to uphold them, and then share their stories to inspire others to do the same.

“Yes, it can be a hard road,” says Wickert. “But just imagine the experience you can have if you open yourself to all of the possibilities that voice enables. How can you not want to be a part of that?"

Build with Alexa

Developers around the world are building rich voice experiences with the Alexa Skills Kit and Alexa Voice Service. Learn how to tech Alexa new capabilities with the Alexa Skills Kit, integrate Alexa into your product with the Alexa Voice Service, or connect your device to Alexa with the Smart Home Skill API or Gadgets SDK.