T’Keyaha Sawyers, a 2015 computer science alumna, makes it clear, she just wants to be known for being a good software engineer.
Not a female software engineer.
Not an African-American software engineer.
Just a software engineer who is good at what she does.
Currently, Sawyers develops Android mobile phone apps for YouTube, one of tech giant Google’s subsidiaries since 2006, to make sure that users can view and upload videos on their phones and have a consistently glitch-free experience.
As an African-American woman working at a tech industry leader, she still represents an infinitesimally small demographic at just 3 percent of the workforce employed in the field of computer science.
“I think the industry needs to be more proactive about changing the narrative around who is expected to be a software engineer or go into the field of computer science,” said Sawyers. “Little girls are not exposed to activities involving the sciences like boys are. Just looking at popular magazines for high school age-kids, you see that boys are taught to go and build things, and girls are taught about how to put on makeup or about dating.”
Growing up, Sawyers eschewed the typical activities popularized by young girls in magazines. She had always been good at the logical thinking required for excelling in math, a skill perhaps first cultivated on the cemetery grounds her foster home was attached to. There, she grew up plotting the geometric slalom course of headstones on her bike as she manuevered through her yard as a little girl.
Her own interest in computer science began with social media. She began poking around other people’s profiles on the now virtually defunct social networking site Myspace.com to see the code other members used to create the pages with slick graphics and user interfaces that she admired.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but making those profile pages from code? That was learning computer science,” she said.
Aside from learning code on social media sites , Sawyers built a strong foundation for pursuing a computer science degree by taking all the advanced mathematics courses offered at the high school in her hometown of Galax, Virginia, including college-level classes.
Despite growing up in nontraditional circumstances, she found a family at Virginia Tech. In her junior year, she began to blossom and reach out to her community as an ambassador for the Department of Computer Science in Virginia Tech's College of Engineering. She talked to groups of visiting students about everything from how to navigate the prickly social scene in college to picking classes.
Sawyers, who was offered the opportunity to compete for a full scholarship to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said she always considered Virginia Tech her first choice for college.
“The answer isn’t always choosing the most competitive school,” she said, advice she has doled out to prospective students, too. “I love Hokie Stone and the way the buildings give the campus a real collegiate feel. And I could always go home on the weekends if I wanted to when I was a student here. As an ambassador to the computer science department, I also encouraged students to ask themselves if the courses they wanted were offered at the schools they were interested in. But more importantly, could they be happy wherever they chose to attend?”
That formula of following one's instincts has worked well for Sawyers.
And her advice for future Googlers?
“Don’t be afraid to fail,” said Sawyers. “Failing is a good way to learn. People told me I had no chance of getting in at Google and yet here I am.”
Written by Amy Loeffler