An MIT professor and Microsoft researcher’s advice for black computer scientists

Establishing your credibility is no laughing matter.
Establishing your credibility is no laughing matter.
Image: Courtesy of James Mickens
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

James Mickens is a Microsoft researcher and an MLK visiting professor at MIT. Yesterday (Jan. 19) he took to Reddit 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.

What to say when they cut you off

During the AMA, a user asked how to be heard in group settings—in this user’s instance, as a computer science PhD student who is a woman of color. Mickens’ advice is to be very, very prepared. Think about what you want to talk about and how to present it before a meeting or presentation, he says. Choose four or five topics and know them thoroughly so that you can stay on point when others try to interrupt, or in case you get nervous, Mickens says.  Here was his Reddit response, in part:

It can be difficult to be confident if you’re improvising, particularly if you’re improvising about technical things! Also, if you prepare what you want to say, and people try to cut you off, you can say, “one second—I just want to describe X, Y, and Z, which relates to the larger group goals in ways A, B, and C.” It takes practice to be firm about this, but it’s an investment that will pay off.