Seven Underappreciated Black Programers

With Black History Month in full swing, I thought I would take the opportunity to highlight seven black programers that may not be found in many history texts. These individuals have helped to pave the way for the future of software development and deserve to be praised.

John Henry Thompson

John Thompson invented Lingo programming used in Macromedia Director and Shockwave. Lingo has been used to create flash and shockwave programs that now are prevalent in video games, web design, animation, and graphics.

Thompson studied art at the New York Student Art League and the Boston Museum School and earned a degree in Computer Science and Visual Studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1983. Thompson was the principal engineer for Macromedia Director, the inventor and developer of Lingo and XObjects, and a professor of new media at New York University — Tisch Interactive Telecommunications Program.

From 1987 until 2001, Thompson was the chief scientist at Macromedia where he developed a number of products, including the VideoWorks Accelerator, VideoWorks II, MediaMaker, Action, and Macromedia Director. He became Senior Principal Software Engineer at Macromedia in 2003. John Thompson is now an owner of JHT Consulting, Bala Cynwyd, PA, which provides consulting services for web-based application development.

Clarence “Skip” Ellis

Ellis worked at Bell Labs from 1969 to 1972 on probability theory applied to the theory of computing. In 1972 he became an assistant professor and a founding member of the computer science department at the University of Colorado Boulder to work on operating systems research.

Ellis accepted a position three years later as an assistant professor in EECS at MIT to work on research related to ARPANET. He left MIT after one year to start work at Xerox PARC and Stanford University. Ellis remained at Xerox PARC and Stanford University for nearly a decade. During his time there, he worked on the icon-based GUI, object-oriented programming languages, and groupware systems. “He was part of the team of sociologists, psychologists and computer scientists who worked on Alto, the world’s first personal computer (PC) and its related interfaces and software. Many of these innovations from the 1970s that Ellis was part of were later widely commercialized, for example in Apple’s Lisa computer and Microsoft’s MS-DOS software. At PARC, Ellis headed the Office Research Group, which developed the first office system to use icons and Ethernet for collaborating at a distance.”

In the mid-1980s, Ellis led the Groupware Research Group at the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC). While at MCC, he led efforts in Real-time Collaborative Editing, and pioneered the field of Operational transformation. In the early 1990s, Ellis left MCC to become the Chief Architect of the FlowPath workflow product of Bull S.A. in France.

In 1992, Ellis returned to the University of Colorado Boulder as full professor with tenure in the computer science department. There he continued his work on groupware, in particular next-generation, large-scale Workflow systems, and agent-mediated meeting support systems. In 2009, he became an emeritus professor at the University, where he insisted on periodically teaching an introductory computing course to “encourage students of all ethnicities to expand their horizons.” To provide further opportunities for students to pursue science and engineering, Ellis “helped establish the 10-week Summer Multicultural Access to Research Training (SMART) program at the university.”

Gladys Mae West

In 1956, West was hired to work at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia, (now called the Naval Surface Warfare Center), where she was the second black woman ever hired and one of only four black employees.West was a programmer in the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division for large-scale computers and a project manager for data-processing systems used in the analysis of satellite data. Concurrently, West earned a second master’s degree in public administration from the University of Oklahoma.

In the early 1960s, she participated in an award-winning astronomical study that proved the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune. Subsequently, West began to analyze data from satellites, putting together altimeter models of the Earth’s shape. She became project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project, the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans. West consistently put in extra hours, cutting her team’s processing time in half. She was recommended for a commendation in 1979.

From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, West programmed an IBM computer to deliver increasingly precise calculations to model the shape of the Earth — an ellipsoid with irregularities, known as the geoid. Generating an extremely accurate model required her to employ complex algorithms to account for variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth’s shape. West’s data ultimately became the basis for the Global Positioning System (GPS).

In 1986, West published Data Processing System Specifications for the Geosat Satellite Radar Altimeter, a 51-page technical report from The Naval Surface Weapons Center (NSWC). The guide was published to explain how to increase the accuracy of the estimation of geoid heights and vertical deflection, important components of satellite geodesy. This was achieved by processing the data created from the radio altimeter on the Geosat satellite, which went into orbit on March 12, 1984.

Marian Croak

She joined AT&T at Bell Labs in 1982. She advocated for switching from wired phone technology to internet protocol. She holds more than two hundred patents, including more than one hundred in relation to Voice over IP. She pioneered the use of phone network services to make it easy for the public to donate to crisis appeals. This capability revolutionised how people can donate money to charitable organisations: for example, after the 2010 Haiti earthquake at least $22 million was pledged in this fashion.

In 2014 she left AT&T to join Google, where she serves as a Vice President for Engineering. She led Google’s service expansion into emerging markets, including managing the team who developed the initial communications technology for Project Loon which uses balloons to extend coverage.

Lisa Gelobter

A computer scientist, entrepreneur, and technology executive. Gelobter worked on several pioneering internet technologies, and she is credited with developing the animation used to create GIFs. She served as the Chief Digital Service Officer for the U.S. Department of Education during the administration of President Barack Obama. In that role, she helped to redesign Healthcare.gov, the website used to enroll Americans under the Affordable Care Act that did not function well at its initial rollout. Gelobter improved the site by reducing the number of separate pages and streamlining the application process. She then served as the Chief Digital Service Officer for the Department of Education where she worked on the team that redesigned the College Scorecard, a ratings system that shows graduation rates, post-college earnings, and student debt levels for universities across the country.

In 2016 Gelobter founded and became the Chief Executive Officer of tEQuitable, a company that provides an independent, confidential platform to address issues of bias, harassment, and discrimination in the workplace. Gelobter raised more than $2 million for the start-up company, becoming one of only 34 Black women to ever raise $1 million in venture capital. She is a former member of the New York Urban League STEM Advisory Board.

Roy Clay

Dubbed the “Godfather of Silicon Valley.” He is best known for developing new software for Hewlett-Packard (HP) computers. Over 50 years, Clay has played a huge role in computer science development and has paved the way for other African-Americans in the industry.

Clay moved to Silicon Valley in the late 1950s. That’s where he landed his first job in computer science at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). He was accepted there at a time when many other organizations would not hire people of color. Clay’s impressive work shined through when he developed his first computer program — new software to measure how radiation would spread after an atomic explosion.

As Clay started to succeed in Silicon Valley, Hewlett-Packard (HP) took notice and hired him to help set up their computer development business. According to the Silicon Valley Engineering Council Hall of Fame, Clay led the team that created HP’s innovative computer, the 2116A, in 1966. Not only did he develop the software for the 2116A computer, but he also was the director for the first HP Research and Development Computer Group.

After working for HP, Clay went on to create his own company, ROD-L Electronics. ROD-L became a world leader in developing electrical safety testing equipment. They sold dielectric withstand testers (also known as hipots), devices that protect PCs from electrical surges.

Mark Dean

Not long after college, Dean landed a job at IBM, a company he would become associated with for the duration of his career. As an engineer, Dean proved to be a rising star at the company. Working closely with a colleague, Dennis Moeller, Dean developed the new Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) systems bus, a new system that allowed peripheral devices like disk drives, printers and monitors to be plugged directly into computers. The end result was more efficiency and better integration.

But his groundbreaking work didn’t stop there. Dean’s research at IBM helped change the accessibility and power of the personal computer. His work led to the development of the color PC monitor and, in 1999, Dean led a team of engineers at IBM’s Austin, Texas, lab to create the first gigahertz chip — a revolutionary piece of technology that is able to do a billion calculations a second.

Full Stack Developer with a background in Natural Resource Management and Leadership