Computer science professor on the changing face of tech

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Dr. Kyla McMullen spoke at OSCON's morning keynote session today. She was the first African-American woman to graduate with a PhD in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan. And it says a lot about tech's lack of inclusiveness that this landmark achievement happened in 2012.

These days she is Assistant Professor in Computer Science at the University of Florida.

In her keynote, Dr. McMullen explained that as a child she was a tinkerer and reader—like most of us in the room. She was a fan of any toy with a screen, but she was told that geeky toys like the Nintendo Entertainment Center, the Gameboy, the Simon, and Tomagotchi were "boys toys." She ignored it, and eventually decided to study computer science.

In those days, the face of computer science was overwhelmingly white, and male—Dr. McMullen showed an original picture of the early Microsoft team: 11 white guys. It was no surprise that no one looked like her in the program. But with the help and guidance of several mentors along the way, she persisited.



How can we be more inclusive?

  • Be nice to the newcomers. Help people who come into our technology communities and make their first contribution. Walk them through that first pull request, and introduce them to other key players. Sites like First Timers Only can help with the small amount of hand-holding that new participants need.
  • Wear your difference with pride. Whether it's race, education level, sexuality, ability, age, gender, ethnicity, culture, language, or class, your difference defines who you are. Be proud of those things, and be as open as you can to show others the value of the breadth of life experiences you bring to the table.
  • Find your tribe. We can't all be friends with everyone. Find your niche, the people who have the same passions you have, or who represent those under-represented groups. There is strength and support in numbers, and in friendship.
  • Mentor someone who is different from you. Particularly if you're one of the majority population, this gives a hand up to the underrepresented, and you will learn from them in turn.

Finally, consider the words of Maya Angelou, from her poem Human Family:

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England's moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we're the same.

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Ruth Holloway has been a system administrator and software developer for a long, long time, getting her professional start on a VAX 11/780, way back when. She spent a lot of her career (so far) serving the technology needs of libraries, and has been a contributor since 2008 to the Koha open source library automation suite. Ruth is currently a Perl developer and project lead at Clearbuilt.

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