Alumni experts—teachers and pros working in tech—have a few things they’d like each other to know.
February 20, 2018
I’ve always considered myself a science, technology, and engineering educator first and foremost, even during my stint as an education journalist, when I frequently reported on the role of technology in classrooms. However, having been both inside and outside of school systems—from participant to observer, if you will—I’ve always wondered whether the concepts and lessons teachers bring to students indeed prepare those students for an ever-changing working world.
And now, that question is top of mind as I’ve moved to Google and joined the Code Next team, an effort to provide free computer science (CS) education programs to students of color. For answers, I turned to a selection of Teach For America alums who teach CS and who work in CS as engineers, product managers, and user experience designers. I asked: What wisdom would you share with professionals on the other side? — Mary Jo
THE EDUCATORS: Who's Who?
Michael Burgevin (Mississippi ’10) is the director of CS for RePublic Schools, a charter network of middle and high schools in Tennessee and Mississippi.
Giorgio Griffin (Kansas City ’14) teaches Exploring Computer Science at Hogan Preparatory Academy High School in Kansas City, Missouri. She also teaches special education, Fundamentals of Mathematics, personal finance, and co-teaches English 12/pre-algebra.
Samir Paul (D.C. Region ’10) teaches CS in Montgomery County Public Schools, having previously taught Algebra 2 and AP Computer Science in D.C. Public Schools. He is also a candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates.
Taylor Want (Massachusetts ’13) is the director of operations at Upperline Code, an organization that runs summer coding courses for high school students. She taught computer science with Kode for Klossy and at KIPP Austin Collegiate High School in Texas.
Think about the big tech companies. What could they do to give more kids opportunities to learn the skills they need to work for big tech organizations?
Samir: Large tech companies can sponsor early interventions like the STEM Talent Pipeline project in Montgomery County that’s setting third graders on the right track to learn accelerated math early on. They can make sure that the benefits of the tech industry are spread widely throughout our society, not just concentrated in communities that already have access. This is not the kind of solution that bears fruit tomorrow, but it's the only way to solve the structural inequity at the heart of our representation problems. Big tech orgs can also invest in high-quality apprenticeships for middle-skills jobs that require technical ability but not necessarily a four-year degree. The countries that do career and technical education best all have industry-driven apprenticeship programs, and we would do well to adopt similar models.
Giorgio: I would encourage big tech companies to remember that even as technology becomes more affordable and internet access seems increasingly omnipresent, there remains a digital divide.
Giving back to schools with students who don’t have access to technology and resources really goes a long way. A donation of time, funds, and equipment helps make dreams come true.
How can tech companies do a better job of opening up the pipeline?
Michael: Consider how a student would perceive your company. Can they sense inclusiveness and diversity? Will they see representation in your workforce and management? Strive to build a community that embraces excellence in all forms. Instead of asking, “How will I meet the demand of my workforce?” companies should ask, “How can I play a role in changing expectations around the broader workforce?”
Giorgio: Tech companies could offer more high school internships or work study programs that partner with schools to help students earn degrees or certificates in a CS-related field of study. This would help tech companies create partnerships within their communities and open a pipeline for fresh young talent while diversifying the field.
Taylor W.: Pipeline programs are important and necessary. Just as necessary, though, is the development of the actual work environments of companies. Particularly when we think about recruiting traditionally underrepresented groups, companies need to be spending time ensuring that their organization is actually a wonderful place for individuals belonging to these groups to work. If students are interning in an organization where everyone who shares their identity isn’t happy, they are unlikely to actually persist.
To that end, serious, concerted initiatives to address employees’ subconscious biases and grow community among existing employees from underrepresented groups are just as important as the pipelines companies hope to open or grow.
How are you preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist?
Taylor W.: At Upperline, we ask students to work in pairs or groups every single day because we believe that it is the best way to grow the most crucial skills for tomorrow’s jobs. Technology is constantly changing, and we know that students will need to be able to navigate these changes. That’s why we prioritize communication, persistent problem solving, constantly seeking to learn and understand, and collaboration far above memorizing the content we teach.
Giorgio: I teach students the value of acquiring technological skills by exposing my students to the world of high-quality, rigorous computer science instruction needed for success in college and beyond. I recommend the Exploring Computer Science course. I encourage my students to explore concepts and use collaboration and personal experiences to solve real-world problems.
How should teachers and schools be supporting CS education in their classrooms?
Samir: Allocate funding for professional development to train interested math/science teachers. Carve out budget space for full-time CS positions, hire people to fill them (pay competitively!), and then don't force them to teach non-CS subjects to fill your schedule gaps. Work hard to create strong early math and science support. These are the foundations of great CS experiences. Coding is not about getting fancy computers. Technology is cheap. People are expensive.
