Q&A with Adobe Acrobat Engineering Interns: Investigating Voice and PDF
Adobe summer interns Monsi Magal, a bachelor’s degree candidate from San Jose State, and Cedrick Ilo, a graduate student at Virginia Tech, worked with Adobe Acrobat engineers Russ Doi and Eddie An on an experimental prototype called PDF audible that combines voice technologies and PDF to make digital documents more accessible. We asked Cedrick, Monsi, and Russ about the project and the internship.
In a nutshell, what is PDF audible?
Cedrick: PDF audible brings together the functionality in Adobe Document Cloud with voice tech that you might be familiar with at home through voice assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Cortana.
Monsi: You start by scanning a document — maybe it’s a recipe, instructions, or a page from a book — using Adobe Scan, which it converts the scan to a PDF. Then Adobe Scan runs OCR (optical character recognition) magic on the scanned document and automatically uploads it to Document Cloud. The OCR converts the printed text into digital text that can be selected, copied, or annotated in Document Cloud. What we’ve done is sync a voice assistant, in this case an Amazon Echo Dot, with Document Cloud, so that you can manage, read, and review your Document Cloud files with your voice.
Cedrick: I think a lot of people use Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Siri for fun, but PDF audible opens up new uses and new capabilities.
What inspired the project?
Russ: At Adobe TechSummit last year, I had lunch with Andres Gonzalez, an Acrobat computer scientist, who happens to be sight impaired. He and I had a nice conversation about accessibility, specifically about visual accessibility, in Acrobat. I kept the conversation in the back of my head for a few months, which became a prompt for our Cedrick and Monsi to work on over the summer.
Cedrick: Andres was really engaged with us on this prototype, offering up feedback and ideas on how this functionality could work for him and folks like him.
Tell me about the process of developing PDF audible. What did a given week look like? Whom else did you work with?
Monsi: The project took the whole summer, so 12 weeks. We adopted what’s called an ‘agile’ methodology, which involved two-week sprints to work on elements of our project. At the end of each of those two weeks, we’d all demonstrate our progress to each other — the interns — and engineering staff. We’d meet with our mentors every day!
Cedrick: We were also learning a lot on the go, too! For instance, we both didn’t know a whole lot about the platform we were using to develop this prototype. That was the first week of learning. Then each week after that we’d learn about Alexa, the middleware technology, and then putting it all together. Definitely a learning curve.
Cedrick: What was also great was the bond we had with the other interns, not only when it came to what we were working on, but also within the internship culture at Adobe. Everyone’s invested in each other, and it’s not just a “hi, hello” each day. We called one of the interns we worked with, Jeff, “geriatric intern,” because of all the experience he had working here at Adobe. He was great at everything from mentoring us on the process of working with the engineering team to where to find a conference room. He only had a year’s more experience than we did! (laughter)
What were the big challenges developing a prototype like PDF audible?
Monsi: This was my first internship, so I was learning a lot of new things like working in a team environment. Things like standup meetings and sprint sessions were totally new, but I appreciated that these were activities that I should expect going into the “working world” post-college.
Cedrick: The biggest challenge for me was communicating my ideas. I understand the ins and outs of the technology that I’m working on, but it’s not always easy to communicate that to other people in the organization, especially if they’re not engineers or as deep in the technology. I think that’s not just the biggest challenge I faced, but it’s also the biggest learning I’ve taken away from this experience. Being an engineer isn’t just writing code.
Russ, how would you describe the impact of Monsi and Cedrick’s work?
Russ: It feels good to contribute something meaningful to the greater good, so I make it a point that every intern that works with me will have every opportunity to provide value and feel valued. To me, they’re like full-time employees. I wanted Monsi and Cedrick to go back to school and be proud about what they worked on.
Monsi: I appreciated knowing the “grind” of deadlines and presenting to execs!
Cedrick, Monsi, in hindsight, how did this project changed your perception of PDF?
Monsi: In full honesty, before I joined, I thought PDFs were just read-only!
Cedrick: It’s amazing how much you can do with a PDF these days, even with what’s already in Document Cloud. There are so many ways PDFs can help anyone go about their day — at work or anywhere else.
What would you like to see next for PDF?
Monsi: I’d love to see anything that connects Document Cloud to a young audience. I just keep thinking about how a lot of people like to doodle in their notebooks during meetings and lectures.
Cedrick: I think there’s real potential to experiment with augmented reality in PDF. Make it more flashy and cool. Then there’s always ideas like that SNL skit where Alexa translated slang. Maybe there’s a way to involve Document Cloud? (laughter)