March 10, 2015, Jacqueline interviewed Yolanda Davis of Technologists of Color. Yolanda Davis is a Computer Science major who loves technology. Visit http://www.technologyexpresso.com/ for our podcast archive.
Transcribed and Edited by Anisah Muhammad
Jacqueline: Welcome to another edition of Technology Expresso Radio. I have a line full of ladies. It’s ladies night, and we’re just in time. This is Women’s History Month. We’ve had Women’s Day this past Sunday. It’s all about the female! I especially want to highlight women in technology. I’m so excited for our guest, all of the ladies in the twitterverse, and all of our listeners. Welcome, everyone. When looking at women in technology, we look at women who code. There’s a lot of different roles in IT, but none so coveted than the women who code. We have Yolanda M. Davis joining us. Hello, Yolanda. Yolanda: Hi to everyone. Jacqueline: Welcome to our show. We want to talk about the profession of coding. Yolanda, you’ve been in the IT industry – software engineering – for over 16 years. Can you tell us about young Yolanda and how you first got into software engineering? Yolanda: Young Yolanda is ironically my maiden name, Yolanda Young. When I was Yolanda Young, I was introduced to code very early on. I was that kid that was tinkering. I followed behind my father who would wire and rewire stuff around the house. I loved Barbie. Everybody dressed up Barbie and did Barbie’s hair. I did that, too. I was also rewiring her car and trying to dissect Barbie. I was very, very inquisitive, and my mother noticed. It’s very powerful for parents to really pay attention to the things you might not think are normal for kids. [Support and Nurture their curiosity] My mother watched me dissect these things and tinker around with devices in the house, and she decided to buy me a computer. I had my first computer when I was 9 years old. Ever since then, I was hooked, from having my first computer and trying to figure out how to make it draw things to going to computer camp when I was in middle school. In high school, I convinced myself I was going to be an engineer like my sister. However, I thought that engineers work with computers. That was the reason why I wanted to be an engineer. It wasn’t until a couple of years as a Mechanical Engineer major that I realized I had no idea what I was going to be doing after I finished college. A great person in the same scholarship program I was in said, “Yolanda, you like computers. Why don’t you become a Computer Science major?” Back in 1996, I had no idea you could actually go to college just to focus on computers. It didn’t take long for me to change my major and go into the Computer Science program at the University of Maryland, College Park. That literally set the stage for what I had been doing for, really, 17 years, now. I’m passionate about programming, and more importantly, I have learned in this time that so much of what we do on this machine translates to so much of what we need and how we live our everyday life. If you would have told me the impact that being a software developer or coder would have on the world back then, I would have been shocked. The amazing impact is I’ve grown. My 17 years working with it has been unbelievable. I’m so excited to be in this state, and I’m even more excited that I’m able to teach and inspire others to focus on it as well. Jacqueline: That is awesome. As a very young lady, you got exposure. You had parents that didn’t keep you pigeon-holed in traditionally female-type careers and interests. They cultivated the curiosity in you. That’s something we’ve talked about a lot. It’s about exposure. Sometimes parents have to get out of their own comfort zones because they’re not technically savvy. Yolanda: To that point, my mother is a social worker, and my father was a mechanist at a steel plant. They are both very wise, and there was no boundary between what my sister and I could do. They told us to be whatever we wanted to be and that there was nothing stopping us but us. Jacqueline: Absolutely. Yolanda, you work with an organization. You talked about one of the highlights of your career, and that’s working with young people and being able to teach what you know. Can you talk about that? Yolanda: Sure. I’m a co-organizer of Technologists of Color. It’s a meetup here in Atlanta, and our goal is to help connect our community through technology. We have a variety of people who are members. Jacqueline, you are a member. As you and the people who have joined us know, our goal is to try to raise up future leaders who will help us educate our community. People are able to grow their skills, enter into mentorship and connect through networking. Most importantly, we teach and work with children. We have what’s called the “culture of worlds” program which we started in November and will be doing this spring. We work with what’s called the Arduino kits. Arduino is a programmable micro-control. It helps put together hardware along with programming. We really want to create even more of a hands-on experience with writing code. It’s amazing when you can actually connect it with something in the real world and when you begin to understand how the traffic lights or microwaves work. Nowadays, they have these refrigerators that can send you an email when you’re out of something. How can these different devices be programed, and how can they communicate with us? We’re connecting everyday real-world items, and they’re communicating with us. How can we grow from where we’re going? We wanted to create a program to help expose children to this early. We’ll be rolling that out this