By Patty Lopez
Growing up in Espanola, a small town in northern New Mexico (which celebrated 100 years of statehood this year), 20 miles from Los Alamos, I felt the disparity in education and opportunity at a very early age. Los Alamos County still has the highest per capita income in the entire US, while Rio Arriba County has one of the lowest. Nevertheless, I benefitted from a strong education in math and science. I took my first computer science class in high school in 1975 using a PDP-11. The operating system was loaded from paper tape, but I learned Basic and the fundamental concepts of programming. I attended college at New Mexico State University on a tuition scholarship, financing the remainder of my education through grants and on-campus jobs. As a freshman, I took an entry level CS course, and my love for computing was solidified. I was fortunate to have good professors and strong peers, but only in hindsight did I realize the dearth of mentors and role models who could have provided guidance and insight unique to women of color in computing.
I was fortunate in my undergraduate career to have an opportunity to do research. I read an article in the campus newspaper about two professors studying artificial intelligence, and it sounded fascinating. I had a few electives open my senior year, and I asked if I could do an independent study class with Dr. Derek Partridge, who was a professor in the CS department. He and Dr. Victor Johnston, a professor in the Psychology Department, were working on a neural network model of habituation of a simple organism that could learn patterns of behavior and move in response to stimuli. This model was based on Hebbian learning, described by Donald Hebb in 1949. You can imagine the challenge of modeling complex networks on machines that had a whopping 64K of RAM and 8″ floppy drives. (Hard disks with 10-20 MB were not widely available until the early 1980’s with the introduction of the IBM PC.) Connectionism, as the field later was known, did not take off until some key research problems were solved and more sophisticated computer systems were commercially sold. It was an exciting time to be in computing!
As I was finishing up my PhD, I realized that I was poorly prepared to do a job search. As a first generation college student (and the first in my extended family to earn a PhD), I struggled through, making lots of mistakes in the process. My image processing expertise gave me an edge at Hewlett Packard in 1989, so though I loved research and teaching and had my heart set on academia, I started my career in industry. While there were a number of women at HP in the R&D lab, there were few Hispanic women and management was predominantly white and male. I became involved with the HP Campus recruiting team in an effort to bring more women and minorities into the workplace. In 1995, I ran the summer intern program, and in 1998, I became the HP Campus Manager, a role I continued for a decade. During that time, I built relationships with students, faculty, staff, ethnic programs, and student organizations. I wanted to hear firsthand from what the challenges were (remediation, retention of students and faculty, and 4-year graduation rates, rising tuition costs, salaries, scholarships, and much more). I began working with department heads and deans to identify need (equipment costs for computer and engineering labs, funding for summer outreach programs), and as a result, garnered over $2 million in grants and equipment donations for the university. I joined several advisory boards and in 2004, as a keynote for the Women in Engineering Program and Advocates Network (WEPAN) Conference, I officially committed to being an agent of change for women in computing. Along the way I met my husband and had three children, managing work and family with a passion for advocacy, so that others can have the opportunities that were not afforded to me.
When I attended my first Grace Hopper Celebration in 2006, I was amazed at the number of technical women I met from so many different companies and institutions. I immediately realized what was missing in my workplace. As one of the few technical women still doing technical work and as a Latina, I felt isolated both by gender and ethnicity. By fate or serendipity, I attended a GHC Birds of a Feather session, Latinas in Engineering, moderated by Gilda Garreton, Dilma da Silva, and Cecilia Aragon. We pulled our chairs into a circle and shared our stories; I remember listening to Claris Castillo talk about the challenges she faced during her MS and PhD and being moved by her resilience and certainty when others doubted her abilities. Raquel Romano collected email addresses so that we could keep in touch. Post-conference, the six of us kept in touch as we looked for way to stay connected. The Anita Borg Institute graciously offered to host us under the Systers community. Thus, Latinas in Computing was born!
My road to finding the right supportive community was long and accidental. I encourage each of you to find your own supportive community. Look for mentors, find a birds-of-a-feather group, build your own group. A supportive group helps everyone in the group succeed. These groups can be focused anything that you personally identify with. Some possibilities are: technical, gender, cultural, location, and professional. Look for local meetups with a few people or attend GHC with several thousand women in computing.