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Black Voices in Tech

Black Voices in Tech

Three Lessons from Three Key Figures

It’s Black History Month, a time for recognizing, remembering, and celebrating the achievements, struggles, and contributions of black individuals throughout history. Studying black history reminds us of the pivotal roles played by black people in shaping the world as we know it, and this applies as much to the technology fields as it does to any other area.

In this blog post, we will discuss and celebrate three black individuals whose impact on technology is undeniable. The three technologists we’re discussing—Mark Dean, Dr. James E. West, and Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson—are all still alive, and we honor them by not only celebrating their achievements, but also, by drawing ‘lessons for the future’ from their lives and careers.

Mark Dean, Computer Scientist & Engineer

With more than forty patents to his name, computer scientist Mark Dean is the epitome of an innovator. After earning his degree in electrical engineering, Dean joined IBM, where his brilliance and leadership skills landed him the position of chief engineer. Dean flourished in the role; he played a pivotal part on the twelve-person team that created IBM’s first PC, he pioneered the technology behind color PC monitors, and he helped invent the first gigahertz microprocessor.

Dean’s current work aims at nothing less than a total paradigm shift in computing technology. He recently shared that he’s “looking to develop an alternative computing architecture leveraging what we know about neuroscience and brain structures.” This project seeks to “move from a traditional ‘programming’ paradigm to a ‘learning’ paradigm.”

What this brilliant thinker teaches us …

Dean has faced resistance, doubters, and racial discrimination throughout his career, but hasn’t let the naysayers undermine his self-confidence. His strategy for not letting others slow him down: “I ignored the people attempting to block my progress.”

In our age of social media, where so much energy and time is wasted on fighting small battles with strangers online, Dean’s approach to dealing with negativity is something we would all do well to emulate. If you’ve ever met Dean, or watched an interview with him, one of the first things you’ll notice is how happy he seems; always smiling, exuding warmth and enthusiasm, Dean is living proof that attitude is everything on the road to success. Well, maybe not everything—having Dean’s smarts doesn’t hurt either!

Dr. James E. West, Inventor & Acoustician

Good technology makes an immediate impact; great technology makes a lasting one. By this measure, scientist, engineer, and electroacoustics expert Dr. James E. West is responsible for co-inventing something truly great: the electret microphone. The technology, which Dr. West developed as an employee of Bell Labs, revolutionized the audio industry by making high-quality condenser microphones much cheaper to produce. And get this—the invention is still used in 90% of microphones today, a testament to the efficiency and simplicity of Dr. West’s original design.

Not only has Dr. West pioneered game-changing electroacoustic technology, he has also worked relentlessly to promote diversity in STEM. In addition to spending countless hours mentoring, he helped convince Bell Lab’s board of directors to create the Corporate Research Fellowship Program, which funded, mentored, and graduated hundreds of women and minority PhD students.

What this selfless innovator teaches us …

In a recent interview, Dr. West spoke candidly on how his parents felt about his decision to enter the field of physics. “I very definitely disappointed them when I switched my major from pre-med to physics.” You might think that Dr. West resented—or still resents—his parents for disagreeing with his decision to pursue his passion, but that’s not the case at all. In the same interview, Dr. West said, “I can’t blame them, because at that time, preacher/teacher/doctor/lawyer were the main professions blacks were permitted to enter.”

There are really two lessons here. One: Don’t let other people tell you what you can and cannot do—not even your own parents. Two: Not everyone who sees things differently from you is an enemy, or the villain in ‘your story.’ Strive to empathize first and judge second, and if you succeed in your endeavors, don’t let that be an excuse to spurn the people who doubted you. That’s a positively powerful lesson that we can all benefit from!

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, Physicist

Learning from history is great, but sometimes, you have to make history. World-renowned physicist Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson certainly took this tack in her life and career. Dr. Jackson was the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate at MIT, and the second African-American woman in the U.S. to earn a doctorate in physics.

These achievements were just the beginning, as she went on to play a vital role at Bell Laboratories, where she conducted important research on novel semiconductor systems, and helped advance telecommunications research, laying the groundwork for the portable fax, touch-tone phone, and caller ID. She also served as the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and, in 1995, was appointed Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission by President Clinton.

In addition to having one of the most impressive resumes on the planet—the above is just a sampling of her distinctions and achievements!—Dr. Jackson has always had an eye to boosting diversity in the sciences. At MIT, she reflected on how quiet she’d been as an undergraduate, and decided that she needed to speak up on the issues of diversity and racial justice. Her efforts led to the creation of Project Interphase, a summer program that builds community among incoming first-year MIT students who belong to minority groups.

What this fearless trailblazer teaches us …

Dr. Jackson has a heartening message for all of us: “Where you are does not make who you are. And so, you start from where you start.” This is a powerful reminder to keep going, have faith in ourselves, and not let our present circumstances define us. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking: Because I am experiencing X now, or suffering from X now, I am destined to always experience or suffer from X. But more often than not, this simply isn’t true.

So, if you’re feeling stuck, or discouraged by where you’re at, remember Dr. Jackson’s words: Where you are does not make who you are! If your current situation doesn’t reflect your image of yourself, that just means you need time. Be patient, and whatever else you do … KEEP GOING!

Final Thought

Black History Month is as much about looking forward as it is about looking back—learning from the past and applying those lessons to creating a better, more equitable future for all. In this blog post, we looked at three black individuals whose significant contributions to technology continue to reverberate and shape our lives.

It’s interesting, and certainly no coincidence, that all three figures discussed in this post—Mark Dean, Dr. James E. West, and Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson—all share a particular character trait: They believe strongly in themselves, and focus their attention on what helps them advance, and not on the things and people who stand in the way of progress.

So let today be the day you make the choice to invest your time, energy, and attention in things that uplift, help, and inspire you. If we can all do that, we can change the world.