Columns » Thank Me Later

An Open Letter to Black Computer Scientists

It's not too late for you

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This is the story of a girl who got stuck in an HTML course her freshman year of high school unwittingly.

My mom signed me up for an afterschool program at an obscure storefront office space with other brown kids from Seattle's "inner city" ready to learn the early starts of technology and software development.

Once we secured the basics, we moved on to harder languages. Twice weekly, we'd frustrate ourselves with JavaScript, active server pages, C# programming and network administration. Our instructors were smart and dedicated. They helped us shape our college essays, taught us how to interview for a job at a tech company, and went above and beyond to expose us to local-area college programs so that our sights were set high.

For the entirety of our high school academic career, my peers and I gained exposure to an industry and a skill set we would never have received anywhere else. Learning these skills was supposed to make us better people, help us get into college and land us summer internships at major tech companies. That one free program I began in the early 2000s accomplished all of the above.

Now, 17 years later, we're fighting to place computer science in our public schools where it can be best put to use by the students facing a work and life environment where technical skills will be non-negotiable.

In Charlotte, city leadership is planning to help roll out a new program in conjunction with the city's tech and innovation initiative plans to be a catalyst in bringing hardcore programming training into the classroom, and I'm completely here for it.

According to David Jessup, training and innovation manager with the city of Charlotte, the city will partner with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and a program called Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) to carry this plan out during the 2017-18 academic year. Launched in 2009, the TEALS program, supported by Microsoft's deftly named philanthropic arm Microsoft Philanthropies, "helps high schools build and grow sustainable computer science programs through partnerships between classroom teachers and tech industry volunteers," according to its website.

TEALS recruits, trains, mentors and places industry volunteers into high school classrooms as part of a co-teaching effort with the classroom teachers. Charlotte will be the 26th state in the program to join in bringing computer science classes to hundreds of schools across the nation.

West Charlotte and Phillip O'Berry high schools will be the first schools to implement the program in the coming school year. Students there will learn foundational programming skills and have access to advanced placement computer science courses.

Ideally, this new partnership could spark additional efforts toward ensuring all of our students are developing the necessary skills needed to enter the workforce with in-demand tech skills; particularly our local workforce, where many of the existing, available IT jobs go unfulfilled in our county.

According to a Charlotte Observer report from last June, North Carolina has more than 19,500 open computing jobs last year, but in 2014, only 1,224 people graduated with computer science degrees in the state.

Jessup believes the TEALS program is an exciting opportunity to open new pathways and career opportunities for our city's high school tech talent.

Alongside the opportunity for students, this new initiative poses an opportunity for professionals to be a part of the movement — particularly, diverse software engineers and programmers looking to volunteer to help make the program successful.

There is a stark need for engineers and programmers of color to volunteer and make themselves visible within our schools. The underlying idea: representation matters. Students need to see themselves in the work of technology.

I was fortunate to have a bevy of instructors from different backgrounds as my role models in technology. This diversity gave me the perspective that with the right training and commitment to the material, anyone could become a computer scientist.

I encourage those interested in helping Charlotte become a city that cultivates and encourages talent to sign up as volunteers.

We'll need all hands on deck if we plan to be the kind of city that looks after it's own.

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