We recently welcomed Dr. Nicki Washington as a Rewriting the Code Faculty Supporter. Dr. Washington brings an impressive resume with a wealth of experience in technology, as well as a strong understanding of what it means to be a minority in the field. We interviewed Dr. Washington to get her perspectives on everything RTC and tech, as well as words of advice for our community. Here’s what she had to say:
RTC: We are extremely thrilled that you have joined the RTC team. What are some initiatives you are excited to help with as a faculty mentor?
Dr. W: I look forward to helping participants address and overcome the non-technical challenges that often are the deciding factor between who “persists” in the major and who doesn’t, or who thrives and who just survives. There are a lot of challenges that can impact a woman’s experience in the field. Without someone helping to understand what that experience was (or wasn’t), how common it is, and strategies to address it, young women in computing departments can feel isolated and marginalized.
RTC: What are the most valuable words of advice would you give to young women entering the field of technology?
Dr. W: Find and own your voice. Define your narrative, because others will definitely create one for you. Most importantly, as you find your voice, help other women in computing find and own theirs, and be the advocate you want people to be for you. Finally, get comfortable being uncomfortable. Whether it’s speaking up and out in class/office hours/groups, having uncomfortable conversations, or facing failure, you should be able to see each of these as opportunities to stretch.
RTC: Tell us a little about your journey (the ups and downs) during your career in tech.
Dr. W: My mom was a computer programmer her entire 30+ year career at IBM, so I had a front-row seat to all of the challenges and issues that I’ve experienced directly in computing. Yes, I was challenged and stretched throughout my undergraduate and graduate education. But the real difficulties arose when I was the only Black intern, where project managers didn’t believe in me; and in graduate school, when a faculty member told me he didn’t think I could cut it as a graduate researcher. In my career, I’ve often been the only Black person in my department with a Ph.D., in a company where every senior member of the technical staff was required to have at least a master’s degree. Even now, I deal with issues that have absolutely nothing to do with my ability to effectively do my job. The saddest part is that I wasn’t the first Black woman to experience these challenges, and I won’t be the last. My mother had similar stories, as have tons of other Black women I know or know of. Luckily, I’ve always had a strong resource in my mom and ‘village,’ and confidence in myself to know what I deserve. I win even when I lose.
On the flip side, I’ve been fortunate to have some amazing opportunities. My experience as a professor at Howard University was one. I honestly didn’t even plan to pursue a career in education. I was applying for the adjunct position and changed my mind and applied for the full-time position. In the past nine years I’ve watched so many young Black men and women grow from immature college freshmen to polished, confident, and knowledgeable seniors and graduates who are doing some amazing things in industry, academia, and the non-profit sector. I’ve had the chance to meet amazing people from all races, ethnicities, cultures, academic, and professional backgrounds, and we’ve been able to collaborate in ways that I never would’ve had the chance to, had I decided to just stay in industry and pursue an adjunct position. I’ve been truly blessed.
RTC: Please give us a high-level overview of the book you wrote.
Dr. W: Unapologetically Dope is my love letter to Black women and girls who are interested in or pursuing computing degrees and careers. It covers life lessons that I would’ve loved to read (and often learned through my mom) growing up and completing my studies, into my early professional career. I wanted to make sure that there was something in the computing+tech space that spoke specifically to Black women and girls, because we are often so overlooked, overspoken, and mischaracterized in this field, both academically and professionally. However, even though it’s titled as lessons for Black women and girls, it’s really a book that any woman or girl of any race or ethnicity can leverage. These lessons are my way of saying, “You’ve got this. You’re not alone. Here’s how you handle it,” in a book that reads more like a one-on-one conversation than anything.
The book is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble (online), and my website, www.nickiwashington.com. If I can ever manage the time, I’m going to complete and release the audiobook.
RTC: In your interview with Essence Magazine, you were billed as “disrupting the tech industry.” Why?
Dr. W: That Essence feature was such an amazing opportunity. Talk about hard work and preparation for when opportunity presents itself! When we usually talk about “disruptive” in the tech space, it’s usually what technology was introduced that totally changed how we experienced or consumed certain things. For example, MP3s disrupted how we listened to music, Amazon disrupted retail shopping, and social media disrupted everything! I think my disruption is in terms of how we teach not only computer science fundamentals, but also how we teach students and people to be more inclusive and value diversity and equity.
There’s so much focus on getting a more diverse set of students into computing at the K-12 level and to college. However, no one’s talking about what happens when those students enter colleges/universities and face issues of inclusion and equity that have nothing to do with their technical skills. I’m focused on making sure students have the chance to fully focus on the learning by eliminating these toxic and problematic issues that plague not only the computing industry, but also departments at universities nationwide. It’s important to understand things like bias, microaggressions, and other factors that not only impact the environment one works or learns in, but also the developed technologies that may negatively impact certain communities.
People talk about their impact on industry, but few are willing to acknowledge that these issues are the main reason for low retention rates, particularly for marginalized students. My research focuses on identity and cultural competence in computing. These are areas that many are uncomfortable discussing, but are necessary to move the needle in terms of computing diversity, equity, and inclusion. I think my disruption comes from unapologetically sharing my story (the successes and, more importantly, the challenges) to call attention to these issues and ensure that everyone who comes in contact with me understands that I, like others who look like me, are here because we deserve to be here, and no amount of challenges and setbacks will ever allow someone to diminish that.
Thanks to Dr. Washington for sharing her time and talent with our community!