Let’s say you want to be a part of building something great in your career—something people can tangibly benefit from, something no one else has thought of, and something you can point to and proudly say, “Hey, I made that.”
If that’s the case, look no further for inspiration than Miriam Daniel. She’s currently the VP of Alexa and Echo Devices at Amazon. That means she and her team are the brains behind the imaginary woman who answers all the random requests you make, from “Alexa, tell me what the weather’s like” to “Alexa, set a reminder to pick up milk” to “Alexa, play ‘Baby Shark.’”
We sat down with Daniel because, quite frankly, her career path is pretty cool—from working as a developer to joining the leadership team at Intel (and staying on for more than 14 years) to transitioning into AI and eventually landing her role at Amazon. Besides joining Amazon at a time when AI and speech technology was just taking off, Daniel has had the pleasure of building a product from the start that can help people—especially those who are disabled—lead more efficient and happier lives.
Here’s how she broke into this creative field, how she balances being a tech leader and a parent, and what advice she has for aspiring innovators.
Tell us a bit about your career path and how you ended up at Amazon.
I spent the first few years of my career working as a developer in various service industries, and then moved on to work at Intel for more than 14 years. I started there as an engineering leader before transitioning to product and business roles, eventually becoming the Director of Innovation Strategy and Product Management.
Then five years ago, I received a call from Amazon. After going through a rigorous interview process and consulting with a couple of my mentors, I decided to make the move. Today, I lead a talented, multidisciplinary team that spends a lot of time thinking about customers—what they want out of voice-driven devices and specifically how Alexa can make their lives easier and more convenient.
What made you want to enter this field?
I started dabbling in speech and AI while running the innovation group at Intel. The power of voice as an intuitive and natural means of human interaction with technology fascinated me. When presented with the opportunity to lead the Echo product line at Amazon, I jumped at it, knowing that this could be a transformative leap in using voice as the ultimate simplifier, cutting through many layers of friction to access information and services in the cloud. I was also excited to be a part of an early-stage innovative product with the ability to shape it from the start. I was ready for a big challenge.
What gets you excited about your job?
I’m excited by the fact that I get to innovate every day. Sometimes I feel like a kid in a toy factory—I dive right into putting the puzzle pieces together to solve hard problems that in the end simplify lives.
Building an entirely new way of interacting with products through voice and visuals was an incredibly difficult problem to solve. When we started, this was a completely new means of interacting with machines, and to see how far we’ve come (of course, there’s still so much more to do) motivates me every day.
What’s the biggest challenge in your role? The biggest reward?
The challenge is that building an Echo device is about so much more than just creating a piece of hardware—it’s about designing an experience, and it’s an experience that’s getting smarter every day. There’s no playbook here or precedent to go off of—we’re exploring and innovating as we go. There’s no such thing as “done.”
The biggest reward is when a customer tells me that they love the products we’re building and how much voice technology has changed their lives for the better. We hear anecdotes from parents, grandparents, teachers, distant family members, and customers with disabilities all the time, and their stories are truly heart-warming.
What’s one thing people don’t know Alexa can do?
Alexa is always getting smarter and is now starting to do things for customers that once were considered science fiction. One example is a feature called “Hunches.” As you interact with your smart home, Alexa learns more about your day-to-day routine and can sense when connected smart devices—such as lights, locks, switches, and plugs—are not in the state that you prefer.
For example, if your living room light is on when you say “Alexa, good night,” Alexa will respond with “Good night. By the way, your living room light is on. Do you want me to turn it off?”
What does it take to be a successful engineer or product manager?
First, speak with confidence. Everyone has a unique perspective, and you have this job or opportunity for a reason. At the same time, understand that credibility is earned. Take the time to dive deep and understand your product or process fully—that will help you to speak from a place of confidence.
Second, invent and simplify. This philosophy is one of the pillars I lean on most for the Echo product development team. Similar to the writer’s strategy to “kill your darlings” in the editing process, the process of product development requires us to simplify and simplify again—all with an eye toward eliminating complexity for the customer and creating a product that they’ll love.
What’s your management strategy?
I believe in a “leader of leaders” approach. Success starts by building a great team, but that can only happen if people have room to grow and become leaders themselves.
I often have to balance leading with doing. This means consciously giving people the opportunity to take ownership of programs and encouraging invention and calculated risk-taking.
How have you managed to balance work and life in your busy schedule?
I have two teenagers, so we’re a typical busy family. There have been times when I’ve been unable to show up at an important meeting due to family circumstances, and times when I’ve made my children wait while I finish up important meetings. Everything you do is a trade-off. It’s important to be a good judge of which trade-offs are necessary in every situation.
For the last few years, my husband and I have had to juggle work and traveling with our son to national and international fencing competitions. There was a time last year when he was traveling alone a lot and getting sick. It was an important year for his college recruitment, so I called my boss and told her that I had to go with him because I knew I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t.
Having an empathetic leader is critical to finding balance at work. She just said one word: “Go.” I spent five straight weeks on the road cheering my son on and taking meetings from airports, hotels, and sports centers in Bratislava, Budapest, Rome, and elsewhere. During that time, I often told myself that if he can handle school, strenuous travel, jet lag, and the pressure of competing, then I could handle work and being there for him during his competitions. It turned out I had made the right trade-off in that situation.
Outside of traveling for sports, I read a lot, love experiencing new places and cultures, and try to carve out time for a barre class as often as possible.
What’s an example of a time you took a risk in your career?
In my early days at Amazon I came to the conclusion that changes needed to be made to a product in development just one day before a big internal review with a group of senior leaders. I ended up pulling an all-nighter to completely rework the original plans and came to the executive meeting armed with an alternate solution. Surprisingly, the leadership team agreed to change course—and I earned a lot of credibility for taking a differing stance.
Growing your career is all about taking risks and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, and being willing to take on big challenges that you may know very little about in the beginning. When I shifted from being an engineering leader to a product leader at Intel, when I chose to work on the Echo product line which was unproven over other product lines that were better understood at the time—in all these cases I took big risks that turned out to be tipping points in my career.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give your younger self?
Seek out strong mentors and sponsors early in your career. I had organically developed relationships with several leaders over time who became inspiring mentors and resourceful sponsors for me midway through my career. In retrospect, I wish I had a supportive, strong network to lean on during the early days.
This is the same advice I give to students in high school and college: It’s never too early to grow your network and seek out experienced professionals who can help you navigate your career.