On Feb. 5, 2021, in honor of Black History Month, the alumni chapter for the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) hosted an online panel, “Black Superstar Leaders in ICS,” as part of its Lunch & Learn series. Chapter president Pooja Lohia moderated the panel, which featured the following three ICS alumni and two current ICS scholars from the Department of Informatics:
- Anthony Mays, who earned his B.S. in ICS in 2006, is a software engineer at Google and an inclusion advocate, speaker, and tech interview coach;
- Mamadou H. Diallo, who earned his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in ICS, is a scientist at the Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Pacific focusing on science and technology activities in cybersecurity;
- Brian McCurtis, who earned his B.S. in ICS in 2000, works at Apple as a manager of enterprise systems for Latin America;
- Jazette Johnson, an informatics Ph.D. student, is studying human-computer interaction, accessibility, assistive technology, older adults, dementia, and virtual support systems; and
- Roderic Crooks, an assistant professor of informatics, studies what happens when technology moves out into the world — particularly into minoritized communities.
In introducing the panelists, Lohia, an independent business consultant who graduated from UCI with a B.S. in ICS, spoke of both their individual accomplishments as well as how their narratives fit into a larger discussion about diversity and inclusion. “We will learn about the journeys of every single panelist and their contributions to the advancement of computer science and academia, as well as the business world,” she explained. “We aim to make this also a learning experience and to help foster a dialogue of inclusivity and respect about racial injustice.”
The Many Paths to UCI
The discussion started by highlighting the varied paths to studying and researching information and computer science at UCI. Mays was a foster kid and abuse victim from Compton who found his passion for technology in a computer lab. When the lab instructor suggested he could get paid for such work, he decided to get a degree in computer science. “ICS for me was a game changer,” he said, “being a first-generation college graduate and what I represented for myself, for my family, for my community.”
Diallo grew up in Guinea, a small country in West Africa, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1999 with exceptional math skills but no knowledge of English. “My first goal was to go to school [to] get a degree,” he said, noting that he started at Orange Coast College before transferring to UCI. He credited various “opportunity” programs for supporting his education, including Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS) at OCC and the California Alliance for Minority Participation (CAMP) at UCI.
McCurtis was a “nerd” interested in computers, networking and programming since junior high. He seconded the comments by Diallo, explaining that a discerning factor in his decision to attend UCI was the CAMP summer program he was invited to attend prior to the fall semester. “I really gained confidence because when fall started, I was in a sea of people who did not look like me, [but] I knew where to go [and] what to expect…. I felt like I belonged.”
Johnson knew by age 9 that she wanted to work in computers, and during her freshman year at Spelman College in Atlanta, she decided to develop a music therapy application, inspired by her grandmother who was suffering from dementia. This put her on a path to earning a doctoral degree at UCI and designing virtual support systems for people with dementia.
Crooks, like Mays, grew up in South Los Angeles, and now studies “urban education and technological innovation as applied to the provision of public services to racialized communities.” Yet Cooks stressed that while celebrating these individual success stories, it is important to recognize the larger context in which they occurred. “We have to make sure that we do not allow our own personal and important lived experiences to serve as an alibi for the systemic racism and sexism that marks all powerful institutions.”
Advocating for Diversity & Inclusion
Mays, wearing a Compton hat, has remained close to his roots. Since landing a job at Google in 2013, he has devoted significant time to guiding others hoping to follow in his footsteps, sharing his journey from Compton to Google to “help prepare whoever, from wherever, [get] software engineering roles.”
Mays also talked about the importance of earning a degree. “You may not need it as much to get in the door, [but] if you want to move in some of the more lucrative spaces within tech, you want to have that.” He emphasized the writing and communication skills he earned at UCI, as well as other intangibles. “The time that I spent in African American studies at UCI was important and has informed the work that I do now, not just as a technologist but as an advocate, and that’s not something that I would have had the opportunity to do had it not been for the education that I received at UC Irvine.”
Diallo again argued in favor of programs that support underrepresented students as they navigate through the education system. “These programs helped me a lot as a new immigrant in the U.S.,” he said. “They helped significantly, not only financially but [also by providing] the social support, the moral support, to tell you, ‘even though you are a minority in the school, you can do it.’”
McCurtis, highlighting how the need for moral support extends beyond academia and into the corporate world, talked about implicit biases and “micro aggressions that, over time, will take a toll on anybody.” He said he tries to turn such events into teachable moments. “I always tell myself, ‘he who gets mad first, loses.’ You either have a chance to educate [or] escalate.” He also stressed that diversity is good for business. “Many people are thinking about diversity as giving someone who’s not capable an opportunity,” he said. “To me, diversity is a core component of success, core component of innovation…. by bringing different views and diverse views, you naturally start to get unique solutions.”
Finding unique solutions and considering diverse perspectives is key to Johnson’s work in accessibility and assistive technology and her focus on developing technologies for people with disabilities. “We can change the way we’re designing technologies to think specifically about how we’re designing it for the community first.”
Crooks’ research is similarly community-centered as he tries to “forge connections between people who are confronting the same problems but at different levels and in different ways.” In his work, he partners with community organizers with expertise in “connecting grassroots struggles to larger systemic problems.”
As these superstar leaders highlighted, much of the work in increasing diversity, equity and inclusion is an exercise in translation. Mays explained that “it’s about tying the experience of being a young Black man in the hood [and] bridging the gap between that foreign world and this other foreign world where there’s privilege and there’s technology and there’s empowerment.”
The full panel conversation appears online. Visit the ICS Alumni Chapter Facebook page or webpage to learn about other upcoming events, and contact Pooja Lohia at UCI.ICS.Alumni.Chapter@gmail.com if you would like to be a future speaker.
— Shani Murray