James Mickens is a Microsoft researcher and an MLK visiting professor at MIT. Yesterday (Jan. 19) he for an “Ask me Anything” session focused on his experience as an African American computer scientist. In an interview with Quartz after the AMA, Mickens said the overarching theme to his advice is to “be intentional.” Figure out what it is you want professionally, and act with the purpose to achieve that goal. That advice is even more important for people from underrepresented communities in the field, because they have less benefit of the doubt and fewer connections to start with, Mickens tells Quartz. Here’s his advice on how to get ahead in computer science:
Think like a comedian
Mickens is known to his colleagues as “the funniest man in Microsoft Research.” He tells Quartz that being a comedian from an underrepresented group is a lot like being an underrepresented person in any field, computer science or otherwise. You have to work harder than other people to establish your credibility.
Early in his career, Mickens found himself in situations in which people seemed to question or doubt him where they might trust others. He attributes part of that to the fact that he doesn’t look like the majority of computer scientists—white or Asian males—and had to establish his authority and technical knowledge early in conversations, and then maintain it, the same way a comedian establishes her narrative and convinces the audience to accept it. From the AMA:
Once you’ve established your technical chops, you can open up more, but I do think that it’s important to establish that technical authority early. I can think of specific individuals for which I did not do this, and for whom I then had to devote extra effort to convincing them that I was a serious researcher.
Your mentor doesn’t have to look like you
Mentors can play a substantial role in helping young people land their first job or internship, and people from underrepresented communities often have less access to those contacts. It’s OK to have a mentor who comes from a different community, he wrote during the AMA:
This is true for everyone. If you’re a white guy, don’t be afraid to have a female mentor. If you’re a black female, don’t be afraid to have a white man as a mentor. There may be some cultural misunderstandings, but that’s okay. You’ve got to learn how to deal with those things anyway, so don’t be afraid of it.