My back-story in technology starts at a fairly young age. I was in my early teens and my Mom’s best friend (a software developer) had a computer and all these cool fancy tech toys. Growing up, we couldn’t afford to have a computer in the house so my Mom’s friend was gracious enough to let me use hers when they would have their cross-stitching and crocheting sessions on Friday nights. At the time I was unaware of how much of an impact my Mom’s friend would have over my adult life by allowing me to use her computer and nerd out at this age. I think I knew very early on what I wanted to do with my life and that was something with computers.
Fast forward a few years when I was trying to decide what I wanted to go to school for, the only thing that had changed about what I wanted to do was a lawyer was added into the mix. I had to pay a majority of my school costs and work full-time while going to school to afford it. \Going to school to be a lawyer would have been more costly and would have taken more time so I went for technical support. My goal was to always be a Systems Administrator. Throughout school, it became evident to me that Systems Administrators were able to effect the most change on environments and the responsibility they held seemed like a challenge I was willing to take.
I only did a two-year degree so most of my career has been an uphill climb. Competing with those that have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the technology field and those that have an upper hand simply because they’re male have all been challenges along the way. I’ve done my stint at GeekSquad, I’ve built computers and servers from scratch (too many to name, and I’ve done desktop support in a number of roles, and now I’m a Systems Administrator which is where I wanted to be. Or at least so I thought…
I never thought of being a developer. I actually had an old boss tell me that I didn’t have the mindset to be a Systems Administrator or to write code so that was a pretty awful thing to be told and I believed it for the longest time. There are times when I still doubt myself, I can still hear him. Working with DjangoCon US and the team and community around it convinced me otherwise. The positive attitude and support led me into believing that yes I could code if I wanted to.
Enter Alexa Skills Development aka. what I refer to as, “The Gateway Drug to Loving Development.” I’m the kind of person that loves immediate satisfaction. When you set down the path to building an Alexa skill and you put the finishing touches on your Lambda code and run it, you know immediately if you did something wrong. Useful tools like CloudWatch point out where you went astray so I’ve found it quite easy and quick to fix problems and test again until I reach success. At the beginning of my Alexa Skills Development journey, I found myself asking for help on the errors but now I can figure out what’s going on by myself.
Some key takeaways for me which is why I will continue to submit CFP’s for my “Alexa…” talk are that I’ve coming away knowing so much more than just how to develop and Alexa skill. My ability to write in Python is notably better, my ability to troubleshoot errors with my code is spot-on, and learning how to use Amazon Web Services like Lambda and CloudWatch was a benefit of Lambda housing my Alexa code.
In developing my first Alexa skill “Happy Days” (a little over 200 lines of code), it was a rough journey; I didn’t know if I would ever finish. What would take some developers an hour to write, took me months. I remember getting so frustrated when things weren’t working as expected but it just so happened that I was writing this positive quote generator that kept spitting quotes out like “Don’t worry be happy!”. Impossible to stay frustrated for too long when you’re developing something so positive. I’m so glad I went through the journey because it was a challenge I saw and accepted and I came out on top in the end. To date, over the life of Happy Days, the skill has had over 65,000 unique customers. I had no clue Amazon was paying it’s high traffic skills so imagine my surprise when I got the first email from Amazon saying that the skill had earned money and that money would be deposited into my bank account. Imagine my surprise when I’ve continued to get those emails over the last few months. I know it won’t last but it was never about the money, it was about making people smile. It was about getting more people interested in coding. I also got something that I never thought I’d get, the reassurance that I could develop, and the reassurance that I was actually good at it.
If you’re just learning how to program I urge you to build an Alexa skill. Think about the user experience when you’re designing it - that’s the key! I thought even more about the user experience when I designed my second skill “Internet Safety Tips” in honor of National Cyber Security Awareness Month. I found myself using speech strategies more. I piped everything Alexa was saying through the Voice Simulator feature in the Alexa Skills Kit to hear how it would sound to my users. I didn’t do this with Happy Days, but Happy Days will soon be getting an overhaul - more new quotes and better pronunciation are on the way.
To get started, I highly suggest using the Color Skills Tutorial, this is how I figured out all of the moving parts to an Alexa skill. And to sweeten the deal, you don’t need an Alexa device if you don’t have one. You can use the Alexa Skill Testing Tool, Echosim which links to your Amazon account to test your skill before publishing - you can test in development mode. And now, you can even invite Beta Testers to test your skill too!
I like to point out in my “Alexa…” talk that Amazon loves to reward their published skills developers. Prizes range from socks, sweatshirts, t-shirts and more. Who doesn’t love swag? They also offer AWS Promotional Credits which make most skills free to run. There’s really nothing stopping anyone from diving in and building a skill. So what’s stopping you? Happy Coding and Happy Days!
Thanks to Jeff Triplett for proofing this post and allowing my “heatsisms” to fly.