Anthony D. Mays, whose unlikely path from Compton to Google was detailed in a popular Buzzfeed documentary, offered simple advice for African-American students who find themselves significantly outnumbered in class: “Just get used to it.”
“It’s gonna take some of us being in these uncomfortable spaces for a while to pave the way for the next generation of folks,” said Mays, a software engineer. “Looking at black history, it has taken a long time to get to the point where I can sit in front of you as a software engineer, talking about working at Google. I have no allusion about how long it’s going to take for that next level.”
Mays was part of of diversity panel that spoke to computer science students at the ATL Thursday. Other panelists were Cal Poly alums Halli Santarelli and Bria Sullivan, who also work at Google. The event, sponsored by Color Coded and the Women in Software and Hardware club (WISH), was moderated by computer science professor Zoë Wood.
Women and minorities are still significantly underrepresented in tech, as well as university computer science programs. But the panelists represent a trio that have bucked the trend – and they’re working to encourage more diversity to the field.
“I feel like this is what I was put here to do,” said Sullivan, a software engineer who earned her computer science degree in 2014.
While the field continues to search for ways to diversity its workforce, Mays represents a dramatic example of someone who battled considerable adversity to get to tech. He grew up in Compton, he says in his BuzzFeed short, where he feared getting shot and regularly saw police helicopters – “ghetto birds” – hover his neighborhood.
“Even if you didn’t know the details, you knew there was something to be afraid of,” he says in the short, titled “How I Went From Compton to Google.”
Also a victim of physical and sexual abuse, he and two siblings were raised by caring foster parents. Yet, even though he took to computers at a young age and graduated from UC Irvine with an information and computer science degree, his hardscrabble background presented obstacles in his career.
“I was very risk averse because I grew up in the ‘hood,” he said, wearing a Compton hat. “Risk meant prison or death. Homelessness. As a foster kid, I’m very risk averse.”
Yet, he was told, risk and failure are important for innovation.
“That change of mindset is so important,” he said.
Lack of diversity also discourages innovation, Mays said.
“This leads to a homogenous culture that really doesn’t lend itself to creativity and innovation because everyone thinks the same way,” he said.
Despite Google’s efforts to diversify, all three panelists still find themselves in significant minorities.
“The benefit and challenge is that you’re noticed all the time,” said Santarelli, who finished her master’s in computer science in 2014, after earning a bachelor’s in software engineering, both from Cal Poly.
While being different can be a benefit if you’re doing well, it’s also intimidating, she said. That can also be the case in school, where African-American students like software engineering major Simon Ibssa, co-founder and president of Color Coded, look different than their peers.
“I’m used to walking into my classes – whether that’s a 30-person class or a 100-person lecture hall – and being the only black person there,” he told Mays.
But Mays said his best advice was to “just suck it up.”
“One of the things that I had to learn coming from Compton is just how to work with and interact with these people that were different from me and come from different backgrounds,” he said.
Despite being underrepresented, the three panelists said they felt welcome and respected in their workplaces. And they’ve found success by networking, problem solving and working hard.
Now they hope to encourage others, spreading the word about their positive experiences.
“Maybe there’s somebody in the room who is like me when I was in school,” Mays said. “I try to make it a point to reach as many of those people as possible.”