A Conversation with Amber Johnson, the first Black woman to graduate from Purdue University with a PhD in Computer Science

By: Reshma Saujani, Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code

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I recently had a conversation with one of our Girls Who Code Facilitators, Amber Johnson, that I wanted to share with you. Amber has done some amazing work with our girls, but that’s not all. She’s a software engineer, the creator of her own company, and the first black woman to graduate with a doctorate in computer science from Purdue University.

She’s such an amazing role model and we got to talk about her time in tech and her bravery journey. I’m so happy to be sharing our conversation with you during Black History Month.

Reshma Saujani: Amber, I’ve always admired you and everything you’ve accomplished, and what you continue to do for Girls Who Code — by really just by being who you are! Tell me a little bit about your journey and what you do.

Amber Johnson: Well I’m a software engineer for Northrup Grumman, the creator of The Kidult Life, and as of last summer, I was the first Black woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in computer science from Purdue University.

I’ve always been interested in tech — I got my first computer when I was 4 — and it was really my mother who pushed me to pursue the field. So, when I left for college, I declared my major in computer science. And I loved it so much I went on to get my masters and my doctorate in the same field.

I also like to think of myself as an advocate for women, especially black women, in tech. One of my favorite things I’ve done is serve as a Girls Who Code facilitator to encourage more girls — like my mother encouraged me — to pursue their passion for computer science.

RS: What was it like for you to study engineering as a black woman — — at a time when women of color make up less than 18 percent of computing jobs in the U.S.?

AJ: You’ve probably heard me say this before Reshma, but I didn’t know I was a black woman until I got to Purdue. I don’t think I realized that I was different, until I was in a place where no one looked like me.

It was, at first, pretty isolating. Knowing you’re the first person to chart a path, not being able to see yourself in your peers and your teachers — it’s discouraging. There were moments where I stood out — and moments where I felt like I didn’t belong.

But I had a role model who was really important to me. Dr. Raquel Hill, the first Black woman to earn her Ph.D. in computer science from Harvard, has been one of my strongest mentors for a while now. I took a lot of my courage from seeing her journey and she helped push me when I needed a reminder of why I was there.

RS: What were some of your biggest challenges — some of the biggest challenges that women in computer science face today?

AJ: Imposter syndrome is a very real thing. Especially when you’re surrounded by people who don’t look like you. And when entering a field that doesn’t represent you. I had so many moments where I thought — should I be the one to do this? Do I belong here?

I’m hoping that with more women leading in the field, we can bring more girls into the fold, and everyone will have peers, role models, and support systems around them to look to for support. That way, when we look around our industry, we’ll never question whether or not we belong. We’ll just know that it’s our field as well and that we make it better.

RS: How did you get past some of those obstacles, and how are you helping young black women who might be in the same position you were a few years ago?

AJ:I always say my degree doesn’t just belong to me — it belongs to everyone who prayed for me, who baked for me, who offered me words of encouragement. Those people made a huge difference in my success, and I want to do the same thing for everyone around me, especially other Black women.

So I make a point to hype people up. I express how proud I am of others. I will root for you, so that you feel a sense of belonging. And so that, ultimately, you can root for yourself.

But another, somewhat unexpected, thing I’ve learned through this process is how to brag — and how important it is to brag, to talk about my accomplishments. We need to make ourselves visible for other women, especially other black women. Because if we’re being honest, there are few people who will do that work for us.

RS: Can you share with me a time when you were Brave, Not Perfect? When you did something that was scary — but ultimately was hugely empowering for you and your future?

AJ: Well I’m proud you were there to see this moment of mine, Reshma. When you and Jack Dorsey had a town hall at Twitter, I stood up and said to Jack, “I want to work with you. How can I work with you?” And he just said ‘send me an email.” I did, we connected, and now Jack is one of my strongest mentors.

But maybe the best thing about that story is that I was with my Girls Who Code Club at the town hall. The girls expressed after the town hall how brave I was and awesome it was that I’d stood up in front of a full room and asked Jack to work with him. They were definitely encouraged and felt empowered to face some of their fears. It was a moment I’ll never forget because it was not only life changing for me but for them as well.

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RS: Black History Month is a time for us to reflect and celebrate and commemorate all the amazing things about Black culture and brilliance. It’s also a time for us to commit to fighting for equity in the year ahead.

What would you say was most helpful to you as a black woman working in tech, and how can we replicate that for our girls?

AJ: There are so many orgs trying to get women into STEM, so many buzzwords about the gender gap in tech. And it’s like, okay bring girls and women into computer science but “then what?” We have to make sure we’re retaining the women and girls we bring into this field in the first place.

That means being leaders in creating inclusive cultures, engaging students, creating spaces of belonging. Like your College Loops program. t’s so important to give girls these spaces where they feel comfortable, spaces that are theirs. The best thing you can do for your girls is making sure they always have that. So make it known that you are a resource, a safe space, for them.

And most importantly, continue to connect girls with mentors. I really benefited from having someone in my corner who had been where I was, who had done what I was doing. She gave me guidance and pushed me to keep going. So I want every girl to have someone who looks like them, who understands them to look to for support.

RS: What’s one thing you would say to all the young black women who want to be computer scientists?

AJ: Just because we’re underrepresented in tech doesn’t mean we can’t recreate these spaces, own them, run them.

And the best part? We don’t have to fit into some box to do it. We can be totally entirely ourselves, be radically different from what this field looks like — and make it better.

So, first find someone you can relate to, look up to. Once you do that, be someone that other people can look to as well. Because seeing is believing. And we have to be there for one another, to keep each other going.

RS: And finally, what are you up to now? Where can people find you, follow you, get in touch with you?

AJ: In addition to working as a software engineer, I’ve also recently launched my passion project — an apparel line called The Kidult Life. When we’re kids, we’re brave and courageous — we take on every challenge, every new thing. But as we get older, we become more fearful and less curious. I want to inspire people to get back in touch with that spirit. So I came up with the idea of a kidult — a kid and an adult — and this line is meant to empower people to remain kids at heart, no matter where they are in life.

If you want to connect, you can find me on Twitter and DM me to get in touch.

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We are Girls Who Code & together we are closing the gender gap in tech! #BeAGirlWhoCodes

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