Joye Nettles remembers walking into her first computer science class and feeling like an outsider.
It was during her freshman year at the College of Charleston. The course, Computer Programming 1. In a room of about two dozen students, she was one of just three women in her class. And she was the only African-American, too.
“The boys in those classes, they know their stuff and they let you know it,” she said. “It seemed like I didn’t know anything.”
While her classmates went on about “back-end servers,” “inheritance” and “polymorphism,” Nettles was writing her first line of code. She later learned how to program her own version of the popular Scrabble-style, app game, Words with Friends. It was thrilling, she said, when she realized, “you can make whatever you want.” By then, she was hooked.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe someone like Joye Nettles, who, as her name suggests, radiates optimism and poise, was ever intimidated by her peers. The 21-year-old senior became fluent in four programming languages and “dabbled” in two more. She developed a mobile app to help geochronologists with their fieldwork. She’s designing a programming game to teach young girls about code through fashion.
Over the next three weekends, all the local colleges and universities are graduating, And Nettles will walk across the scenic Cistern Yard, along with her 2,000 of her classmates, with multiple job offers behind her and a $10,000 grant to launch a local startup. A Darlington native who makes the two-hour drive home as often as she can, Nettles will receive her degree in computer science on May 16 in a white dress, handmade by her grandmother.
Aside from Silicon Valley superstars Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, the gender gap in the fields of technology and computer science is persistent and getting wider. In 2013, women made up just 26 percent of the computing workforce — down from 35 percent in 1990, according to a study by the American Association of University Women. And African-American women held only 3 percent of those jobs. That same year, less than 20 percent of computer science bachelor’s degree recipients were women.
The numbers at the College of Charleston, where about a quarter of the students are women, are a little better, thanks to concerted departmental effort to attract more female students. Christine Moore, a computer science instructor at the college and outgoing director of the South Carolina Alliance for Minority Participation (SCAMP), attributes part of the problem to a lack of female role models in computer science. But Nettles, she said, “definitely bucked the trend.”
“She represents a new group of young professionals that we should be paying attention to, particularly in the Southeast, and showing these students you can be as successful as anyone else,” said Chris Starr, an associate professor of information management.
Although she was always hardworking and ambitious, Nettles quickly established herself as a leader in the college’s computer science department. She founded the Women in Computing club and served as student president of SCAMP and of her sorority, Zeta Phi Beta. She participated in the college’s inaugural ICAT class, an on-campus student accelerator that combines undergraduate computer science, business and liberal arts students into teams to create their own tech startups from scratch. At the end of the semester, the teams compete for startup capital. Nettles and her two teammates, also young women, developed an Android app called “SpotIt,” which allows users to book coveted downtown parking spots in a single, seamless transaction. On Tuesday, they pitched their idea to a panel of judges at Footlight Players Theatre. Theirs and another team won the top prize: $10,000 each.
Nettles, for one, isn’t hung up on stereotypes about people in tech, but she’s happy to break them to encourage other young, minority women to study computer science. One of her goals senior year was to land a job by December — and she did. After she graduates, she’ll start her dream job as a junior associate consultant at ThoughtWorks, a global software development firm. Her work begins with six weeks of training for new hires in Pune, India, before she relocates to Dallas. She said it’s “the most diverse company” she’s ever seen.
“She is going to succeed. She now self-describes as an entrepreneur. That’s what she wants to be. This first job will give her worldwide exposure to tech companies,” said her mentor, Jim Bowring, an assistant professor of computer science. “I can’t wait to see what she does.”
Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.