Computer Science, Design Thinking, Entrepreneurship, Innovation, STEM

“She Didn’t Raise Her Hand”: Why This Year’s #WWDC Could be Historic for Women & Minorities in STEM #RaceOnTech


Last week I attended Apple’s WWDC 2015 in San Francisco. Earlier this month, at the start of my NSF Funded program for teaching humanoid robotics combined with social justice to underrepresented middle school girls, provided a significant moment in my personal quest to increase the number of underrepresented minorities and women in computing (my co-PI and the founder/director of CompuGirls, Dr. Kimberly Scott, is my partner in this project).  The little girl in the front didn’t raise her hand after I gave what I thought was an inspiring demonstration of our humanoid robot health coach, a talk about the Spelman College SpelBots I founded, and the personal story of one of my students to work at Apple as a software engineer.  I asked the female middle school students, “How many of you believe that this camp will help you on your journey to being able to do things like that with computers or robots?”.  I raised my hand and slowly everyone raised their hand except one little girl in the front.  I asked, “You don’t believe you can do that too one day?”  She just looked at me too shy to shake her head.  I told her, “I believe that you can do that”.  I left feeling sad, a little shocked, but hopeful that this program and others like it will succeed into turning little girls like her into successful engineers and computer scientists.

This past week I was privileged to be able to spend the whole week at Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) held annually at Moscone West in downtown San Francisco.  WWDC has gotten so popular that they have gone to a “raffle” system to keep the guest list to about 5000 attendees while streaming and providing videos of the sessions afterwards to the thousands or millions others that develop software, hardware, and apps as third party developers for Apple (something I’ve ventured into as a third-party consultant with my AppRobo LLC).  But more importantly, on my personal mission to inspire, inform, and engage K-12 underrepresented students and adults in computing, I was struck by how historical this WWDC was and could become.

I attended my first WWDC back in 2008 or 2009 when I worked as Apple’s first Senior Engineering Diversity Manager (see my TEDx Talk to see how that happened).  So this was actually my second WWDC and the first time I woke up at 4. a.m. to get in line hoping to get a good seat at the Keynote event.  There were a few things I witnessed happening that I believe have potential for being historic that have the potential to transform the minority and Women STEM community:

  • Apple Announced that $30 billion had been paid to 3rd party developers
  • Underrepresented Minority and Women student scholarship winners and leaders from STEM & Computing organizations won scholarships and attended
  • Apple announced that their new programming language, Swift 2.0, will be open source and work on other platforms including Linux.
  • Women and minorities were speakers at WWDC’s keynote.

Minority and Women Third Party Developers

Last week at WWDC, Tim Cook, reported that $30 Billion have been paid out to 3rd party developers of Apps and software on Apple’s App store.  Just think of the potential economic opportunity this represents for young African American iOS developers who can either make money selling apps or selling their software programming skills to companies as consultants or full time employees.  Sure, it would be great if some of these young (and old) developers could work at Apple, Facebook, Twitter or Google.  But there are iOS and Mac development needs at companies large and small.  The new WatchOS 2.0 was announced at WWDC and think of all the existing companies and the startup companies yet to be created that will take advantage of this relatively new wearable technology.

Minority and Women Scholarship Winners & Computing Education Leaders

Among this year’s WWDC attendees were 350 scholarship winners including a significant number of underrepresented minorities from organizations such as the Thurgood Marshall Fund, Black Founders, Women Who Code, Blacks in Technology, Black Girls Code, Hack the Hood, NCWIT, and Girls Who Code to name a few.  I was impressed with ALL of Apple’s scholarship winners passion and skills, not just the ones that were minorities or women.  All of them exhibited fantastic creativity and coding skills for the apps they created that got them into the program.  One of the students I met told me they had over 5 million downloads of their software that was created for four different apps. Wow!  Think of the potential opportunities for not just this student but hundreds, thousands, and maybe millions  of young (and old) developers worldwide who can get their hands on a computer and learn to code for the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac platform.  Personally, I see what an education in computing has done for me from my early years sleeping in a cardboard box in a two bedroom trailer to becoming a distinguished chair at a research university (see a short video on my story here).  I got to hang out in the Keynote line with Santiago Gonzalez, a WWDC scholarship winner whose family immigrated from Mexico. He is now a skilled iOS developer and computer science graduate student.

