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African American Pioneers in Technology and Cybersecurity

By Dr. Kevin Harris
Faculty Member, Cybersecurity, Information Systems Security and Information Technology

This article is the second of a three-part science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) pioneer series, highlighting African American contributions in the fields of medicine, technology, and mathematics.

Since 2003, the month of October has been recognized as Cybersecurity Awareness Month. It recognizes the importance of the need to collectively focus on safeguarding against cyberthreats around the clock and a reminder of the massive size of the cybersecurity fight. 

There are many noteworthy African Americans in the cybersecurity and technology fields. Some of the most distinguished include Mark Dean, Marsha Rhea Williams, Ted Colbert and Bukola Somide; I encourage other African Americans to follow in their footsteps.

Mark Dean: Owner of 40 Patents, Including Three Patents for IBM’s Personal Computer

The ability for companies to pivot to a remote workforce and keep our economic system afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic is due in part to the work of Dr. Mark Dean. Dr. Dean holds three of the nine patents for designing IBM’s personal computer.

According to Engadget, Dr. Dean has had a distinguished career. His career has included roles as IBM’s Chief Technology Officer for the Middle East and Africa and as the Vice President of VP IBM’s Research Division.

Dr. Dean is also a distinguished professor at the University of Tennessee. While he has faced many racial barriers during this career, he said to Engadget: “I ignored the people attempting to block my progress and had no limits to who I talked to and in sharing my opinion…I also was able to demonstrate my ideas to a point where it was hard to argue their viability. It took a lot of work and sacrifice. But I was confident and believed I had some good ideas. Fortunately, there were a few in the right leadership positions that agreed with my ideas.” 

Dr. Dean’s remarks are an important reminder of the dual importance of determination and advocacy. Of the 40 patents that Dr. Dean holds, I am sure the color monitor and high-speed microprocessor are the two most important products that impact our life daily.

Marsha Rhea Williams: The First African American Woman to Earn a Computer Science Doctorate

Dr. Marsha Rhea Williams holds the distinct honor of being the first African American woman to earn her Ph.D. in computer science. In addition to her Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, Dr. Williams has received a B.S. in physics from Beloit College, a M.S. in physics from the University of Michigan, and a M.S. in systems and information science from Vanderbilt University. 

Dr. Williams is a trailblazer. She has worked for IBM and was a National Science Foundation (NSF) fellow, doing work focused on queries for large databases. In addition to serving as a faculty member at multiple institutions including the University of Mississippi and Tennessee State University, Dr. Williams has always advocated for diversity in the STEM fields.

Ted Colbert: IT Expert, Engineer and Boeing Executive

Ted Colbert, the Executive VP and President/CEO Boeing Global Services, leads the world’s largest aerospace company. Prior to working for Boeing, Mr. Colbert served in many roles, including overseeing the information security of a company that builds planes and missiles that protect nations across the globe. 

During his career, Mr. Colbert has also held other information technology leadership and engineering roles at organizations such as Ford Motor Company and Citigroup. According to D Magazine, Mr. Colbert chose to switch from the pursuit of  a law degree to an engineering track due to the recognition of his math skills by a teacher. He recognizes the importance of a supportive environment and continues to be a pioneer, leading innovation efforts of the world’s largest aerospace company.

Bukola Somide: Inventor of the First-Ever Computer Science Doll

Another modern-day pioneer is Bukola Somide, the founder of Innovant Technologies, LLC.  Originally from Kaduna, Nigeria, Ms. Somide migrated with her family to the United States as a teenager. 

Later, she pursued a B.S. in computer science from the University of Maryland College Park (UMCP). According to Black Enterprise, Ms. Somide was inspired to create Somi, the first-ever computer science doll.

Somi addresses the issue of diversity in the STEM field by encouraging young girls to enter the field of computer science.  She told Black Enterprise: “My passion is to bring computer science awareness to underserved communities while deterring cyberbullying. I’m so excited for everyone to experience Somi, the Computer Science doll!”

Thought Leaders and Pioneers Are Critical to Fostering Innovation in STEM Fields

Thought leaders, such as the inspiring African American pioneers I’ve mentioned in this article, are critical to fostering a culture of innovation. In addition to the many patents and accolades they earn and innovations they create, pioneers serve as role models and a catalyst for others to enter STEM fields.

I have been fortunate to see many positive culture models, including my late uncle, Dr. David Ferguson. He was a Distinguished Service Professor at Stony Brook University and a staunch ally for minorities in the STEM field. In a 2010 interview, he described the importance of culture and connections: “It’s important to me not only that I make a connection to the students, but that students make connections to each other.”

Strong role models and connections are important to us all. They will help us as we continue to innovate and defend ourselves against both internal and external cybersecurity threats.

About the Author

Dr. Kevin Harris is a faculty member in the School of STEM, teaching classes in cybersecurity, information systems security and information technology. With over 25 years of industry experience, Dr. Harris has protected a variety of organizational infrastructure and data in positions ranging from systems analyst to chief information officer.

His career encompasses diverse experiences both in information technology and academia. His research and passion are in the areas of cybersecurity, bridging the digital divide, and increasing diversity in the tech community. As an academic leader, Dr. Harris instructed students at various types of institutions, including community colleges, HBCUs, public, private, graduate, undergraduate and online. He has trained faculty from multiple institutions in the area of cybersecurity as part of an NSF multistate CSEC grant.  

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