This is blog post number 7 about my journey to becoming a software engineer.

When I started the BLOC apprenticeship I had one goal in mind – extend my current skills. I can report with great pride and happiness that I have already reached that goal with the latest assignment that I had to complete. I actually published a real skill for Amazon’s Echo, also known as Alexa.

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So what exactly is Amazon Echo, and who is Alexa?

Echo is a device that one can buy from Amazon. It is essentially a wireless speaker equipped with a set of microphones. Echo can react to the wake word Alexa, which then listens to vocal commands from the user. Those commands are also called invocations. When Amazon released the Echo, it was already able to react to an impressive array of invocations. For example, one was able to ask for the latest news, the weather report, or the traffic situation. So how is it possible that Echo knows the answers to all these things? That’s why Alexa is important. Alexa is Echo’s brain, and she lives in the cloud.

Alexa is very good at understanding human language. That ability in itself is an amazing achievement that only large companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft or Amazon can program. Furthermore, Alexa has that ability, and connect it to sources of intelligence such as weather data, or traffic information and many more.

The Alexa Skills Kit (ASK)

A lot of companies find it helpful to open their technologies to the developer community. Doing so, they create a win-win situation for everyone. It creates diversity, opportunities and volume. Imagine Apple would not allow developers to create apps. 99% of the apps that you love so much on your iPhone would not even exist. Same with the Echo. By opening Alexa up to anyone who can code, they make sure that Alexa keeps getting better and of course more interesting. This means that Amazon needed to find a way to make all that highly complex technology available to developers. Even though I have just released my own skill for Alexa (Luxembourg Trivia Game), I didn’t have to worry at all about how to make voice recognition work. If I knew how to code that myself, I’d likely not be taking this apprenticeship 😉 I leveraged the Alexa Skills Kit that packages all that technology up, and makes it available for anyone who can code.

 

Why is this freaking amazing?

One of the big challenges for web developers is to understand how information can be dynamically displayed on a website. When you first start building websites, you hard-code information into the HTML file. This is also referred to as static websites. The problem with static websites is that they are pretty boring since they always remain the same. It’s similar to publishing a book online. Once you’ve read it, there is little reason to go back, unless you love it so much that you want to re-read it. That was good for the beginnings of the Internet. Nowadays, Internet users want to enjoy dynamic, interactive websites that deliver a different experience, each time they visit the page. Think Facebook; what makes your news feed so interesting is the fact that it constantly updates with new stories about your friends.

In other words, with the completion of the last assignment, I was able to apply the idea of an interactive data source to a device that uses sound as its medium. I have therefore extended my programming skills to a new dimension. Websites exist on two-dimensional rectangles. Echo however uses no width, nor height. It uses sound along a timeline AND that is AMAZING. It opens up my skills to new frontiers, and I truly feel a bit closer to my ultimate goal of becoming a software engineer.

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