spring. That’s the beginning of what will be a larger effort of education under the “culture of worlds” umbrella. We’re definitely looking forward to doing more. Jacqueline: Absolutely. Young people are growing up with technology. They’re growing up with the mobile phone. They’re not at all intimidated. If anything, the apprehension comes with parents. They just have to step out of their comfort zone and support young people. I see super athletes, and that doesn’t necessarily mean their parents were super athletes. They’re there, they support them, they get them the coaching and mentorship needed and they get them into the program. As you talked about, with Technologists of Color, you are cultivating young people, and there’s so many people that want to give back. I don’t know if that’s innate to people in IT or just the circles we run into, but everybody are helpaholics. We got it, and we believe you can get it, too, with just a little bit of imagination. There are so many great programs like Technologists of Color out there. The message is to the parents. You talked about yourself as a young person and how you, through exposure, were interested in programming. Once you entered into the career field, was it what you expected it to be? Was it more? Was it less? Can you take us through some of the job experiences you’ve had? People imagine what a coder or a programmer does, but let’s hear it from someone who has been living it for 16 years. Yolanda: Sure. Actually, I came out of school at a really interesting time. If you want to think about 1995, and even 1994, when I first started school and had to change my major, that’s when we started seeing the beginnings of the public’s use of the internet. I think Yahoo was around ’95 or ’96. People were slowly starting to adapt, and more importantly, starting to put their businesses on there in terms of creating store fronts. You had e-comers, which is what we called them back then, when you’re buying and selling things. There was some growth. Around ’96 or ’97 when I changed my major, I had an internship on campus. They needed an online application form because it was a graduates program and they wanted to start moving some of their services online. I have to give it to the University of Maryland; they were very forward thinking when it came to adapting to the internet. That was one of my initial projects. I taught myself because I was interested in how this whole thing works. That internship was my first opportunity to teach myself how this stuff works. I liked it so much that I was like, “This thing could take off,” which is hilarious, now. Back then, you weren’t sure where the internet was going. My first job was to basically start supporting some of the very early web applications that the university had. I applied to go into a full-time job at the University of Maryland, but also to start converting it to something that was newer at the time. When we say coding, what does that mean? Well, as a programmer, my job is to tell your computer how to create that beautiful screen when you open up Internet Explorer, Chrome or Firefox and go to Google, Yahoo or your newspaper. We tell it how to display that screen, and we even tell it how to save the information you might provide. For example, we tell it how to process your credit cards when you’re buying something on amazon.com. That’s the type of work I do. We’re getting closer to technical terms. We do front-end design, which is how everything looks, and back-end design, which is all the work behind the scenes to actually save your information. When I started my career, that was my focus. I was fortunate because at that time, there were a lot of people who didn’t know what the possibilities were for a career. I just happened to fall into it because of that internship. There were a lot of my colleagues who started in one area, didn’t like it, so switched to something else. It took getting out there and seeing the possibilities, whereas now, you have a lot more programs that let you know in advance all the possibilities that are out there. When I came out, there was no real guidance, and you kind of figured it out as you went along. I am very fortunate to still work in the area I fell into as an intern very early on. Now, you can go online and look at all the career possibilities. Not only that, but you can train yourself. I didn’t have that. You had to have the right people and the right books. Now, there’s so much online available to you if you want to pursue any one of these areas. It’s an exciting time for those looking to get in it. Jacqueline: Absolutely. As time goes by, things evolve. It’s dangerous, at this point, to ignore how significant STEM and STEAM is, that science, technology, engineering, math, as well as the arts. Those are going to be the careers, the jobs and the opportunities. They are going to be where the innovation comes from and where the entrepreneurial opportunities are going to be. There’s so many people who are doing all that they can to help you fast-track so you can get what they learned sooner and be more successful. Yolanda, you give tirelessly, here in the Atlanta area, your contributions to Technologists of Color, and you always give quality programs. To look up Technologists of Color, go to meetup.com and type in Technologists of Color. You’ll be able to find out what their next events are and how you can volunteer for the various programs. Yolanda can’t do it all by herself. She needs help. Yolanda: That is very true. We also have a website, www.techsofcolor.org, if you guys want to check us out there. Jacqueline: The other thing I wanted to point