Shaw University professor Lloyd Williams is trying to bring diversity into computer science — an industry thought to be disproportionately dominated by white or Asian-American men. He’s doing so by bringing innovation to the classroom at Shaw University, a historically black college in Raleigh. Staff writer Ryan Smoot asked Williams about how he is trying to change perceptions of programming.
The Daily Tar Heel: Can you describe the current level of diversity in the tech sector?
Professor Lloyd Williams: It’s a known problem in the tech sector. There’s a Gallup poll where they talked to people about their perceptions — when they see computer scientists in television and movies, over 50 percent of the time the respondents said it’s a white guy with glasses. Asians, I think was around 20 percent, and African-Americans were in single digits.
DTH: Why is the stereotype predominantly white or Asian men?
LW: It’s very complicated, knowing the exact answer. I don’t think it’s grounded in fact — I think if you look at the composition of programmers in other countries, such as China, you’ll see a lot of female programmers that are highly successful. How we got here is a very complicated question to answer. These perceptions lead to people having implicit biases and making decisions they’re not even aware they’re making.
DTH: Without diversity, is it going to be a challenge to fill jobs?
LW: It’s a terrible problem. If we look at the population demographics in this country, if we don’t diversify our tech workforce, we’re going to very rapidly not be competitive, whether economically or in terms of national security. If we’re only drawing tech careers from a small subset of the population, we’re just not going to be able to fill jobs. If we’re excluding women, that’s half of our candidates.
DTH: What are you doing to raise diversity in the computer science sector?
LW: I’m trying to change those perceptions. I’m trying to put the word out about very talented programmers whose skills are world class, who don’t fit into that perception people have — they look different. I think the best way to change someone’s perception is to show them an excellent programmer with world-class skills who doesn’t look like what they would expect of a programmer.
DTH: You mentioned the danger of women being excluded from computer science. How are you engaging your students, particularly women, at Shaw?
LW: We start housing all of our students — male and female — together who’re studying computer science. This makes a much more welcoming community. A lot of students are into the same stuff, so some things that may be considered geeky on a normal dorm floor, are celebrated.
DTH: Is the stereotype of computer science programmers being “geeks” something you want to embrace or move away from?
LW: Both. I think if you look at the dynamic now, it’s changed. We’ve undergone societal shifts where a lot of the most dynamic people in our culture now are geeks. You look at people like Elon Musk – they’re world-thought and cultural leaders. I think the whole mindset has been turned on its head, and we’re starting to celebrate the culture. Geeky is not the bad word it once was — if you look at popular culture, comic-cons, our society is starting to embrace that. But also there’s no way you have to act or be in order to be a successful programmer. You can be whoever you want to be, and you belong in programming.
DTH: What areas of tech education do you view as important for preparing students for future careers?
LW: We’re putting a lot of project-based learning in our curriculum. Our students in our software engineering classes are coding their own virtual reality environments now. We’re starting programming teams that are competing in hackathons. We’re really trying to get them those programming muscles and have them practice them as much as they possibly can before they go into a work environment.
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