How you can make the next Amazon Echo or Google Home

Developers share insights into jumpstarting a career in the smart home.

David Priest Former editor
David Priest is an award-winning writer and editor who formerly covered home security for CNET.
David Priest
3 min read

Ten years ago, smart-home technology as we know it didn't exist. Sure, you could find hubs that connected with various niche products via radio signal, but today, smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home have burst out of the living rooms of early adopters and into the mainstream.

So one big question for the rising generation of developers is, "How do I design the next Echo?"

We talked to people at the top smart-home tech companies and the premiere STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) universities to get the answers. Here are five tips for the aspiring smart-home innovator.


Don't limit yourself

Odd as it may sound, people across the board recommend waiting before you commit to a specialized field like smart home technology. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for instance, requires all incoming students to begin with an undeclared major, to allow time to consider all the options. MIT isn't alone. One of Stanford's advisers pointed me to the school's stance on career advising: "People today change jobs an average of 12 times throughout their career. Reframe 'what am I going to do for the rest of my life' to 'what am I going to try first.'"

Find the right focus

Once you decide smart-home tech is the right direction for you, you'll need to find the right academic focus. According to Nathan Smith, the director of smart home development at Amazon, "The areas of speech science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are rapidly advancing the capabilities of today's smart home, and skills in these areas are helpful when pursuing a career in the field."

Yet, he says, smart home technology is often the result of intense collaboration, too: studying areas like computer science, electrical engineering, artificial intelligence, data systems and more can all be helpful in working toward a career in smart-home tech design. And most universities list their available majors online.

James Martin/CNET

Think creatively about your coursework

Once you've found your major, though, you'll want to think about how to personalize your education. Often, four-year academic programs will allow some flexibility in terms of your course selection, and this is where to factor in your long-term goals and interests. Some universities even offer Individualized major programs, in which motivated students can collaborate with advisers to design their own degree curricula. At Indiana University, for instance, students could work toward a degree integrating computer, cognitive, and speech and hearing sciences coursework, all to learn about designing voice assistants like Alexa or Siri .

It's not all about the degree

A bachelor's degree is a solid first step toward breaking into the smart-home tech industry, but according to Smith, "equally important are the varied backgrounds, ideas and points of view candidates bring."

That means hustling for internships, developing diverse skillsets, and gaining good depth and breadth of experience. It takes only a quick search online to find job postings at top tech companies, and those postings can offer valuable insight into what programming languages, tools and experience would most benefit the aspiring developer.

CES 2019 welcome arch
Jason Hiner/CNET

Just do it yourself

That's right: you don't need to work at Google or Apple to build smart-home technology right now. If you ever visit CES, you'll notice that a surprising number of the developers setting up booths are regular people who have seen an empty space in a technical industry and designed a product to fill it. In fact, Etta Pittman, the director of development at Georgia Tech's College of Electrical and Computer Engineering, says a number of her students have submitted such devices as their senior research projects. A great place to start is Amazon Echo's open API, allowing intrepid individuals to develop their own voice apps.

So don't keep wondering about how to make the next big smart device; start taking steps to make it.

The growing crowd of smart speakers is ready for your command

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