What I have learned working with scientists in my time at Amazon


What I have learned working with scientists in my time at Amazon about building algorithms for solving business problems.

For the past few years I have been working with Amazon’s Machine Learning University. My role has been to help them scale and reach more Amazonian’s. We accomplished this by creating a learning platform with supportive course content, an emphasis on strong visual and interactive learning. We basically flipped the classroom. My focus has always been to put the experience of the learner first. Providing a clean design, removing noise, with engaging content so the student can focus on learning. The approach has been a great success in teaching Amazonian’s to solve Amazon business problems with Machine Learning.

Enough on what I did and back to what I have learned.

I think one of the first lessons was the importance of gathering data. Data is at the core of understanding the problem. We often approach problems in business or personal for that matter without taking in good data. We lack a complete understanding of the problem.

Until you have data you really can’t build an understanding of what ground truth is. This is very important because everything builds from ground truth. You must explore and visualize your data to establish this. You need to make sure you understand the details that may be hidden in your data. Establish things like context, sentiment, frequency to establish relevancy. Remove the unimportant stuff and focus on what is really important. To do this you may have to do the math, yes, the math. Math is the magic used manipulate and visualize your data. This may sound simple but remember its math. There may be some work to do as you build your algorithm and try and find ground truth. You may need to do some tuning, adjusting your algorithm there is not always a predefined path but more of a process or framework to help you get to your final output.

It is at this point, the point when you see things clearly. But that’s not it. There is something bigger than solving the problem. What? As you know solving problems can sometimes be like putting your finder on the dike. The problem may come again or one like it.

The real value comes in prediction. Now that you can see clearly what has happened in the past and today using insights from your data you can start to predict what will happen next. It’s something Amazon does very well. You know “I see that you purchased that guitar, would you like to look at guitar for dummies or perhaps something to tune that thing please. It’s the secrete sauce, yes, I’d like to solve my problems in the future.

There is one more thing and it maybe my favorite. In my time at Amazon I have discusses quantum physics, robots & rocket science and lots of other geeky fun topics sometimes while playing ping pong. What a privilege that has been to work with some truly inspiring people at Amazon. That said the real insights I gained where from working with the amazing people at Amazon. It’s their drive to solve problems, innovate, willingness to work hard and learn as they go. I’ve worked with some of the smartest people I have ever met here. Many of them are physicists, mathematics masters and rocket scientists. Yet they don’t pretend to know the all answers but they do know how to work hard to get them. I also appreciated the great leadership I worked with in my time at Amazon. Nothing happens in an organization without true leaders and inspiring people who establish clear expectations and remove obstacles it’s truly part of the algorithm for success.


Instructional and Learning Experience Design


Disruptive Technology? Or just a fantasy?

There has been much speculation on what future technologies will be used in creating the next generation of devices. As new types of materials are developed we get glimpses of what our future will look like. Everyday there are new types of technologies announced. Many of them have the possibility of being disruptive. We are innovating too. We are also coming up with new ways to leverage these new technologies as fast as they become available. This stuff gets cheaper everyday too. As Dr. Michio Kaku would say “in the future we will have microchips that will cost only a penny…” He is not kidding.

This is based on the theory of Moore’s Law, the observation that over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. This exponential improvement has dramatically enhanced the impact of digital electronics and is driving the costs down at the same rate.

With Dr. Michio Kaku @ DevLearn 2011

We may not be that far away from some of the technology we have seen in movies like Minority Report, Star Trek or even The Jetsons. OK now I am dating myself. It’s not just the technology that is changing, the way we interact with our devices is changing as well. Let’s look at mobile devices for an example. No more mouse – we gesture or in the case of 3D Leap Motion we use 3D gesture technology.

Of course we can’t forget Siri or products like Dragon Speak for using our voice to interact with these devices. Voice interactions will continue to get better and better. Everything is getting smarter too. We are now creating software that anticipates our needs and offers us options. This can be based on our browsing habits, content we interact with and of course our user profiles. The possibilities are endless or as Napoleon Hill once said “whatever the mind can conceive the mind can achieve”. One thing is for sure – innovation and creativity are driving us forward and it is disrupting how we live today. What if we learn to embrace it and leverage it to solve the problems around us? Let’s not make it all about money or greed. Let’s use this evolution as a vehicle to a higher consciousness.

I leave you with this inspirational video. A Day Made of Glass part of a series of videos by Dow Corning.