Alumni news: Brent Woo

Submitted by Joyce Parvi on
Brent Woo

The department was delighted to welcome 2019 PhD Brent Woo back to UW as this year’s (June 2022) commencement speaker.

The introduction by Woo’s advisor, Barbara Citko, detailed his many accomplishments at UW.  For those of us who remember Woo as a great citizen of the department, it’s no surprise that he has been an active participant in the Linguistic Society of America, featured on the 2018 LSA member spotlight  and also participating in a panel on “Working in Tech—It’s Not Just for Computational Linguists”. Woo’s website gives a peek into the wide range of his interests, intellectual curiosity, and technical skills (a series of blogs from the acoustics of mewing to analysis of humor), with cool graphs throughout.

Since finishing his dissertation, &: The Syntax and Semantics of slash and and/or, Woo has been working as a Language Engineer for Amazon (Alexa AI), where he works with about 150 other linguists with similar background. 

How did you get your job with Amazon?

In the 5th year of my PhD at UW, a linguist friend referred me, I applied, I did an interview series, and passed the interview. When they offered me the job I moved to the Boston area in 2018. The best preparation was doing rigorous mock interviews with the friend, which let me practice the kinds of stories and answers that would come up in the real interview.

Were there any difficulties in making the transition from academic (UW) to corporate (Amazon) work?

The two big difficulties I encountered early on were: working with all levels of business, and the pace of work.

In meetings, it's common to work with people in higher management, business and marketing, customer service, and people of all different kinds of tech and non-tech background. So you have to be able to explain your work to all of them, at all different levels. Can you explain why imperative verbs might impact customer satisfaction? What is the link between direct objects and this upcoming product launch? Being able to explain and argue for my work to people from all levels and backgrounds was, and still is, a challenge.

The pace of work also depends on the product cycles, so there can be weeks of (relative) calm followed by weeks of chaos. In academic contexts, I think we're used to one project after another, what we're not used to is the periods of calm! I managed both of these by getting a mentor who told me to calm down and relax.

Do you have an Alexa at home?  Do you use it and like it?

I have one Alexa device. I keep it in the kitchen and only use it for timers. I do not like it.

What is the biggest problem with Alexa?

One problem I have with the product is that we as humans are still working out how to "do conversation" with it. And I don't mean having a "natural conversation experience" with Alexa itself. I mean when you're in the middle of human-to-human conversation, there's no way to work with it without interrupting the conversation and awkwardly interjecting "oh sorry hold on. Alexa! can you blah blah". If you're on a phone call, you have to mute yourself if you want to turn on or off the lights, lest you sound like interrupting the caller. When a timer or alarm goes off, you have to shout ignominiously, "Alexa stop!". Not to mention all the unsolicited bings and notifications you sometimes get. I don't even like getting interrupted by other people. But getting interrupted by a machine? How dare she.

In case you missed Woo’s commencement speech, here is a brief excerpt:

You are so prepared. I conduct a lot of interviews, and at the end I give the candidates time to ask me questions. The most common question for those from academic backgrounds is what was the transition like, or what do I need to pick up? My answer is there’s more “business”, sure but there’s not much to say. You’re prepared, both undergrads and grads. In my own interview I was asked “have you ever had to work under a tight deadline?” “have you ever had tough feedback?” Oh my goodness! Well how much time do you have...

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