Often the only black student in his classes, Simon Ibssa felt culturally isolated on campus. So he created Color Coded, which promotes the academic and professional success of historically underrepresented minorities in the tech field.
“We do this by inviting guest speakers to inspire students, host resume workshops to aid in professional success, as well as host social events to boost a sense of community for our students of color in tech,” said Ibssa, a software engineering major.
Color Coded’s first speaker in a 3-part Diversity in Tech series was Lindsay D. Grace, a University of Miami professor, who spoke about diversity in games. Beatris Mendez Gandica, a Microsoft security program manager, was the second speaker and Avi Lonny Brooks, professor of strategic communication and media studies as CSU East Bay, was the third. The series is supported by the Sprague Family Foundation and arranged with the help of faculty adviser Foaad Khosmood.
While the topics are timely in the diversity debate, the gatherings also provide a forum for underrepresented students to meet and mingle. Nationwide, African-American students in tech programs are rare – reflecting a similar disparity in industry. (Only around three percent of Silicon Valley tech workforces are African-American or Latino.)
Ibssa was inspired to pursue software engineering by his older brother, who completed his software engineering degree from Cal Poly in 2013 before joining Google as a software engineer.
“He had an awesome idea to show his 13-year-old little brother at the time what HTML and CSS was,” Ibssa said. “That gave me the creative outlet to express myself as a teen by making websites about my personal interests.”
While creating websites about his favorite video games (including FIFA and NBA 2k13), his favorite soccer team (Manchester City F.C.), his family and role model (LeBron James), Ibssa decided at 15 that he wanted to major in computer science and software engineering. But once at Cal Poly, the Sacramento native had to adjust to classes that were dominated by white students.
“As a proud first generation Ethiopian-American, my strong cultural ties to Ethiopia – and its great food – have been difficult to maintain,” he said. “I haven’t always felt included or welcome, so starting Color Coded was a way to help others avoid the experiences I had.”
The group, which emphasizes students who are black, Latinx and Native-American, had its first meeting last spring, kicking off with an ice cream social attended by San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon and Microsoft software engineer Calin Washington, both Cal Poly alumni.
While the university and College of Engineering has launched several initiatives to improve diversity and inclusion, student initiatives like Color Coded add a different perspective.
“This group has helped me immensely,” Ibssa said. “It taught me how to be a leader and proved to me that Cal Poly has hope when it comes to fixing the issues as hand here.”
Ibssa hopes to eventually land a job as a software engineer, but he plans to continue to promote diversity in tech as a volunteer in the field.
“It has been a pleasure getting to know and connect with all the students of Color Coded, and I hope that Cal Poly admits more students who can carry on Color Coded’s legacy and continue to challenge the status quo,” he said.