A Coding Superstar Is Helping Pave the Way for Black Girls in the Tech Industry

A coding superstar is paving the way for black girls in one of America's fastest-growing industries.

At just 31 years old, Kamari Aykes, a software engineer for Time Inc. (parent company of ESSENCE), has become a standout in the emerging field of technology. She recently spoke with ESSENCE about her newly adopted calling and the opportunities it might hold for young Black women.

ESSENCE: How did you get your start in tech?
KAMARI AYKES: I spent my primary and secondary education focusing on math and science. I was on a premed track intending to become a doctor, probably a surgeon. After I graduated college and began prepping for med school, I started to have questions about whether it was what I really wanted to do. I took a job in a behavioral neuroscience lab in Oregon. That gave me my first exposure to computer programming. After two years there, I taught myself some coding online and then decided to enroll in a coding boot camp.

ESSENCE: What did you learn in the boot camp?
K.A.: I did a full-stack immersive program—more serverside builds. I learned Ruby on Rails, Sinatra and SQL. We also spent an equal amount of time acquiring front-end skills like JavaScript, HTML and CSS.

ESSENCE: How can we get Black girls and women interested and trained in tech?
K.A.: I’ll say it’s a multifaceted approach. For me, coming into this, I like showing kids what kind of opportunities they could have. When I was working in the research lab in Oregon, a postdoctoral colleague joined me, and we ran a STEM– focused education program for kids who were in lower-income Portland schools. Middle school is do-or-die—kids are already being set up for their future career path. When they’re in sixth, seventh, eighth grade, that’s when they really need to shine in math and in science if they want to get into a STEM career.

ESSENCE: What’s your advice for Black girls who excel in tech but find they are
the only person of color in the room?
K.A.: I would tell them, “Don’t be afraid to get involved just because no one else may look like you.” You may be the only female and the only person of color at the same time, but you have just as much of a right to be there as anyone else. You have to stand tall, you have to be confident, you have to let your voice be heard. You should feel comfortable to give your opinion. Don’t remain in the background and just accept being there. You’re there for a reason.

ESSENCE: That’s great advice. What would you tell their parents, and what skills do kids need to move forward in tech?
K.A.: It’s really important for kids to get involved in summer programs. I think they should enroll in academic camps or short programs where they build different projects or learn how to do basic coding on the computers.

ESSENCE: You were a part of The Hottest Tech Talent campaign from dice.com, a career Web site for technology professionals. How is it making Black women in the industry more visible?
K.A.: The Hottest Tech Talent campaign came about by happenstance. While I was at the coding boot camp over the winter, I noticed an ad on the job board from a casting agency. I answered and was asked to audition and take some pictures. I wound up being selected to do the ad campaign. It was great because Dice wanted to challenge the assumptions of what women in tech supposedly look like.

Zerlina Maxwell is an ESSENCE contributor, political analyst, writer and TV commentator.

This feature was originally published in the January 2016 issue of ESSENCE.

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