10 Questions with Erika Hairston
Junior Studying Computer Science and African American Studies at Yale University
Erika Hairston is a junior at Yale University studying Computer Science and African American Studies. After having participated in the Facebook University for Engineers program two summers ago, she returned on the Profile team at Facebook as an Android Development intern this past summer.
Since beginning college, Erika has played an active role in social justice and is currently the president of the Black Student Alliance at Yale. In 2015, she also received a fellowship that led her to co-founding SheCode, an initiative that teaches girls from New Haven introductory programming skills to foster an interest in technology and problem solving, while lowering the initial intimidation barrier of computer science.
- When did you know you wanted to be in tech?
Prior to college, I hadn’t taken a single computer science class. Up to my junior year of high school, I had no clue what code even meant.
This all changed when I stumbled upon a short documentary by an organization of women in computer science at Stanford, She++, that interviewed students and professors all while unraveling diversity statistics about technology. This 12-minute video was the first time I saw people — people who looked like me — talk about technology in a non-intimidating manner while debunking stereotypes. From that moment, my mind was set; I plunged into computer science, curious to continue uncovering why so few minorities seemed to be represented. In my quest, I’ve fallen in love with not only the subject but also creating opportunities for other girls and minorities to discover their potential in technology.
Admittedly, plunging into computer science wasn’t an entirely smooth journey without its fair share of challenges. Although I‘ve always excelled in mathematics and enjoyed logical puzzles, computer science was unfamiliar territory, requiring me to push myself mentally and emotionally in a way that drove me even more toward the subject.
The first computer science class I took freshman fall was an absolute bust. I mean, I hated every last second of it. I consistently felt foreign and behind in this massive homogenous class of men. Something in me, however, was not ready to give up, especially once I learned more about potential internship opportunities in California.
Second semester, my luck shifted in the field. After attending the WeCode conference and taking a computer science course under a woman professor that believed in my success, I started to feel that I was in the right major for me. I was impassioned, inspired by the industry and its potential for impact to increase the number of people who looked like me in the field. With that fire, I applied to the Facebook University program and before I knew it, I was immersed in Silicon Valley.
2. Who’s been a role model you look up to?
Short answer — Beyoncé. (Mainly because I just saw her in concert only a few weeks ago, and she completely slayed my life AND brought Serena Williams along to snatch my edges.)
Long answer — Ursula Burns, Michelle Obama and the strong Black women in my life: my mother, godmother, and sisters Xena, Simone, and Kim.
Beyoncé has forever been that celebrity that I would twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook rant about. When a Beyoncé song comes on, I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider “The Erotic as Power,” where Lorde describes this feeling that females are deprived of that releases our capacity of joy and feeling. Beyoncé’s music reminds me of this endless power and potential that I possess. Since I was a little girl, I’ve loved to dance and sing. The joy I feel from screaming at the top of my lungs “I Slay” is a powerful and political act. Being allowed to feel beautiful and owning the space I’m in is potent, and Beyoncé reminds me that it is okay to take up that space that we so often, as women, and especially women of color, are told we are not allowed to occupy.
“Being allowed to feel beautiful and owning the space I’m in is potent, and Beyoncé reminds me that it is okay to take up that space that we so often, as women, and especially women of color, are told we are not allowed to occupy.”
While Beyoncé reminds me of my endless potential and joy, Ursula Burns and Michelle Obama are the manifestation of #goals. My sophomore year in high school, I completed a research paper on Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox and the only Black Woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. To be “the first” and to be “the only” in any field is never easy. I dream of being a CEO one day, and Ursula Burns reminds me that it is possible. She embodies a hard-worker that rose to the top, from intern to CEO, and dominated in her field. Similarly, my love for Michelle Obama will go without much explanation because she’s The Michelle Obama. An incredibly intelligent Black woman has been in The White House since I was eight years old. During the most transformative years of my life, I have been able to proudly aspire to her greatness through middle school, high school, and now college.
Beyoncé, Ursula Burns, and Michelle Obama have all been Black women from afar that I’ve gawked at through the lens of media. Meanwhile, 5 Black women in my life have made me the woman I am today. Between my mother, godmommy Lynn and three older sisters, I have been conditioned to survive and thrive in this world. They have been my support system reminding me of the importance of my education and the power of my voice. Whenever I start to doubt myself in this vast tech world, because of them, I know I’m never truly alone.
