Computer science assistant professor Dr Kyla McMullen and Docker founder Solomon Hykes called for more “inclusive” attitudes to computing to attract more newcomers to the profession.
Delivering separate keynotes at OSCON, the annual open source conference, Hykes – who is responsible for the hot Linux container start-up Docker – prefaced his talk by saying he thought “open source could be a much more inclusive and welcoming place”.
“I think we could do a lot to make people feel more welcome that don’t fit the traditional mould of the hardcore, open source kernel hacker that’s been doing it since the 80s,” he said.
Dr McMullen – who is the first underrepresented woman to earn a PhD in computer science and engineering from the University of Michigan – meanwhile expanded the call for inclusion to cut “across all computer science disciplines.
“One message that’s implicitly being told to kids is 1) all scientists are he and then 2) that they have undesirable [physical and social] traits,” she said.
“We really need to think about reshaping what computing and coding looks like so people are encouraged to do this and they can see themselves in it.”
Dr McMullen cited Microsoft’s famed 1978 staff photo as an example of something that, at the time, made it difficult to attract newcomers into technology fields. Even a year ago, the ACS was still asking whether the computing industry had an image problem.
“Think about the implicit messages that are being sent to people that want to go into computing,” she said.
“You may feel as though you need to look or act a certain way in order to get there.”
Dr McMullen’s personal story is one of cutting through barriers that she believes exist to really attracting a different type of person to a career in computing or coding.
For McMullen, the barriers materialised early in life when toys were gendered, and that meant a lot of early computing and gaming platforms “were boy toys”.
“We have to be very careful about the messages that we give kids who are interested in computing and electronics,” McMullen said.
“I’ve always been very hard-headed and even though they were boy toys I still wanted them.”
When she was one of only two underrepresented women in the computer science PhD program at the University of Michigan, McMullen wondered why others did not persist with computer science.
“There was nothing that [was] uniquely special about us,” she said.
“We have the skill, the ability, the aptitude, but why didn’t other people actually persist? What in the world would be the reason people who look like me don’t do this?”
While she did not think she was necessarily an exact fit for coding, McMullen developed “a coping mechanism” where she sought to incorporate coding “into things that I liked” and built on that to forge her career.
Based on her own experiences, she believed there were things that the computer science community could do to “make it more inclusive so everyone can see themselves in it.”
“The first is be nice to the newbies,” McMullen said.
“Everybody had to learn somewhere, everybody had their first pull request so make sure that you just take someone and if they’re new show them how to get started.
“There’s a resource called firsttimersonly.com that lets people make their first pull request in a nice, welcoming, warm environment that they don’t have to feel so nervous in.”
McMullen also urged interested people that didn’t fit the coding or computing stereotype to embrace and wear that difference with pride.
However, she also saw it as important for newcomers to “find their tribe”.
“Not everyone’s going to love you, but when you find the people who do love you and support you and welcome you, exist there and thrive,” McMullen said.
She also called on people in the industry to “mentor someone who does not look like you”.
“Be a mentor to someone who doesn’t fit the mould,” McMullen said, before displaying a photo of her young self.
“Just make sure that this girl here who wants to pursue computing and coding, every single pull request is met with kindness and love so that she can grow up and persist to become a computer scientist.”