Tony Natoci (BA '13)

Graduating Class: 2013 (BA, Linguistics and Psychology concentrations)

Student Activities:

  • Linguistics Club
  • Presented at 2013 LSA Annual Conference (Boston) 
  • Volunteered and took classes at the 2013 LSA Summer Institute (Ann Arbor) 

Since graduating from U-M… 
My first job out of college was, believe it or not, as a linguist (official title: “Speech Data Analyst”) as a contractor at Google in the San Francisco Bay Area. I worked on a small team with a few other fellow linguists annotating corpora of English (both spoken and written) to support Google’s machine learning efforts. Our job was essentially to teach robots to speak and understand human language, and we had a blast doing it. 

Then in 2016 I switched gears from engineering to conversation design. Instead of helping to build the technology that allows humans and robots to talk to each other, I designed products that made use of that technology. I worked for a company called [24], a firm that builds IVR applications for huge brands around the world. IVR stands for “interactive voice response” – the technical term for the 1-800 automated phone trees that you interact with when you call your bank, for example. 

After two and a half years as a conversation designer there, I jumped over to Uber, where I’ve been since 2018. At Uber I still design phone trees, but I also build chatbots and other speech applications for the Uber app. Think along the lines of Siri or Alexa – hands-free ways to interact with Uber using just your voice. 

Career Highlights
I’m really just incredibly proud of the craft and the attention to detail that my team and I bring to every project we work on. I’m proud that we ship products that help people save money, that help keep people safe, that give people more control over their lives. My job is to take things that are really complicated and confusing and scary and make them simple, and when we succeed, the result is extremely satisfying and impactful.

But that being said, even after all these years, presenting a poster (of research that Andries Coetzee and I carried out the year before) at the 2013 LSA Conference still holds up as one of the biggest thrills I’ve ever had. 

How has your U-M linguistics degree influenced your career path?

My five years as a linguistics student at Michigan gave me everything. Full stop. Every linguistics course I took prepared me for my future career, even if I I didn’t know it at the time – the challenge of untangling grammars, of reducing systems of impossible complexity down to just a few simple rules; the responsibility of looking after a lab, of collecting and annotating data, of being there for your research partners; the ability to form an opinion, then stand up in front of others and defend it. I may not use the comparative method or X-bar theory or optimality theory every day (let’s be honest, I may never use them again), but the logical underpinnings thereof, the process I was taught to employ to make decisions and to figure out a path forward to a solution – those I’ll use for the rest of my life. 

But even more important than all of that, the faculty and my fellow classmates within the department gave me the confidence I needed to step out into the world and apply these tools. I learned a lot of linguistics, which I expected, but I never guessed that the department would teach me just as much about the world and about myself. It took a lot of courage for me to go out on my own and launch into a career, and the Linguistics department was there for me every step of the way.