Brianna Fugate — Students in Tech
Why did you chose to study computer science/pursue tech? How did you begin your tech journey?
Brianna: I was a high school senior and my plan was that I was going to go to college and study biology or pre med. However, that changed when I was looking for organizations to volunteer for, and I came across Black Girls Code, and I found out that they had a chapter in New York. A good friend of mine, Kaya Thomas, and I went to the organization and attended a fundraiser event in the city, and we loved it! When I was first volunteering, I had no tech experience yet. Going to the Black Girls Code workshops and seeing all those girls become interested in computer science, and seeing a different face in terms of who “can and cannot code”, encouraged me to go out and seek other opportunities for myself and to immerse into the technology field.
Then, I found out about Google’s Computer Science Institute in Mountain View California where software engineers were going to teach me how to code! I had to write essays and do a technical phone interview to get into the program. At this time, I didn’t know really that much about tech, but being curious and open minded about the questions helped me get accepted into the program for the summer. Then, Google also helped change my path because it was there when I became even more interested in studying computer science. When I got to Spelman my first week, I changed my major from biology to computer science.
What do you like best about studying computer science at Spelman?
Brianna: Spelman is a liberal arts college and I have heard many people express concerns about the computer science department. However, going to Spelman and being a computer science major is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made! I am around people who look like me and it is very inspirational to see people who are similar to me interested in the same things I am interested in. Also, those students being great at what they do. The faculty and staff at Spelman are also black women who have PHD’s in computer science, which is just an amazing experience in itself because I get to go to them for advice, confide in them with any issues that I have, and ask them for help. All of them are completely understanding about what it means to be a black women in this field because they have all experienced it for themselves. It’s just an amazing experience. Also, Spelman is a very small school, and I work really well in small class sizes. Being able to go to this school, work on computer science, and be in small classrooms where we can just have conversations with each other, not necessarily a dialect where it’s the teacher instilling that information into us. It’s more so us asking questions and talking amongst ourselves in small intimate groups and obtain answers and do research while all learning about each other and what we’re interested in.
Favorite project you have built and worked on?
Brianna: UNCF and Google asked me to coordinate a project for students in AUC (Atlanta University Center) where we were connected with 45 middle school students and had this program every Saturday for 4 weeks where students were able to work on projects. Using Scratch, we had them create music videos and it was my job to coordinate the meetings every week and also be of service to a particular group of girls. It was an amazing experience because I got the opportunity to coordinate and event plan as well as making sure everything was alright on the mentor and students side. Also, we got to see the impact we had in that short amount of time and seeing how impactful it is for college students to be present in the pipeline so that other students can be aware of the opportunities that are ahead of them.
A technical project that I really liked was when I worked on this mobile application for a non-profit organization, trying to get their technological platform up to par with the technology that exists today. The purpose of the non-profit was for people to sponsor children in third world countries. We wanted to bridge the gap between the actual people being sponsored and the sponsors because it seemed as though the sponsors pay their money every month and they don’t really know how the money is being spent or how the child is doing (besides a letter that comes once a month). However, we said “Hey, technology exists where we can communicate with people on a daily basis and people (like sponsors and their sponsorees) can get updates from each other. Why don’t we create a mobile app where we can give the sponsors more detail of here their money is being spent and how their child is doing?” I really loved the project because I didn’t really know much about IOS prior to going into it; however, now I know how to build a mobile app and create this really great and impactful project for this organization.
Most challenging project or experience you have gone through?
Brianna: I think the education system is flawed because they teach us theory and concepts; however, they don’t really teach us practicality or efficiency. I think one of the challenges I face is doing a lot of outside work in order to get a good internship or job because you can’t go into the interviews thinking it’s going to be everything you learned in class. They ask you so much more. So, working hard outside the classroom is a challenge in terms of balancing my school and outside life, but that comes with time management. I’ve been working very hard to have lists of things that I need to do every day, but it’s very hard to make sure that you’re obtaining the skills of the outside and inside. I think good mentorship and partnership with people outside and working on good projects will help with learning all the efficiencies of data structures and algorithms, and all the other stuff you need to know for an interview. I would encourage anyone who is interested in doing computer science to work hard outside the classroom, get on websites, and do interview prep.
Have you attended any hackathons? If so which ones? What did you build at those hackathons?
Brianna: I’ve been to some hackathons! I was assistant in hackathons for Black Girls Code and that was my first experience ever at a hackathon. I’ve done the Love is Respect hackathon in New York and in New Orleans and won second place in that. It was really awesome because at this hackathon I didn’t have as much tech experience and I learned so much. We built an app to quiz users on what kind of relationship they were in because we were interested in relationship health. We asked users questions about the dynamics of their relationships and then gave them resources on how we can effectively change the predicate based off the survey.
Favorite class you have taken? Why?
Brianna: My favorite class in tech so far has been my first computer science course (introduction to computer science). We learned Python and python is my favorite language because it’s so intuitive and easy to write. When I first got into python and learned about list, tuples, dictionaries it was very easy for me to understand. There was also a program that Google launched that where they had software engineers come into my class and teach us Python. We worked on awesome projects: tic tac toe, fortune teller program, and all of these out-of-the-box thoughtful projects, which were really really cool.
