Alexa En Español, Who’s the Techie Latina Creating You? Su Nombre Es Melodie Martinez
As our minds are enriched with HERstory during March for Women’s History Month, there might be some unwanted statistics thrown our way. Like this one:
According to AnitaB.org, women make up 28.8% of the tech workforce; however, only 2% of those STEM jobs are held by Latinas. And to add another obstacle, Black and Hispanic women who majored in computer science or engineering are less likely to be hired into a tech role than their white counterparts.
That is the kind of history that should not repeat itself. Tech industry, we need a Latina hero! She’s gotta be strong. She’s gotta be fast, and she’s gotta be fresh from the fight. So who is the tech superwoman we can look up to?
Let’s try asking the source that provides so many of our daily questions, Amazon’s Alexa. Because the AI’ answer might just be Melodie Martinez, the one and only Senior Product Manager for Alexa en Español.
The changemaker spoke with mitú about her career — from working for Amazon’s most popular invention to how she’s making sure Alexa en Español satisfies all Latinx communities.
¡Hola, Alexa! ¿Quién es Melodie Martinez?
You are the Senior Product Manager at Alexa en Español. Turns out, Alexa did not even start speaking Spanish until the fall of 2019. Were you a part of this evolution of Alexa that year?
Before I joined I said, I will work at Alexa one day! I just didn’t start at Alexa, I started at a different part of the organization. And then I made my way into Alexa. I was able to participate in the process of actually testing and training Alexa to speak Spanish. I do remember when emails went out to the company internally to recruit Spanish speakers that told them, “Hey come and tell us about Alexa speaking Spanish correctly, so you can help us train her to the public,” which was super cool to me to be able to do that.
What are some of the main responsibilities and challenges of Alexa en Español in your role?
How do you build an experience that’s taking into account not one Hispanic in the U.S., so you don’t make it very Colombian or very Venezuelan… so how do you make an Alexa that’s inclusive, right? That’s really what we’re trying to do. I think we’re doing a really good job at it. We’re making sure Alexa doesn’t sound like anyone. We’re trying to make sure that when there’s a very special event, there’s awareness. Whether it’s a special event in Mexico or Colombia, or wherever that may be. I think that’s a challenge.
You were born in the U.S. (Florida), raised in Venezuela, and now you live in Seattle. Did your different life experiences as a Latina influence how you helped to develop Alexa en Español? If so, how?
Definitely! Being raised as a Latina, having that background to what we love, and the way that we think, and the way that we speak… the words that we use. And then, coming to this country… I kind of lived everywhere… I lived for some time in New York. Of course, that was super eye opening because I met people from everywhere. I think just being able to experience and have that cultural explosion, and to bring that to Alexa. Because I think that’s what our product should do. Our product should be inclusive. Our product should be able to serve every customer that’s out there.
Technology is historically a male-dominated industry, yet the use of tech is fully embraced by women, and many studies even suggest that females are the primary buyers of tech in the home. What do you feel the technology industry needs in order to attract more women, particularly into high-level positions?
I think the responsibility still needs to fall on the companies and the corporations… to spend more time and energy on diversity and inclusion. At Amazon, we already have strong women as leaders. And I think that’s very encouraging for someone like me. I don’t think our work is done. I still think there’s a lot of work to do. And I think we need to change the way, across the board, how we see diversity and inclusion. It’s not a project that we just put a check mark on and mark it as complete. It’s more of a mentality and philosophy. And to me, it starts with the moment we approve someone, the moment we promote them. The moment we design a product. The moment we think about how we’re gonna sell that product. The moment we might include someone who has a small business, how we serve the community. In reality, we really can’t create products and services for our customers if we can’t incorporate the views of a diverse set of people. That’s what we need — more people with diverse opinions.
Have you encountered any roadblocks along the way that were related to your gender or being Latina?
I think as a woman in a typically male-dominated industry like science and technology, it’s not necessarily so much about the large, obvious examples of inequality that one experiences, but the small and seemingly trivial habits of the industry that are inherently problematic.
One obvious challenge about being a woman with a career is the challenges of having a family. As a society there’s still an expectation that the woman needs to be a superhero in both her career and at home, and that’s just not realistic. Knowing how to create your own work/life balance is important. For me, that means creating your own limits, for instance, no meetings before certain times, so I can get kids ready for school, and I make a point to not miss special events. I would say that it was not always like this, and it’s a lesson that I had to learn. It’s important to know that work-life balance only works with effective communication and organizational support.
As a woman in tech, it is easy to sometimes feel excluded, especially when in a male-dominated room, and when people don’t feel included, they stop participating. And that’s the tragedy, because we want diverse teams, but diverse teams only function if we let individuals express themselves. It becomes especially difficult if you are introverted. However, some of the best leaders I have had are introverted, so don’t let that deter you. It’s not about having the loudest voice in the room. If we all agreed all the time, meetings would be very short! Here at Amazon, we value “backbone” that is one of your leadership principles. You are expected to voice your opinion, and I believe this contributes to diverse thinking.
One major roadblock has been the need to adjust my people pleasing personality to be a better leader. I think sometimes some women (me included) tend to think they need to be liked in order to succeed. Wanting to be liked is linked to humility and reverence, which are also important qualities in the Hispanic culture. However, they are not the qualities we tend to give professional recognition. Confidence is a skill, not a quality, and leaders are confident and don’t always need to be liked.
If you had to sum up what it is like being a woman in this male-dominated technology industry in just a few words, what would you say?
One of the hardest things is probably being assertive without coming across as aggressive or emotional — this can be difficult, especially when you are the minority in the room. The balance between too much confidence and humility is one that can take years to master for some.
What are some of the misconceptions/myths about women working in the technology space that you’d like to dispel?
One myth I think many tend to believe is that to be a successful woman — especially a woman in a leadership role — you must sacrifice personal goals, like growing a family. Many businesses, especially those in the technology sector, have become increasingly flexible with their workforce across aspects like remote work, alternative hours and more. As a successful professional and a passionate mother, sacrificing one or the other just wasn’t an option for me. I’ve been lucky enough to work at a company that’s given me the needed flexibility to succeed at both, and I think it’s important for women to know they don’t need to limit themselves to one path in order to achieve their goals.
Another misconception is that you need to have a degree in computer engineering or know how to code to start working in the tech industry. This is not true. Many of the skills I already had are transferable to tech. For example, I have a degree in business with a marketing focus. I did not have any idea what project management entailed — the only PMs I knew were older men that had engineering degrees. Many of the people I work with today — even those that develop products — have diverse backgrounds in finance, chemistry, math, etc. Tech is a broad field, and it needs people with a variety of educational, cultural backgrounds.