Hidden figures: 7 Black programmers you should know

These African-American software pioneers were part of a largely unheralded history of key software innovators.

Hidden figures: 7 Black programmers you should know

The history of computer science, the internet, and the modern software industry is populated by a cast of characters that is largely White, middle-aged men. Leafing through Walter Isaacson’s excellent history of the technology industry, The Innovators, I was struck by the lack of diversity of the “inventors, hackers, geniuses, and geeks” responsible for the modern computer age.

An important text in uncovering the contributions of Black people to the history of technology was Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures, and the Hollywood movie based on it, that charts the careers of three African-American NASA mathematicians during the space race. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were programming pioneers, learning to code in Fortran and advocating for women in science, engineering, and mathematics positions at NASA.

Although there are efforts to improve diversity and inclusion efforts at large technology companies, paving the way for a new generation of Black developers to come to the fore, there is much work to be done.

As both inspiration and impetus, and in celebration of Black History Month this February, we delved into the archives to shine a light on some key Black tech pioneers who may have been overlooked by history.

Roy Clay

Any history of Black contributions to the field of computer science has to include Roy L. Clay, Sr., the founder and former CEO of ROD-L Electronics, a manufacturer of electrical safety testing equipment.

Before founding ROD-L, Clay was a programmer. He started his career in 1956 programming IBM and Burroughs computers for McDonnell Aircraft. In 1958, he moved to what is now known as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, operated by UC Berkeley for the US Department of Energy. Clay went on to develop software languages for Control Data mainframe computers, before joining Hewlett-Packard as the lead developer for the HP 2116A minicomputer and later as part of its research and development department.

It was at HP where Clay worked with the late Tom Perkins, a founding member of the legendary Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. The relationship led to a consulting role for Clay and an investment from Kleiner Perkins in ROD-L in 1978, marking the first Black founder the firm ever invested in.

Marian Croak

Marian Croak has been in technology for 35 years and currently works at Google as vice president of site reliability engineering for ads, corporate engineering, and YouTube. Her crowning achievement was contributing to the invention of the Voice over IP (VoIP) protocol in the 1990s.

Still in use today, VoIP allows voice communications and multimedia to be transmitted over Internet Protocol (IP) networks instead of over traditional telephone networks. Anyone who has taken part in a Zoom call recently will have come into contact with VoIP technology in some form.

Mark Dean

Born in Tennessee in 1957, Mark Dean is a computer scientist, professor, and inventor who was central to the creation of the personal computer.

During his long career at IBM, between 1979 and 2013, Dean worked on the team responsible for bus control systems, including what became the Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) that allowed early computers to communicate with external devices. Dean also holds other key patents related to early models of the IBM PC, released in 1981. He became the first Black IBM Fellow when he was appointed to the position in 1995.

Today Dean is an emeritus professor in the Min H. Kao Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Tennessee.

Clarence Ellis

Clarence “Skip” Ellis was one of few African-Americans to walk the halls of the now-legendary Xerox PARC in the 1970s and 1980s, where he was part of the team that developed early display software, object-oriented programming languages, and OfficeTalk, an early groupware system that paved the way for today’s collaboration software.

“Using the Alto and Dorado machines, and the Cedar database and programming environment, we have devised a system that allows the flexible manipulation of electronic forms on the display screen of users and helps to coordinate and control the flow of forms between user workstations,” said the original OfficeTalk notes from 1982, coauthored by Ellis.

Lisa Gelobter

Lisa Gelobter is a computer scientist and technology executive who has a long history of contributions to video technology on the web, including early contributions toward the now-ubiquitous Graphics Interchange Format (GIF). During her time at Adobe, Gelobter led the Shockwave and Flash Player product teams.

Gelobter is currently the cofounder and CEO of Tequitable, a platform for employees to address issues of bias, discrimination, and harassment. She spent two years working at the White House as part of the newly formed United States Digital Service, where she helped design new digital services for people in education. She was also part of the founding team for the streaming service Hulu.

John Henry Thompson

John Henry Thompson is the inventor of the object-oriented Lingo programming language, created primarily for the now-defunct Adobe Director platform. Lingo had been a key language in the development of Shockwave and other multimedia formats.

Gladys Mae West

Gladys Mae West is an American mathematician who contributed to the creation of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) during her time at what is now the Naval Surface Warfare Center, part of the US Air Force.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, West helped program an IBM 7030 “Stretch” computer to build a highly accurate geodetic model of Earth, which would later form a key part of an early version of GPS.

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