out is not only do you have your bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, but you have your master’s degree in Computer Systems Management. You’re a woman of color in IT doing programs for 16 years and a master’s degree. Can you tell us about your thought process as you pursued your master’s degree, and what advice do you have for others? Yolanda: I grew up in a household where a master’s degree was programmed into my brain. When I was a child, I knew I was going to get a master’s in something. As I got closer to actually fulfilling it, it was really because of the gap I needed to be filled in order to navigate the business side. When you get a Computer Science degree or a very technical degree, they do a great job in teaching you the theory behind programming, a lot of mathematics and understanding algorithms. However, when it comes to how to work well with others, how to do strategic analysis, how to communicate well, and when it comes to understanding what your bottom line is, how you fit into the overall picture, and even understanding what a mission and vision statement is, I was not able to get that type of learning. I decided to pursue my master’s in Computer Systems Management because it helped to not only grow my knowledge on the technical side, but there was a lot of managing and business-related concepts that I needed to learn as well. I had a uncle who worked for IBM for a very long time, and he had been in this IT business for over 40+ years. One of the things he instilled in me was the fact that the technology is great. Once you know where you’re going with it, you can do whatever you want. The largest part of this business is about people, process, and money. Those are the 3 main factors. Usually, a litany of things happen because one of those 3 areas is not right. I recognized the things I was missing, and the master’s was a perfect fill in for me. It helped propel me and opened up some awesome opportunities over the years. Jacqueline: Absolutely. We’re talking to a woman who codes. You’re always smiling, so you must enjoy what you do. I think what people don’t really understand is computer science is for very creative people. People think it’s all analytics and just 1’s and 0’s. The wonderful thing about all the programs, camps, and workshops that young people can go to is they get experience and exposure. That’s what Technologists of Color does for young people. There’s different levels of exposure, and I encourage everyone to start somewhere. Do not be afraid of technology. We’re trying to encourage people to embrace it. It’s here to stay, and quite honestly, if you’re looking at making a living and a lucrative salary, with technology, you will have a job for all of the future. Computers are here and running the world, and someone has to program and maintain them. People were afraid computers were going to take jobs away. They’ve created jobs. That is what’s so important to understand. Can you tell us about the different industries? People don’t understand the variety that technology offers because it’s in every industry. Can you tell us about some of the industries you’ve delved into? Yolanda: I don’t think there’s one industry that doesn’t have an intersection or a direct relationship with technology. For a number of years, I’ve worked as a consultant for a small, boutique firm in Maryland. I’ve worked everywhere from hospitals to online tech pharmaceutical companies to a social, analytic company. I’ve worked in small environments to large, corporate environments. Right now, I’m working for a company that’s focused on travel. I have not found one industry that says, “We don’t use technology.” The entertainment industry, as we know, are entrenched with technology. That was not always the case. Celebrities have Twitter accounts, Instagram and their own blogs and websites. Jacqueline, you said something earlier about how creative it is. I’ve always said there’s art behind writing code, and so much of what we do requires us working with people who are creative. Many times with the things we love to use everyday, there’s a whole lot of people who focus on different areas to bring that product together. Even though I develop software and write code, I rely on other people to help make that happen for me. Those type of things are important to know for those who are looking to be in this business. There are so many possibilities, not only where you can work, but also, what you can do in technology. Jacqueline: Absolutely. People have built up the stereotype that you have to be techie. That stereotype around technology and that whole area of STEM is dangerous. We’re really trying to break it down and expose people who have been living it. Like I said, every time I see you Yolanda, and I know there’s good days and bad days, but you wouldn’t be doing this for 16 years and getting both of your degrees in it if you didn’t get something out of it. I know you yourself are a creative person. Let’s transition and talk about the young people. You all piloted a program. What can young people expect when they sign up to your program, and what was it like when you did that pilot program with the young people? Yolanda: It was fantastic. When they come in, they come in with their parents. It’s not a drop-off session, but if you have to go, go. We definitely welcome the parents to observe so they know what’s going on and so they can get some insight on what we’re teaching as well. We believe in them working together to learn from each other as well as learning from the instructor. Not only did they have their laptops, but they also had the Arduino Microcontrollers. It allowed them to basically build electrical circuits and program those circuits. It was a half-day class. We had a little bit of physics as well as programming. They built several circuits, from traffic lights to door buzzers. We also went through some troubleshooting exercises. When a particular team was having trouble finishing their project, we had the other team project, to the team that was struggling, things they could try. We really believe in the interactivity, and I’m very focused on making sure they can learn from each other. