Immigration and Computer Science
This week I am writing about “Immigrant Computer Scientists Podcast” — an oral history project featuring prominent computer scientists. The podcast is a project led by my friend Indy Gupta — a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Indy is also the host of a weekly radio show called “East Of Zero” on WEFT 90.1 FM and a co-organizer of the Just Infrastructures Speaker Series that interrogates the complex interactions between people, algorithms, and AI-driven systems.
When we think about computer science, immigration is not the first thing that comes to mind. We think of bits and bytes, motherboards, software, database, AI etc. When we think about the luminary figures in the history of computer science, we think of Charles Babbage, Alan Turning, Vannevar Bush, John von Neumann (who by the way was born in Budapest) or silicon valley pioneers. However, as with any history, there are omissions, complexity, hidden figures, and divergent life experiences that lurk behind. For instance, Ada Lovelace (1815 - 1852), whose work was as important as Babbage or maybe even more, is regarded now as the world’s first computer programmer. Other names in modern times are slowly getting their recognition. Computer Scientists like Grace Hopper or Mathematicians like Gladys West (known for her work on the development of the satellite geodesy) played fundamental roles in development of essential systems that are part of our daily lives (initially some of these works were for military and naval research).
History matters and who gets to write and tell these stories matter also. So the idea of oral history (Studs Terkel in the U.S was a seminal figure in popularizing oral histories) or people’s history is a powerful device that brings out often overlooked people and ideas to the forefront. Howard Zinn’s A People's History of the United States is a great example of such work that gives workers, radicals and everyday people a space over presidents and generals. In that vein, there is an excellent book called A People’s History of Computing in the United States by Joy Lisi Ranking that looks at some of these “historical untelling” by focusing on “unsung pioneers” who “helped shape our digital world, just as much as the inventors, garage hobbyists, and eccentric billionaires of Palo Alto”. The University of Illinois PLATO system features prominently in that book.
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Indy Gupta’s Immigrant Computer Scientists Podcast is along that same line a project that sets out to bring personal narratives and stories that are hidden behind big headline news and charts. Here is an interview where Gupta talks about the inspiration behind this project:
As my own research group became more and more diverse—now over 50% of my PhD students are women—I started reading literature on what brings women into CS (Computer Science) and STEM. A lot of literature exists on why kids move to science or STEM or CS. Yet, this literature is largely dominated by studies of American kids growing up in the US and its results include findings that center around certain concepts. There is a thought that most who go into CS grow up with computers or that most who go into CS have at least one parent already in computing. When I reflected on my own experiences or that of my friends, neither of these were true at all! So, I realized what was missing: histories of immigrants who grew up differently than Americans, yet became equally successful in the CS industry or academia. Whether men or women, immigrants grow up differently than Americans.
I could relate to this gap in history — someone who moved to the United States to study computer science. But at the same time, these are very different stories than mine — we all carve out our paths. And it is important to highlight the similarities and differences. Again, when we think about prestigious institutes that provide the degrees or the people that are involved, the personal history behind these developments are often overlooked. Even though the contribution of immigrants in the STEM workforce in the United States is well known, we can learn much more from the narratives the podcast features in every episode. Here’s a description of the first episode called From a Country That No Longer Exists:
Immigration stories from two Professors of Computer Science, and a Distinguished Technologist in Tech Industry. Featuring: Nenad Medvidovic (IEEE Fellow, Professor at USC), Jelena Mirkovic (Research Professor at USC), and Dejan Milojicic (IEEE Fellow, Distinguished Technologist at Hewlett Packard Labs). All three narrators were immigrants from Yugoslavia in the late 20th century.
People that were born and raised in different parts of the world not only bring talents but help us imagine a diverse society where we can respect each other’s differences and work together. The podcast and the oral history project can contribute to such vision. A side note here: The first Department of Computer Sciences in the United States was established at Purdue University in October 1962. The CS department website has a detailed list of graduates and their advisers. One of the first names listed there is Julius Richard Büchi (who moved from Zürich to Purdue).
There’s so much to learn from the podcast. It is a very well researched and produced show where the conversation flows smoothly. Sometimes you might recognise your own life as the guests talk about learning PASCAL, COBOL or getting their first Atari. Sometimes you will learn new facts (for instance I didn’t know that the U.S Virgin Islands was once part of the Kingdom of Denmark). Another excerpt from Indy Gupta’s interview:
Question: Has there been a part thus far from these conversations that has impacted you in a surprising way?
Every single conversation. And inside every single conversation, every five minutes. I become surprised because every one of the guests I have talked to has such a unique experience. Some of the guests I even know before the interview. So, they tell me, 'You know, Indy, my experience is not that unique.' Getting into the interview, I quickly find out that, no, it's extremely unique. Even the advice that they have for faculty, researchers, students, entrepreneurs; it has unique aspects. So, yes, I would say a lot of things surprise me about the wisdom that my guests have shown.
Even some facts are very surprising. Going back to what I was talking about with women in STEM. If you look at the majors in Iranian universities – at least at the university that my guest in Episode 9 and 10 went to – 70% of the students in software engineering were women. Then, in Egypt, where another guest went to school in the 1970s or '80s; among the computer science students going for their bachelor's, 40% are women. So different from the US!
Besides complicating the silicon valley mythology in the United States, these oral history projects bring in personal narratives that are inspiring. We do often see news items such as 55% Of America's Billion-Dollar Startups Have An Immigrant Founder but the personal narratives — oral histories — are missing in the headlines. I find Indy Gupta’s project a valuable addition to other oral and people’s history initiatives toward a richer understanding of education and science in the United States. Please, subscribe to the podcast and tell your friends. You can also find a list of suggested readings.
I wonder how oral history will look different when the focus moves from distinguished figures to everyday folks. No doubt, there are common elements that will pop up. However, we will see varied struggles and priorities from someone working on a temporary visa1 versus someone in a secure academic position. We can and should use such a plurality of voices in making the history of computer science and STEM in general. Let us support such podcasts and research to keep the conversation going and enrich our understanding of the world.