Preview: Blazing My Tech Trail

By Joy Buolamwini

Joy Buolamwini

Joy Buolamwini

After an enchanting introduction to computers as a child, I knew I wanted to someday master the art of creation through ones and zeros. My opportunity to fulfill this desire arrived in high school when I had the chance to design a website for the Latin club. By reading online tutorials I taught myself HTML, Cascading Stylesheets, Javascript, PHP and web design. I participated in various computing competitions that led to unexpected recognition. I was fortunate enough to attend a high school that offered computer science classes. 

The computer science classes they offered were so small, no more than 4 students in each, that they actually ran the classes together with the same instructor who would divide her time between the data structures class and the AP Computer Science class. One of the most challenging things for me when I was taking these courses was not being able to type with proficiency (two finger hunt and peck).  In some ways my limited typing ability at the time made me think out potential solutions in more detail before committing to typing anything.  When I first started, I was making sites for my sports teams, and then I had the opportunity to create a website for the Ethiopian Embassy. With just a laptop and an internet connection, I was able to do this from my house. That was the moment I realized that with computers, I could make global impact almost immediately.

Eventually my typing improved as did my confidence along with my desire to use computing to improve humanity. When I attended Georgia Tech deciding to study computer science was the path I believed would allow me to bridge many different areas of interest spanning robotics, design, media production, health and education. During my freshman year, I applied to work in the Everyday Computing Lab on Salud, a Google Android health project. This was my first time working with graduate students – people whose skills were far above mine. The experience taught me the importance of working with the best people I could find and being willing to asks questions as well as seek help when in a stuck state.

In the beginning, I remember being embarrassed when I wasn’t able to figure something out on my own. I quickly learned trying and failing many times before coming to an optimal solution was just part of the process. Reaching out and learning from others with more experience I found gave me an advantage, because they could help me get to higher levels of thinking. For example, instead of spending 6 hours trying to install something unsuccessfully on my own, having someone with experience walk me through it in 30 minutes and then trying it for myself with different configurations or systems would allow me to learn more. Sometimes learning from others meant finding someone in person and often times it meant finding someone (or their words and experiences) virtually on online forums, list serves or sites that focused on common issues from Javascript abnormalities to more obscure questions like tomcat server compatibility issues with Spring version x.y. Being able to then pass on that knowledge to other people only strengthened my understanding.

At Georgia Tech I had many opportunities to grow as a student through research, engaging class projects, and conferences. Having always wanted to work on robotics when I had the opportunity to work on research focused on social robotics and autism, this was my first taste of working with multiple research groups with different domain expertise. I learned to communicate across fields, but perhaps more importantly I learned how important becoming an effective communicator is regardless of discipline. While improving my technical skills, having the opportunity to make presentations and pitch my ideas and my work made me better through practice. I would engage in all manner of “side projects” to help develop my technical skills. By having a project to motivate my learning, I found it easier to pick up other languages and to persevere when things got frustrating. 

My experiences going to the Grace Hopper Conferences and Richard Tapia conferences also gave me immense motivation because in the hall ways between session at a lunch or dinner I met so many people who were like me in gender, ethnicity or interests who too wanted to change the world through computing. In 2011, I gave a talk at the Grace Hopper Conference in Portland entitled, “What if Android Tablets in Ethiopia could help prevent Blindness?” I was still an undergraduate, but that summer had led the development of a tablet based survey system for the Carter Center to help in their efforts to Eliminate blinding Trachoma in Ethiopia. Knowing that my technical skills had enabled me to develop a solution that was used to survey nearly 40,000 people to impact high level decisions that affected 17 million people, I wanted to share the story with others. While I was in Ethiopia coding under a mosquito net at night to make changes to the application I was developing for the health workers and we were testing in villages, I learned the importance of trying out ideas in an iterative process and creating solutions that fit the context and people you are serving.

I feel so lucky to have found my passion. I am currently pursuing a career in computer science and developing technologies that benefit people of all means.  Currently, I am in Lusaka, Zambia on a Fulbright Fellowship implementing Zamrize and initiative that empowers youth to become creators of technology through lab-based integrative computational experiences that focus on exposure, education, and entrepreneurship. Zamrize accelerates the work of local organizations to ensure diverse participation in the new technology economy. Working on Zamrize has taught me the importance of establishing partnerships, cultivating relationships, and learning how to delegate. 

My most recent entrepreneurial endeavors serving as founding CTO of Excelegrade an Educational Technology Company and Co-Founder/CTO of Techturized – a hair care technology have prepared me for my role as Executive Director and Founder for Zamrize in several ways. With both companies I had to learn to collaborate over long distances and decide when to implement key components of our products internally or outsource the work to save time and use resources most effectively. I also learned more about team dynamics and the importance of building a supportive work culture where all are valued and excellence is championed. 

Not knowing how to type well when I started coding was a bit of a hindrance at first. Biting off more than I could chew and having to scramble to find a way to deliver on projects taught me the importance of balance. Sometimes in my desire to help others, I would stretch myself to thin, and I would be unable to complete projects to the level of excellence I would have liked. What I did learn is that everything didn’t have to be perfect and that sometimes delivering something that was good enough (not mind blowing amazing) was ok. Learning to work with others who have different expectations, motivations, styles of working, and leadership styles has probably been the most challenging and rewarding part of my journey.

As an entrepreneur, I have faced the usual challenges of setting up a new venture – raising capital, building a team, understanding and filling a true market need etc. However, working on Techturized which targets women of color, introduced me to the challenges dealing with cultural assumptions and misperceptions about women, minorities, and technology. I generally view challenges as opportunities. Opportunities to be more creative, dash stereotypes, demonstrate excellence, or teach others. For example, with Techturized, many investors had no idea how much African America women in particular spend on their hair or with social media. Some were not so sure about the proliferation of technology among minorities and others we bluntly hesitant to invest in 4 black women founders. 

Listening and collaborating with others has enabled me to tackle initiatives that would have been to daunting to attempt alone. I have also learned how to make my voice heard, by championing my projects, developing key relationships with invaluable mentors with all sorts of backgrounds, and being media ready with articles/ photos / testimonials/ and video about the work I do.  The most important thing is realizing what you are good at and what you need help with. While shoring up your weaknesses is good, maximizing your strengths and delegating in your weaker areas enables you to perform at your optimum level.

I have been working on ways to create a role where I can engage different aspects of the areas I am passionate about. Zamrize gives me the freedom to define who it is I will be as a professional. 

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