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses. In the real world, you’re not going to be a developer in a corner by yourself speaking in creative code all day. You’re going to be working with other people and learning from other people. That is the experience we want to present in the classroom. We had a lot of fun. The kids were wondering when we were going to do part 2, and we definitely look forward to doing it again. The small group we worked with were ready to keep going on their own, which is even more inspiring. Jacqueline: It absolutely is. I love when young people come together. It’s a lot like us adults when we find like-minded people. The same thing happens with the young people when they come together. I don’t know if you observed this, but you always have a couple that looks like they were dragged there by their parents, then they end up having a good time. They’re initially laid-back, skeptical and questioning, but before you know it, they’re engaged, laughing, problem-solving and creating. That’s a great feeling no matter what. It never ceases to transform a young person. On Technology Expresso, we cover a lot of different events, so I’m telling you from first-hand experience. Even if they come kicking and screaming, they find a way to connect with other young people. It’s about teamwork. They get to work as a team to create something, and they get to see the success of what they created. That type of camaraderie, when you’re using your brain power and intellect and not just brute force, is great. The young people find a whole new niche. They find something in themselves, too. We’re really looking forward to the next events of Technologists of Color, and Technology Expresso will be there to cover them. Can you share some of your upcoming dates? Yolanda: Sure. We make sure we invite our community to support other programs, and one of the things we’re doing is having a volunteer meetup to support the BioLogue STEM Program. That’s a great program where there will be a STEM fair for girls. The organizers there needed 30 volunteers. My job is to make sure we stay true to our mission and make sure our group can come and help serve the community. We also have a Happy Hour and a Minorities in Technology. We do Happy Hour every other month, and it’s an opportunity for people to connect and network. We have people that form really great relationships there. We definitely have quite a few events to take us to the summer. Jacqueline: Absolutely. I applaud you. I’m a part of the camaraderie here in Atlanta that supports each other and the various STEM projects. We will be at the BioLogue Program broadcasting live. We had Gladys on our show, and you can find it in the archives. We support all of STEAM, the science, technology, engineering, arts and math, and her focus is on the biology and forensics. If technology isn’t your thing, maybe something along one of the other science fields might be what you really enjoy. Kudos to Technologists of Color for supporting and for all that you do in the community. Another thing, you talked about the meetup and the Happy Hour. I’m excited because it’s like an idea incubator. The people there are so creative. I got to meet the one who created the app Purple Pocketbook. She’s also out on Twitter helping women with domestic violence. I also met Black Men Run there, and David has interviewed them on our men’s series. If you can come up with an app that can solve a problem, then there are resources out there. You can self-teach yourself. There’s free courses and workshops like the ones Technologists of Color put on. Everything is a Google search away. Go out there. Whatever you are interested in, Google search. We are here in Atlanta, but I’m sure you can find a STEM program if you Google search. If you can’t, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can give you several resources on the internet. We’ve been tweeting out technology internships as well as different contests. A lot of different companies are running STEM contests. Just search STEM contests and innovation and you can be winning cash or scholarship money. Parents, there are incentives out there for you to get your young person engaged. I want to get your opinion on what some people call the STEM crisis, especially around young ladies. What’s your thoughts, and what are your concerns? Yolanda: Well, I went to an event a couple of years ago; it was a conference at the White House in D.C. There were some very concerning statistics around the comparison on the number of computer science majors coming out of school and getting jobs. It was a staggering number, and I don’t remember it at the top of my head. It was paired with the percentage of minorities who work in that space, and the percentage of African-American woman was 1%-3%. Women in general was in single digits, though a bit closer to double digits. If we look at the makeup of our country, the makeup of our country is changing. By 2050, the minority will be the majority. However, when it comes to technology, minorities are highly underrepresented. When