10 Black Tech Pioneers Whose Names You Should Know
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Last year I was interviewed for what turned out to be an excellent blog outlining ways for customer success organizations to cultivate and realize the full benefits of diverse teams. The quote of mine they featured talked of ensuring leaders of color are seen by others in the company, regularly and in roles reflecting their leadership and expertise, and not just trotted out at conferences as mere symbols of diversity. My comments joined those of others who spoke of the importance of building a culture of inclusion, of establishing clear career ladders, executive-level sponsorship, and of slowing the hiring process to make room for candidates outside your standard recruiting network.
That’s the kind of nuanced, even evolved conversation we’re having these days about ensuring Black professionals and other marginalized groups earn the meaningful recognition they deserve. It’s not, however, the kind of conversation people were having back in the 1990s, when I first entered the tech industry and when diversity initiatives were just taking shape. And it’s certainly nothing like the lived experiences of all the cybersecurity and tech pioneers who have worked in virtual anonymity from the dawn of the technology age, and who happened to be Black, or women, or otherwise different from everyone else in the industry.
Why it matters
Their stories deserve telling here. This is especially true because, as progressive as tech and cybersecurity organizations work so hard to be, industry-wide numbers suggest we still have miles to go: The U.S. Department of Labor reports that Blacks make up just 3% of infosecurity analysts in the United States. And while we’re at it, women are vastly underrepresented in our field as well: Though they make up 51% of the U.S. population, women represent just 14% of infosec workers, according to the International Consortium of Minority Cybersecurity Professionals (ICMCP). So if you’ve been wondering why all those diversity-supporting hashtags and posts are trending, wonder no longer.
As we continue to take those necessary steps toward a vibrant, diverse, and inclusive workplace, it’s worth noting we would never have arrived here without the efforts of Black cybersecurity and tech pioneers. There are, unfortunately, too many to list in a blog, but I’ll highlight a few whose impacts strike me as especially worth your time and attention.
William Coffee. A Black college English major who in 1941 was hired as a janitor–and later promoted to messenger Arlington Hall Station (AHS), part of the U.S. Army’s Signal Intelligence Service, which later became the National Security Agency, Coffee was tasked with recruiting and leading a groundbreaking group of African-American cryptographers. Among Black cryptologists, Coffee earned superstar status and the work of his team helped to decode enemy transmissions in the 1940s and 1950s and even laid the foundation for future developments in cybersecurity and cryptocurrency. He was inducted into the NSA’s Cryptologic Hall of Honor in 2011.
Carroll Robinson. One of the first Black engineers hired by AHS in 1948, Robinson helped design ABNER-1, the agency’s first in-house developed digital computer. Robinson was among the first Black employees to work side-by-side with white peers, and he went on to become the first African-American senior executive at the NSA.
Wilhelmina Ware. Throughout the 1950s and beyond, Ware oversaw the education of numerous generations of cryptologists at the National Cryptologic School. Eventually promoted to Chief of the Learning Center, she focused on helping to make cryptology careers accessible to people with disabilities by introducing sign language courses and programs to recruit people of color into the field. Though never a cryptographer herself, she had an enormous influence on efforts to make cybersecurity more diverse.
Mark Dean. This African-American trailblazer was the chief engineer of the 12-member team that invented the original IBM PC. Still not impressed? He also led the team that developed the first Gigahertz microprocessor—a stepping stone to today’s high-speed CPUs that power cybersecurity algorithms, as well as literally everything else. Dean was the first Black engineer to be named an IBM Fellow, the company’s highest distinction.
Marsha Rae Williams. The first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in Computer Science, Williams has done foundational work in the field of querying large databases—an essential component of many aspects of cybersecurity, cloud services, and more. When she’s not improving the user experience for database users, she’s leading programs to diversify the fields of computer science and engineering.
Gerald “Jerry” Lawson. One of the first African-American engineers (pictured above) to work in the video game industry, Lawson headed the team that created the first removable cartridge video console (until then, consoles came preloaded with games and you got what you got). Lawson worked “like a secret agent” to avoid tipping off competitors, the console was a first not just for Lawson but for his employer, Fairchild, a semiconductor company angling to enter the fast-growing home video game console market. Fairchild failed to make the product successful, but the form factor Lawson invented was the future of video games.
Robert Frederick. MIT Media Lab wunderkind an author of 41 issued patents, Frederick is known best for being the technical co-founder of AWS, which runs roughly a third of all cloud services, everywhere, including countless cybersecurity offerings. Frederick now is CEO of Sirqul, an IOT analytics firm, and once famously offered this pro-security tip to tech users: He turns off Amazon Alexa during “private moments.” Here’s a tech pioneer who just keeps on giving.
Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Thanks to the 2016 film “Hidden Figures,” the story of these three trailblazing Black women got plenty of attention for a while, though they are still not exactly household names. These accomplished mathematicians helped get the first NASA astronauts to the moon and safely home again (not to mention later missions), and their work informed future technology advances. Johnson, who also was a physicist, calculated trajectories, launch windows and return paths for many critical flights. Prior to one flight, astronaut John Glenn refused to take off unless Johnson herself manually confirmed calculations made by NASA’s computers. “If she says they’re good,” Glenn told Mission Control, “then I’m ready to go.” Even among larger-than-life NASA figures, Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson are revered as heroes.
Say their names
It would be an expected, even trite, thing for me to say I stand on the shoulders of these pioneers of color and all the others who came before me. But it’s true. And it’s equally true all of us in cybersecurity and tech owe them a debt of gratitude. Without their work and accomplishments, the industry that sustains and challenges us would look very different, and far less colorful. We should thank these remarkable innovators. And we should all know their names.