I met two women scholarship winners in their 40s or 50’s who decided to change careers and learn to code.  Alicia Carr, an African American developer from Atlanta who made Purple Pocketbook, an iOS app for victims of domestic violence, started learning how to program Objective-C when she was 51 and is now making a significant impact on women and men who need help escaping bad relationships.  She has an incredible, personal story of why she decided to use technology to impact women and men after one of her friends died as a victim of domestic violence. This is why I’m excited about the other historic announcement…Swift 2.0 as an open source programming language.

Swift 2.0 Programming Language Open Sourced

The announcement of Swift 2.0 being open sourced was very timely. During WWDC, I was able to meet leaders in several organizations, including someone that I already knew, Greg GreenLee, founder of Blacks in Technology.  Greg and I discussed why needing to own a Mac computer to program for iOS or Mac OS X was a huge hurdle for many kids in the African American and Latino community.  When I was in grad school (the first time), I loved Apple computers but found that having a commodity PC was much more affordable on my limited salary.  Now that I am no longer a graduate student, I take it for granted that I can download the Apple developer tools, e.g. Xcode, on my MacBook Air and code for iOS or Mac OS X.  But for many in our community, this is not feasible.  Also, most schools, in general, and low-income schools, more specifically, have Windows computers with a significant number starting to get ChromeBooks.  So when Tim Cook said that Swift 2.0 will be open source with support on Linux machines, Greg and I were ecstatic.  Swift is a beautiful (in a geekish way), flexible, and powerful language that can be used to write compilers, operating systems, back end server software, and magnificent Apple Watch, iPad, apps.  (Speaking of writing an operating system, I knew a student at Morehouse College that wrote his own operating system). Now kids, starting this fall, can learn it on a PC and don’t have to get over the obstacle of owning an Apple computer.

Apple Swift 2.0 has a very rich method for displaying text as if you are reading a book with “live” Swift code that you can modify and run write in the “book” itself.  If you are an Apple developer you can download their interactive tour of Swift 2.0 that allows you to learn the basics of swift in just a few hours while playing with the examples to make sure you understand the concepts.

Minorities and Women WWDC Speakers

This year at the Keynote, there were two Apple women who spoke during the Keynote itself and two African American men who spoke or sang at the event.  One of the Apple senior VP’s shared his Latino heritage during his talk about the new Apple Music. This was a powerful visual statement by Apple to women and underrepresented minorities that they belong in tech.  Certainly, I look forward to an African American woman or man speaking on the technical or marketing side of Apple at the keynote but in a way, it happened last week.  Hip Hop artist, Drake, spoke about how Apple and iTunes technology gave him a platform to spread and sell his music when big record labels didn’t.  He spoke about how Apple Music Connect technology will allow him and other musicians such as Pharrell, along with unknown new artists share and connect with their audiences.  The great thing about this is it shows the connection between Apple Technology and Art.  Young people can surely relate to Drake and The Weekend as hip hop and R&B artists and wouldn’t it be great if these students could make a mental connection between those artists with learning how to invent the technology these artists use? Steve Jobs once spoke of computer programming as a liberal art and his vision included the intersection of technology and the arts.  If only kids can make the connection that artists like Drake use technology to create, sell and spread their music then maybe these kids can become inspired to be CREATORS of technology using Swift. If this happens I will be ecstatic.

What’s Next for Minority and Women Tech Innovators

Now that we have witnessed and experienced these potentially historic events at WWDC, let’s do what we can to inspire underrepresented girls and boys to learn Swift 2.0 and create the new software and hardware that will positively impact our global society for generations to come.  Let’s teach them to dream and then work hard to become the new innovators of this century and build the next Apple or Google.  Download the Swift Education curriculum and start learning and teaching App Development with Swift.  And to broaden our community of innovators, listen to more stories of black, Latino, and women innovators on NPR’s RaceOnTech series in July, become one yourself, and teach our kids to be the innovators they truly are. If we do that, maybe the little girl in my humanoid robotics program I mentioned at the beginning of this article will be able to raise her hand and say, “Yes, I believe I can”.

Girls from our Co-Robots for CompuGirls Program (funded by the NSF National Robotics Initiative)

Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D., is a university researcher, educator and Chief Creative Officer of AppRoboLLC, a technology and talent consulting firm impacting the next generation of technology innovators.  Dr. Williams’ TEDx talk, Belonging in Technology, What I learned from Steve Jobs, shares how he overcame obstacles to inspire the next generation of engineers, computer scientists, and roboticists.  You can follow Dr. Williams’ at @outofthebox1 .


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