Why did you choose your current technical field?
Tiffani WilliamsI have loved computers since I was kid playing video games on my Atari 2600. In my early teens, I learned how to program in BASIC on my Commodore 64 computer. I was immediately hooked by the possibilities that programming brought to computing. From there, it was natural for me to major in computer science as an undergraduate. Afterward, I received a PhD in computer science. I’ve always loved learning and teaching so becoming a professor was a perfect fit for me.
What's been your greatest challenge and your greatest reward in your professional career?
Tiffani WilliamsAs a Black woman computer scientist, my greatest challenges have been navigating the intersections of sexism and racism. I’ve overcome systemic injustices that have empowered people to dismiss my knowledge and credentials, question my presence at meetings and in the classroom, and disregard my insights and experiences in general. I, along with many others like me, belong in computer science. The challenge is to continue moving forward and building communities that dismantle systemic barriers in order for computing to truly be accessible to all.
There have been several great rewards in my professional career. One is being in a field that evolves constantly and offers rewarding opportunities to push the technological envelope and impact societal change. The other reward centers around the people I have met along the way. These include students of all different backgrounds and experiences that I have had the pleasure to teach and learn from inside and outside the classroom as well as relationships with mentors and colleagues that have developed into lifelong friendships.
What are the unique qualities or characteristics that you have brought to your career and workplace? (Or in your opinion, what are the unique qualities or characteristics that enable a successful (or productive) career?)
Tiffani WilliamsFor me, a successful and productive career starts with having technically sound skills. I admire people who are dependable, who can communicate effectively, who are in charge of their goals and career, and who are pleasant to work with. Throughout my career, I’ve sought experiences and opportunities that move me toward achieving my goals. All of the above, combine for a professional career that is uniquely suited for me.
In other words, the most productive and successful career is the one whose combination of talents, skills, and experiences are uniquely suited to you.
What's the one piece of advice you would give to early career professionals?
Tiffani WilliamsWhere you are right now may not necessarily be where you’ll end up. There may be unplanned stops or detours throughout your professional career. For example, I started my first academic job as a postdoc at the University of New Mexico. From there, I’ve been a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University and a faculty member at Texas A&M University, Northeastern University, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. None of these moves were necessarily any place that I would have guessed I would have landed. Each, however, has been the right place for me at that particular time in my life. So, enjoy the ride. Wherever you are, that is where you are supposed to be. Make the most of the time while you are there.
What's your best advice for individuals who are ready to make a change in their careers?
Tiffani WilliamsGo for it! If the time is right and it’s something that you want to do, there is no time like the present to make a career change. This past year and a half of living with COVID has taught us that life can change on a dime. Past decisions may no longer make sense for present circumstances. So, if you are ready to change careers, don’t fixate on not having all of the steps figured out. If you believe in yourself, build your support network, and put in the hard work, those unknown steps (including the inevitable bumps and bruises) will reveal themselves throughout your journey.
What was your first job?
Tiffani WilliamsMy first job was as a cashier at Target. To this day, I still find myself preferring Target to other big-box stores. I guess you can say that I’m a Tarjay customer for life.
About Tiffani Williams:
Tiffani L. Williams is a Teaching Professor and Director of Onramp Programs in Computer Science, and a Dean’s Fellow in Inclusion, Belonging, and Engagement in the Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has been on the faculty at Northeastern University-Charlotte and Texas A&M. Her awards and honors include a McKnight Doctoral Fellowship, an Alfred P. Sloan Postdoctoral Fellowship, a Radcliffe Fellowship, a Denice Denton Emerging Leader ABIE Award, and a PopTech Science Fellow award. She has received numerous teaching awards including the Distinguished Award in Teaching by the Association of Former Students at Texas A&M. Her research areas of interest are computer science education, computational biology, and inclusive language.
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