you’re trying to compete globally, as it relates to technology, most of the progress we’ve had in the last 20 years has been founded on technology. When you try to compete with the world, we used to be leaders in that area. When you have a plethora of jobs and yet, not enough people to fill them, and you have the demographics changing in less than 50 years, where does that leave us? How do we start filling in those gaps? Today, we have people who are looking for new opportunities but don’t know how viable and how possible a career in technology is. It’s way more possible than it was when I first started. The main entry point at that time was you had to go to college. A few people were able to tinker their way through maybe a couple of years in a program. We’re talking about the Bill Gates’ of the world. Most times, you had to go to college. Now, the world is completely different. People are learning on their own, going to bootcamp, discovering on their own, creating their own apps, and they are discovering how to jump into these careers for themselves. There’s a lot of possibilities, but the situation is serious. If we want to not only stay competitive as a country, but stay relevant as a people, meaning we are already relevant, but we’re not seen that way in a lot of states. If we want to increase our profile and be heard even more, we have to become more than a consumer. We have to become not only consumers, but also owners. This is a great ground that we have to do that, more so than ever before. Jacqueline: You are absolutely right, and I hear the passion in your voice. You’re not just identifying a problem, but you are definitely part of the solution. You work tirelessly in your efforts to try to reach out. I see so many ways that Technologists of Color are a part of the solution. You’ve been teaching for awhile, and there’s a lot of great programs like the hackathon. Can you help people understand what a hackathon is, and what are some of the other programs vs a hackathon? Yolanda: A hackathon is when you have a variety of people – you might have people who code or people who excel in management – who come together for a day or a weekend because they want to create an idea. You go from zero to app or website in a day or two. I’ve participated in a couple of them, and it’s extremely exciting. It’s a great environment if you come and you know how to code already, and it’s also a great environment to get exposed to the possibility of doing something new. I tell people all the time that if you ever want the hackathon experience, just show up and see how it works. You’re not going to know anybody there. Just go towards an idea or a particular problem you think you can help solve. It’s a great experience. You also have traditional environments like workshops and conferences. You can even go back to school. If you feel like you want to be in a traditional environment, those are open to you as well as those online resources. We have a list available on our website, and so does Jacqueline. If you want to get introduced to programming for no cost or maybe a small cost, most of the things I’ve taken online have been free. There’s a lot out there for you if you, most importantly, have a passion. The one bonus I enjoy is not the salary. I mean, it’s a great career field when it comes to money, but as for me, I’d be doing this despite the money. I’m a person who believes in operating on purpose and in passion. Anything outside of that, you never experience real joy. The reason you see the smile on my face is because I can’t imagine doing anything else. I can’t imagine doing anything outside of technology. My hope is that if you come, come with an interest. My job or anybody else’s job if you’re an instructor is to help instill and inspire you, and let that passion drive you. Let it be joy that you get out of it, because that will be more long-standing. Jacqueline: Absolutely. If people haven’t met you or haven’t seen your picture with that big smile across your face, they can hear it in your voice and your sincerity. I can completely relate because when I was picking my major in college, I remember my counselor saying, “What do you want as your backup?” I told them, “There is nothing else. This is what I want to do.” Not everyone as a freshman in college can have that type of conviction, but I love what I do. A lot of times, people are apprehensive, but like you said, go. Attend. If you hear about a hackathon or have an opportunity to volunteer, that’s even important because you’re going to be around a new type of energy – a positive type of energy – of people who are looking toward the future. If you’re in STEM and STEAM, you get it. If you’re around people who get it, some of that will rub off. We are people who like to problem-solve, and we’re creative. If you like puzzles or like decoding things, STEM is for you. As a young girl, even with your Barbies, you needed to dissect them. You wanted to know how they worked. All of that goes hand-in-hand, and there’s a space for so much creativity. There’s a lot of ways that you can solve problems. The next hot thing could be festering in your head right now, and you can make it happen. I hope everyone enjoyed Yolanda. Thank you, Yolanda. Yolanda: Thank you. This interview was transcribed and edited by Anisah Muhammad. Anisah Muhammad is a 17-year old professional writer based in the Montgomery, AL area. She regularly writes for the Final Call Newspaper (finalcall.com) and she has published some pieces of poetry. To read more of her pieces, visit the website original7.wordpress.com. 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