Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Alexa is music to his ears, however Fred Clarke additionally conducts enterprise with the Amazon Symphony Orchestra

Fred Clarke conducts the Amazon Symphony Orchestra during the summer in Seattle. (Amazon Photo)

Fred Clarke was a music geek before becoming a tech geek. But now that’s he’s a tech geek at Amazon, he’s returned to being a music geek, too.

“Yes, I went to band camp — technically band and orchestra,” said Clarke, our latest Geek of the Week. “I grew up playing cello and trombone, at the great expense of my wonderful parents, and was convinced I wanted to be a professional musician at age 13.”

Clarke majored in music history and theory at Yale, where he also conducted the Berkeley College Orchestra for three years. He then started a Masters in orchestral conducting at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Amazon’s Fred Clarke poses with Groot from “Guardians of the Galaxy” during a trip to Disneyland. (Photo courtesy of Fred Clarke)

“Despite having a fantastic conducting teacher there, after a year I burned out,” he said. “I decided to try my hand outside of music. After many years, I found myself at Amazon, where I have been happily working for seven years.”

Clarke is a senior engineering manager for Amazon Alexa, but music is constantly on his mind for one reason or another.

“I am constantly listening to music while I am working to help me focus,” Clarke said. “I even have two patents around how digital sheet music can work with e-readers — ‘Adaptive layout of sheet music in coordination with detected audio’ and ‘Navigating music using an index including musical symbols.’”

As far as Alexa’s musical skills, whether it’s singing or calling up musical facts and trivia or being a DJ, Clarke knows the voice assistant well.

“Alexa is a great DJ when Alexa is playing my music … less so when Alexa is playing my kids’ music,” he said.

After taking a 25-year break from music, a friend invited Clarke to be the first conductor of the newly formed Amazon Symphony Orchestra. The employee organization is a non-audition orchestra meant to create a supportive ensemble environment that ranges from all levels and backgrounds.

“The first concert was held in July 2017 and there are nearly 100 passionate musicians playing with us now,” Clarke said. “Some musicians are former professionals while others only played their instruments in middle school or high school.”

The group rehearses weekly to prepare for performances, which are held once a season. Performances include a variety of music, and some of Clarke’s favorites have included Mahler’s “Second Symphony,” a “Sound of Music Sing-Along,” and playing the finale from “Firebird” at the closing ceremony for the Special Olympics in Seattle this summer.

The Amazon Symphony Orchestra Halloween concert takes place tonight at the Amazon Meeting Center at 2031 7th Ave. in Seattle. They will be performing selections such as Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” and the mystical music of Harry Potter. The concert is open to the public, and runs 7-9 p.m., with doors at 6:30. Amazon is encouraging families to dress up for a costume contest.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Fred Clarke:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I’m a senior engineering manager for Amazon Alexa, meaning I manage a team of professionals that makes sure Alexa continues to surprise and delight our customers.

Why do I do it? It’s super cool. I get to come to work every day and think about ways to make Alexa more helpful for our customers. In seven years at Amazon, I have never been bored. There is always a new challenge and always a willingness to do something peculiar — like start a symphony orchestra.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? We are still at the beginning. I am excited to see the possibilities realized over the coming years.

Where do you find your inspiration? Frustration. Whenever I experience something that feels broken, the wheels start spinning on how to fix the experience.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? Television. I love movies, and, much to my family’s dismay, I like to watch the same movies multiple times: “Godfather,” almost every Star Wars/Star Trek movie, “Matrix,” “Gladiator,” “Braveheart,” “Dark Knight,” “300” …

Fred Clarke’s workspace at Amazon, complete with Door Desk. (Fred Clarke Photo)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? My workspace is pretty simple. A door desk with a monitor, which features a rotating set of action figures (Matrix, Star Wars, Watchmen, Austin Powers, etc.) and my handy sonic screwdriver in case I run into a problem I can’t solve.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) There are three key strategies I have that keep me sane: 1) I make sure I have no unread email every day, add items to my to do list, and then move my email to another folder so my email box is empty; 2) I leave work at 5:30 so that I can spend time with my family; 3) Ann and I make sure we sign-up to volunteer in our kids’ activities.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? All awesome, but I have to go with Kirk.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? A Time Machine, but limited to 1 day. A transporter kills you and then creates a copy of you somewhere else; basically you didn’t really go anywhere. A cloak of invisibility would allow me to hear things I really don’t want to hear; I’ll also opt out of reading people’s minds. That leaves me with the time machine. There are plenty of days I would love to relive immediately and other’s where I would love to take back something I said.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Build an app that makes it easy to play along with classical music backing tracks and share your recorded performances on your preferred social network!

I once waited in line for … Tickets to see The Who for their first final tour. Got in line at 7 p.m. the night before for morning ticket sales.

Your role models: Mom & Dad: Honest, kind, and supportive of others. When I think I have made a wrong turn, I can look to their example and do my best to course correct.

Greatest game in history: “Time Pilot” (arcade version only).

Best gadget ever: Banana Slicer.

First computer: Macintosh (which I inherited from my younger, smarter brother).

Current phone: iPhone 8.

Favorite app: DragonSoul.

Favorite cause: Mary’s Place.

Most important technology of 2018: In my world, Alexa.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Life is short. Spend as much time as possible being with the people you love, pursue you passions, and, if possible, pursue your passions with the people you love.

LinkedIn: Fred Clarke

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