Speaker Spotlight: ‘Alexa to the rescue of inaccessible websites’ with Alex Nicol

The web is over 30 years old, yet some websites are still not accessible.

At Async‘s February meetup, Alex Nicol (Staff Software Engineer and Conversational Systems Specialist at BridgeU & Bounce Technologies) told the tale of how Alexa, with a little bit of help, came to the rescue of a blind person who could not get access to local news. He spoke about accessibility, web crawling, tech-for-good, Alexa, running Ruby on Lambdas, and working on a side project whilst having a six-month-old baby.

Read on to learn more about Alex, and if you missed his talk you can watch it on our YouTube channel here.

Hey Alex, can you tell us a bit about you and the work that you do…

I write code for a living. I’m currently a Staff Software Engineer for BridgeU four days a week, I do a bit of work for Bounce Technologies more or less one day a week, and if I have any time left I do some consulting via my own company.

I have recently been focusing on front end technologies, especially at BridgeU. However I have an expertise in designing and developing conversational systems (such as Alexa Skills and chatbots), which I acquired through my time as an R&D engineer for EDF, where I focus on this field of work for about fives years.

A big part of my recent roles have also been mentoring and teaching, which I enjoy a lot.

What was the inspiration for your recent talk?

This talk comes from a personal side projects that I worked on throughout 2021, whilst being a first-time dad. It’s as much a technical talk about accessibility, web crawling and Alexa skills, as it is a talk about enjoying working on side-projects and being a dad coder.

Any key highlights / takeaways for anyone who missed it?

It’s essentially the tale of how Alexa, with a little bit of help, came to the rescue of a blind person who can’t read their inaccessible local news website.

The talk talks about the fact that not being accessible means exclusion and about the importance of having set times to work on side projects.

The key highlight for me is that I was able to make a positive change in someone life by using my coding skills, whilst not compromising my work/life balance.

Did you come up through a “traditional” techie route or has your career taken twists and turns along the way?

I did come up through a traditional route; I have a Master in Computer Science. My first proper job after that was with a Start-Up in France, where I was mainly working on Geographical Information Systems. Then in 2015 I moved to Brighton as an expat, with a one-year contract, but I never left!

Is there a moment that helped define your career?

I think I was very lucky to be given a lot of trust during my time at EDF. I don’t think I ever thought I’d get to a point in my career where my expertise in a particular domain is recognised internationally, and it is thanks to the generosity of a handful of people I worked with during my time at EDF that it was made this possible.

What piece of advice would you give your younger self?

Keep going, it’ll get easier.

What’s your big tech prediction for 2023?

I think we’ll see more and more companies who base their whole business around using and leveraging OpenAI’s technologies.

Silicon Brighton wouldn’t be here without people like you giving back to the community so… what does the word community mean to you?

To me, it means having a sense of belonging to a place, where ideas can be shared and discussed with people who have similar interests but who comes from different background.


Missed Alex’s talk or want to watch it again? Check it out here…