Inspirational Women: Catherine Breslin | Manager, Machine Learning at Amazon Alexa

Catherine Breslin, is the Manager of a team of machine learning scientists working on the speech and language technology behind Amazon Alexa (Cambridge, UK).

Catherine Amazon

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I have never sat down and planned out my career in depth, but I’ve always had some idea of my next step and how I should achieve it. I grew up being interested in computers and technology, and I chose to study Engineering at university. It was only in my final year there that I learned about the field of machine learning and I became interested in how we can teach computers to do complex tasks such as understanding speech and language.

I went on to do a masters and PhD on the topic of automatic speech recognition. Since then, I’ve been fortunate that the field has been growing rapidly and many different opportunities have come my way. At times, I’ve had to think hard about which direction to take, but have normally chosen the opportunity that has given me the most scope to learn new skills.

Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?

It is great to be challenged, but it can be daunting and uncomfortable at times. I find the best way to deal with challenges is to prepare well – by reading as much as I can about new topics and talking to others who have faced similar issues. Then I break the larger problem down into smaller chunks that can be tackled one at a time. I do the same for all challenges, whether it’s something at work like tackling a new and complex technical problem, or something at home like working out how best to juggle family life.

When faced with two equally qualified candidates, how would you decide who should have the role?

I would hire them both! As machine learning is such a fast growing field with large potential, we struggle to find enough qualified candidates to fill our roles.

On a typical workday, how do you start your day and how does it end?

My day starts with a strong cup of coffee as I’m not a morning person! After the school run, I sit down at my desk to go over emails. Our daily team ‘standup’ meeting is also in the morning, where I catch up with the team and the status of our work.

We work closely with other teams in both the US and in the EU, and partnering with colleagues in multiple time-zones means that good communication is key.

Hence my workday often ends with a video call between different teams to keep our joint projects on track.

How have you benefited from coaching or mentoring?

I have had a number of great mentors who have helped me at different times in my career. I think that having someone to talk to and bounce ideas off who is outside of your immediate team can be very useful as they have a different perspective and are less influenced by the dynamics of your particular team. Outside of formal mentoring programs, I’m fortunate to know a great network of people to turn to who have a breadth of experience and lots of helpful advice.

What does the future hold for you?

 Machine learning has a lot of potential to impact the world, and I think we are only just at the beginning of seeing the benefit it can bring. When I was growing up, the thought of being able to speak naturally to a device and have it respond was still the stuff of sci-fi films. But now, speech and language technology has advanced and is in products like Alexa, and used by a large number of people. Voice is the future and can fundamentally improve the way people will interact with technology.

We are still a long way off being able to converse with a computer in an entirely natural way, but the systems are getting smarter every day.

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