My favorite non-cs class was probably Women in Art, where we learned about different artist throughout history and throughout the world who have contributed to the industry in major ways. It was really interesting to look at those pieces of art, examine them, and then learn what is the process of looking at images, the theme of the image, and the feelings you get from each image. I think that’s very closely connected to computer science because when you’re building something for a user you want to make sure the aesthetics of it are applicable and intuitive enough to your user. I really appreciated that class.
Most challenging class you have taken?
Brianna: Data Structures and Algorithms was definitely a challenging class, which was in C++. I was like “Ugh, you have to define the data structures and everything.” It was really unintuitive. However, I appreciate C++ because it teaches you the back-end of a data structure, like what a list is, appending to a list, or creating a node.
Other resources you have used to learn computer science and prepare for internships?
Brianna: Codecademy is how I started learning HTML/CSS. For interview prep, I use interview cake because they have a lot of awesome questions as well as they track your progress. Also, cracking the code interview is like your Bible, make that your Bible. In terms of learning computer science, there is a lack of presence of how parents and other students can dive deep into computer science, such as what workshops are available,where can I go to obtain resources (there should be an app for that). However, in terms of learning I think listening to podcasts are great, there our podcasts out there that can give you an introduction. There are also books that you can read. I know that a lot of universities have an open curriculum so they share their curriculum online so anyone is able to access them and learn. Also, sometimes it’s cool to be self-taught, and with computer science you definitely do teach yourself a lot of it. You can go on to like Stanford Open Source Curriculum and that’s a great way to start. You can also use things like Udemy or Quora, and open forums to ask any questions that you have. Additionally, just start building and looking things up on the internet is a great to be a self-starter.
Internships/Research opportunities you have had?
-Google Computer Science Summer Institute
-Squares Code Camp
-Intern at the White House
-This summer, I will be interning at Intel as a CODE2040 Fellow
How was your experience interning at the White House?
Brianna: It was unconventional as a computer science major because I came in with no experience in policy. However, it was okay because I love going into things not knowing anything about it because you come out learning a ton. I came into the White House knowing a lot about computer science, what it’s like to be a computer science major as a women and as a women of color, and that’s all I really needed because I was able to provide input on how we can make diversity in tech better and how we can allocate resources across the country such as open sourcing so it could be available to everyone on a national scale. I was able to help plan Demo Day and attend Demo Day, as well as able to meet a lot of political officials who were interested in the success of people of color and the country in STEM. It was an awesome experience. I was Megan Smith’s (CTO of the United States and former VP at Google) intern in the office of Science and Technology Policy. She was amazing, encouraging, and confident. She knew and understood the problems, so I’m a huge fan of Megan and it was a pleasure to work with her this summer.
What would you like to do after school?
Brianna: I think I want to go straight to industry. I work better in smaller environments so I think I want to work for a start-up. I want to have a heavy contribution and do something impactful, which is what you can definitely get at a startup. I might also want to become an Evangelist, I don’t know.
What has your experience in school and in your internships been like as a women of color in tech?
Brianna: At school, I go to an HBCU, and it’s all women so everyone is supportive of the greater goal of trying to pave the way for all the women of color now and behind us. The model at Spelman is Spelman women are meant to change the world. Spelman has been extremely supportive of the work I’m doing and interested in. They’ve posted me on the website. They recently posted me on the website as a University Innovation Fellow in terms of getting Spelman more spirited in the startup culture so using the liberal arts curriculum to create an interdisciplinary curriculum for computer science and STEM students. They’re extremely supportive in my mission of getting more women of color interested in creating their own businesses and being an entrepreneur. I’ve gained so many connections of Spelman and everyone wants to connect make sure that we are achieving a greater goal together.
I think that being black and a women in tech works in your favor because there are so many advantages hiring a women of color. They have so much input that they can bring to the table and I think that some of the best ideas come from diverse candidates. Bringing black women to the table definitely bring social, economic, and political advantages .
How do you think we can increase diversity in the tech industry?
Brianna: There are so many issues that we need to tackle that are mind boggling. First, we need exposure to the younger generation. I wasn’t fortunate enough to have exposure to computer science until the end of high school. Nowadays, kids love technology, so why wouldn’t they want to create it. There is no reason why kids should not be exposed to learning how to build the technology, that they interact with daily, at an early age. So first, getting into younger classrooms and implementing computer science into the curriculum (as other countries do at a young age). Second, there is a lack of mentorship and guidance in computer science for people in color because I lots of people who think that they’re the only ones. If we had enough people who reach back, be mentors, and supporters of these individual’s dreams and career aspirations, then we might have less people feeling like they’re the only ones. I think lastly, joining support groups that deal with the same issues that you deal with and coming together on a monthly basis to discuss those issues is great. Sometimes you just need a network and have people to talk to. I think finding that niche would be beneficial to obtaining and maintaining a group to help conquer some of the issues in diversity in tech.
Advice for students interested in studying computer science or pursuing their own projects?
Brianna: I like to say what my mentor, Ms. Kim Bryant, says which is to keep going. Be an explorer, be inventive, be entrepreneurial, be everything, and keep going. Once you’ve found your interest and get immersed in a project you really care about don’t ever give up! Work on things that you enjoy, because those are going to be the best kind of projects for you. If you’re passionate about an issue or a project or trying to solve a problem, you will get to the bottom of it by asking why, how, and what. Keep asking those questions and be investigative and you will be successful!