3. What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Technology has proven itself over and over again to be one of the most powerful and fast-paced tools of our time. Adding convenience to our lives and solving crisis in communities, technology excites me because of the creativity it requires to break down and solve a problem. Additionally, its vast potential for impact is almost unimaginable. The fact that one line of code can touch millions of lives continues to amaze me and keeps me driven about my potential to enact meaningful change in this world.
In a different light, the lack of women and minorities currently in tech also empowers me to push through and inspire others to enter the field. There have been several times when I’ve wanted to give up on computer science because I’ve felt that I wasn’t good enough nor meant for the industry; however, I’ve been able to turn that attitude around every time by thinking about the significance of role models. Being able to see yourself in a position can be incredibly impactful, and I want to be that image for little Black girls to see it’s possible for them to excel in this field as well.
“Being able to see yourself in a position can be incredibly impactful, and I want to be that image for little Black girls to see it’s possible for them to excel in this field as well.”
4. What’s a challenge you’ve faced in your career journey?
At my school, there is this one required computer science course that is known for being the Black Hole of computer science classes — CS323. This semester, I enrolled in the course incredibly nervous that this would be the end of my career as a computer science major. I was especially intimidated because I‘d simultaneously taken on more responsibility in my extracurriculars and was interviewing for summer internships almost every weekend. Unfortunately, I had super-packed my schedule and was losing sleep, distancing myself from my friends, even forgetting to eat.
Since I had failed to prioritize self-care, I began sleeping through my alarms, missing class, and had trouble focusing and finishing my problem sets for CS323. It felt like the Black Hole had sucked me in, and I was too tired to fight my way out. For a while, I fixated solely on the negative, experiencing the pressures of being one of the few women in the course and the only Black woman even more intensely than I had in the past. After sitting in self-pity for far too long, I decided to take one day completely as “Erika Day.” I needed to rediscover my passion and cut down on my commitments, so I could enjoy the things I was a part of.
On my “day-off,” I binge watched The Voice and read through some of my old problem sets from previous computer science courses. I was reminded that at some point, I did have it together and was completely capable of being a great computer scientist. I then had a productive meeting with my Dean where I decided which commitments could be removed from my plate, and I already began feeling the weight ease off my shoulders. At this point, although I’d fallen pretty far behind in CS323, I still had the drive to finish. I sat down with the professor and told him I wanted to do everything in my power to complete his class this semester. We drew out a plan together, and he assured me I could do it as long as I kept working at it and wasn’t afraid to ask for help. This turnaround didn’t happen overnight, but it did result in me learning how to better balance my priorities and also re-inspire myself when I need to be pushed.
5. Describe a time you were proud of yourself.
Whenever people ask me about the best part of my Facebook internship, I giggle inside knowing my response is incredibly nerdy and unexpected. Within my first two weeks on the job, my manager told me I’d be pushing code to the public. Inside, I was freaking out: “I’ve only been here two weeks! I’m just a sophomore! I’m going to breakdown Facebook for a zillion people! I’m not ready yet. *More internal screaming.” Despite the frenzy of emotions I was feeling, I wanted to complete my first ramp-up tasks to the best of my ability, so I sucked up my fear and put my best foot forward.
The first tasks that most managers have their interns do are bug fixes to get them familiar with the ginormous code base. This was going to be my first time touching real-life, actual Facebook code. My job was to find why a certain button on Profile wasn’t appearing correctly in some cases and fix the issue. Soon after the task was assigned to me, I made sure I read over it a zillion times so I had a potential approach in mind. I then walked through the code absurdly giddily because I was starting to get the flow and what was making parts of Facebook work. The next day, when I walked through the code again, I quickly picked up on the issue and changed it to what I thought it should be. After running the code including my edits, I was ecstatic to see I had fixed the bug.
The exact moment when I felt that immense pride however, was when I opened my email the following week to get the notification: “Greetings Erika, This is an auto generated email to notify you that Facebook for Android has been pushed to production…You are receiving this notification because your pushed code is included in this new release…” I immediately freaked out and called my mom. For the first time, I felt like a real software engineer. I believed in myself and saw the direct impact of my problem solving touch thousands of people.
6. What’s something you want to get better at?
Longboarding, asking the questions, iOS Development.
7. Comfort food of choice?
My dad’s baked Mac & Cheese.
8. Favorite book?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah.
9. If you could try another job for a day, what would it be?
10. If you could give your 18-year-old self a piece of advice, what would it be?
Build, create, and write more on your own time. Your ideas and potential to learn are invaluable.