Alexa Dev Day in Atlanta

I looked forward to Alexa Dev Day in Atlanta for months, and I was not disappointed! Alexa Dev Day is a free one-day workshop to teach Alexa Skill building direct from Amazon. Check out the current Alexa Dev Day schedule here. Alexa Dev Day held in Atlanta on September 19, 2017 was marketed as an "Introductory" level course. Everyone was welcome. Attendees ranged from business people interested in receiving an overview about Alexa to seasoned mobile app developers looking for their next "killer app."

Over 200 people attended Alexa Dev Day at Ventanas in Downtown Atlanta on September 19, 2017. Ventanas is a private event space featuring 360 panoramic views of Atlanta.

Panoramic views aside, we were there for the Alexa content direct from Amazon. Rob McCauley, Alexa Solutions Architect at Amazon.com led the session. Rob presented Alexa Skill Building basics and then fielded audience questions. Questions ranged from basic Alexa device functionality to more advanced Skill developer questions. All questions were welcome as this was an Introductory level course. I met aspiring developers who were truly looking to publish their first Alexa Skill.

Alexa Myths Debunked

Echos are relatively new devices and the general public has had a few concerns about privacy and security. Here are a few facts about Alexa (Echo devices) that we should keep in mind.

  • Alexa does not record everything you say. The Echo device is simply programmed to "wake up" when the "wake word" Alexa is spoken.
  • You cannot create a Skill that records the original dialog from the user. Alexa's automatic speech recognitions (ASR) and natural language understanding (NLU) engines parse the user's speech into text inputs.
  • Echo devices do not have GPS capabilities. The user must input their zip code or location data for Alexa to provide accurate location information.
  • If your skill plays an MP3, during playback you can call specific audio directives as defined here.
  • Alexa does not save any of your sensitive information such as your bank account balance. If you choose to enable your bank's Alexa Skill, you are opting IN to your bank's OAuth token-based authentication, not Alexa's.

I conducted my own research on security vulnerabilities only to find one successful Alexa hack. In this case, the hacker required physical access to your Echo device and the wires would be quite noticeable.

Other questions included if Skills could do this or do that. For example, one person asked if they could write a skill that invoked another skill. Answer: No, Alexa Skills are silos and cannot interact with each other.

Hands-On Workshops

The workshop included 3 hand-on exercises which were fun for both beginners and advanced developers. The first exercise was to create a city guide with recommendations based on distance. You can try it for yourself here.

Next, we tried our hand at saving a user's place in our skill by writing to a DynamoDB database. This is easier than it sounds. In this skill, we start making a breakfast sandwich and pause and exit the skill mid-sandwich. We come back to our breakfast sandwich skill and picked up where we left off. You can practice making your breakfast sandwich skill here.

Last but not least, we configured settings for AWS IoT by creating an IoT skill that interacted with a computer's web browser. Essentially, we launched search engine on our desktop with a verbal cue to Alexa. Try this at home!

Designing for Voice First

Per Rob McCauley at Amazon, "Designing for voice is a whole new endeavor." In the Alexa Dev Day Workshop, Amazon placed a significant amount of emphasis on designing for voice. This means that we need to make the interaction between our Alexa Skill and the user natural and conversational. We scripted sample skills and even "role played" our voice designs to get a feel for natural language conversation. Bottom line is that what works great as a website or mobile app won't necessarily translate directly to a voice experience. When writing Alexa skills, developers need to design for voice first and visual second. There is a visual component to designing for Alexa with the Alexa Companion App and Echo Show. Amazon has put together detailed documentation in their VOICE DESIGN GUIDE here.

As someone with 7 approved Alexa Skills, I learned a lot from Alexa Dev Day. Thank you Rob McCauley and the Amazon team for putting this one-day workshop together. I look forward attending the Advanced level workshop soon! If you're interested in attending the next Alexa Dev Day, check out the upcoming workshops here.