Michael: Identify a strong teacher or set of teachers and equip them with the skills and knowledge to teach computer science. Select a curriculum and training program that aligns to a national set of standards and assumes no prerequisite knowledge in the teacher. Build a community of support around your computer science teacher so he or she doesn't feel like an island. Instead of searching for computer scientists to become educators, recruit strong teachers who are eager to learn the field.
THE COMPUTER SCIENTISTS: Who's who?
Delano Brissett (N.Y. ’05) is a product launch manager at Google, running programs to help get consumer hardware into the hands of customers. He works cross-functionally with engineering, business, marketing, customer support, sales, and product people.
Taylor Daugherty (Chi–NWI ’12) is an iOS mobile app engineer at Walt Disney Studios, working on a digital locker service app called Movies Anywhere that allows users to sync and buy movies from accounts across major retailers and to watch them on any device.
Leo Martinez, Jr. (Chi–NWI ’07) is a senior information systems technologist II for Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services Division. Raytheon is one of the largest defense companies in the world.
Katie Shiro (Indianapolis ’12) is a software engineer at Airbnb. She previously taught Algebra I and geometry at University Heights Preparatory Academy in Indianapolis, then taught Algebra 2 at DRW College Prep in Chicago.
Given what you know about computer science from the roles you work in now, what would you hope students are learning in schools re: computer science and coding?
Leo: Each of the systems and the tasks I perform daily in my job requires me to use different programming languages such as C++, Linux, Cisco, and of course Microsoft. I am continually learning more about the languages that are out now and also learning new languages as technology is rapidly evolving, and I think it is important for young students to get exposure to these computer languages as early as possible.
Taylor D.: Debugging skills. Because coding is about learning new things every single day, students have to learn to be comfortable not immediately knowing how to approach something and be equipped with the tools to figure out where to go next. Adopting a mindset that errors are actually helpful, and not a sign of failure, was a huge breakthrough for me when I started learning to code. Embrace and celebrate the fact that every new error means you are one step closer to the answer.
What’s the most surprising element about working in the technology world that you wish someone had told you about before you took a role in this space?
Taylor D.: Impostor syndrome! It is so comforting to know that everyone has moments when they feel inadequate and not good enough for the job they are in. I remember this every time that doubt starts to creep in.
Delano: That there was a place for me in it. The purpose of tech is to serve society, and so the folks who are creating that technology can best create it if they’re representative of society.
Katie: Honestly, the most shocking thing to me about the CS space is the lack of women and minorities occupying these roles. As a high school student seeking out the college major that was right for me, I wasn’t really aware of what computer science was, and was never encouraged to pursue it. I think in the recent past, coding and CS majors were sought after by more affluent male college students who had access to video and computer games as children (a product of the marketing of these things).
Programmers are shaping the world as we know it, as almost everyone’s daily life involves using websites and apps. If the people who have this much impact on society are not a representative sample of the people who inhabit our world, then these tools simply cannot be meeting the needs of everyone.
How can educators and administrators prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist? Can you offer one concrete piece of advice?
Leo: My advice is to teach students to practice good security habits now for their jobs tomorrow. Cybersecurity and computer forensics in technology will be a part of every job that doesn't exist yet. From password complexity and protection to the effects of computer forensics, we need students to understand how cybersecurity affects their lives even if they don't plan to work in a technology field.
To add to the importance of security, we need to teach in technology that once anything is typed into a computer or put on the web or “the cloud," it is there permanently. Since practically every job in the future will use a form of computers or the internet, it is extremely important to dispel the lies of programs like Snapchat where your chats go away after a period of time. Everything you say online is recorded and can be used against you, so being a responsible computer user is something that needs to be foot stomped now for their jobs tomorrow.
Taylor D.: Help students build solid communication skills. Getting your point across by speaking confidently and respectfully is half the battle in any job.
Delano: The first, straightforward point is to help students solve problems they’ve never seen before. In a less esoteric way, how do you decompose a complex problem or issue into its simplest forms? Let students know that that’s how smart people understand problems—they work really hard to break down complex problems.
The second piece is more social justice oriented. Back when I was in TFA, the language around the opportunity gap made it easy for kids to walk away with the sense of “I need to work super hard and the onus is on me to overcome historical weight and oppression, and if I don’t overcome these things in the school year, it’s my fault.” We need to make sure to give kids some sense of where we are and how we got here. Each of us plays a role in creating our society. We need to provide kids with a way to stretch themselves and let them know that however they grow, we’ll support them at the end of the day.
The comments of Mary Jo Madda and Delano Brissett are their own and do not represent the point of view of Google.
Illustration by Elan Harris