Aparna is a Senior Solutions Architect at the head of one of the most current and successful business platforms on the planet: she works on the legendary Alexa, “Amazon’s cloud-based service, and the brain that powers devices such as Amazon Echo and the Echo Dot.” More specifically, Aparna works on the Alexa Skills Set initiative, which “allows all kinds of developers – large, small, independent – to add new skills, capabilities or services to Alexa themselves.” For example, if one wanted to create a tailormade vocational guide for a particular job description or company, this could be integrated into Alexa’s already extensive range of digital wisdoms. “Alexa is getting smarter every day,” Aparna stated. “It is highly accessible, in that anyone can build an Alexa skill for free, and if you can build a smartphone app, you can build a skill.” Their trademark intelligent product is then evolving into a friendlier, more detailed information source, run for people by people, not just drawing from the internet but introducing new credible content, via an approachable frictionless form. “Working with different developers is exciting because the opportunities are endless – I enjoy solving problems and creating new possibilities for our customers and that’s what our team does every day.”
The allusion to A.I is also apt here because Alexa Skills, as evident in the name itself, is dedicated to bettering user experience and fostering a more humanistic approach, which counteracts the rogue outcome of future tech as adversely impacting people’s lives. As opposed to the isolation, and potentially numbing minds into a lazy conscious, Aparna and her team preserve the virtues of inquisition and collective connections. Here, the key motto of the technological leader’s online behemoth also informs the invigorating direction of Alexa: “as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said recently,” Aparna relayed, "to invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. Most large organisations embrace the idea of invention but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there. In business speed matters. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. At Amazon, we value calculated risk taking and a bias for action.” This is why the young creator suits her digital guidance role so incredibly well. “Initially, I was in Bangalore, India, working in the tech space as a quality assurance engineer, but I felt that this job did not really challenge me: I wasn’t able to utilise all my skills. I wanted a bigger role, and this was a major, life-changing decision. The choice came down to taking on projects slowly that built my exposure to wider business, or to entirely switch domains. I went with a formal switch, including doing an MBA. This also meant moving to Singapore where I attended NUS business school. There was a lot of discomfort with the change, but it was worth the bigger pay-off.” Indeed, just as her excellent product pioneers a pragmatic shift in the way one navigates life, Aparna stands as a leader for an emerging philosophical approach to the world of work: “I have learnt the importance of fluidity since nothing is permanent. We live in a world where everything is changing so quickly. People want different services and things and so there are always new opportunities, and abilities in demand. You must know what you want.” Thus, paradoxically, Aparna’s progress in a contemporary technological landscape, reveals the organic source of success in tumultuous modern life: the timeless qualities of instinctual passion and strength, which must be left open to be continuously refined. “One needs to know what success means to them,” Aparna aptly finished. “My story applies to everyone. Unfortunately, we still live in a society where we allow such our personal goals to be defined by others. But that’s never the way forward: with the right mentors, and solid experience gained from a variety of viewpoints, you can do well. A good role model doesn’t even need to be in your field – just someone who you aspire to be like or share similar interests with.” The right career is then determined to be the genuine grasp of oneself.
What is your favourite part of working at Amazon?
In addition to creating wonderful experiences for customers, which is highly creative and rewarding, I love working with so many people from such a broad range of different backgrounds, perspectives, cultures and thought processes. I learn a lot. We work together for one fantastic common goal.
You have written a great guide on how to evolve into a successful leader. Can anyone really transition?
I can say with confidence that no amount of preparation before taking on leadership roles and activities can make you the best leader. You only need the courage to take risks and responsibilities, and experience hones and shapes your leadership abilities.
You’ve had previous experience which has taken you across Singapore, India and the UK. What are some valuable skills you have gathered?
I definitely think that this travel and exposure to different cultures has made me a better person. It has given me incredible empathy, understanding, patience and acceptance. I think what has been most valuable in terms of my career is the experience of business practices across the East and West and how this differs.
What’s some advice you can give to those fearing a career change?
Accept that there will always be fear and discomfort when it comes to making such a significant change: it’s how you cope that makes the difference. Furthermore, my advice to anyone feeling overwhelmed by change is to look at the trade-offs. Consider all the possible outcomes of your decision and analyse everything. When you make big decisions based on your emotions, you don’t have as much control and you aren’t prepared for the outcome – that ambiguity is what drives most people’s fear.
Finally, give a couple of your entrepreneurial top tips?
Say ‘no’ more often: this isn’t just freeing – it’s necessary. If you disagree with a decision, explain your stance and give evidence. Every boss is unique, but as a rule, honesty is always the best policy. Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Brilliant leaders also have conviction and are tenacious, refusing to compromise for the sake of social cohesion.
Also: insist on the highest standards. Natural leaders do this – it’s so important that leaders are continually raising the bar and driving their teams to deliver high quality products, services and processes. The best leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed. Insisting on the highest possible standards also means accomplishing more with less, rather than just throwing resource at a problem. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention.