This past week, I was in Champaign IL, the University of Illinois to be exact. The university was the host and one of the sponsoring organizations of The National Center for Women & Information Technology’s, NCWIT meeting on Advancing Computing from Multiple Disciplines. The National Center for Women & Information Technology is a coalition of more than 100 prominent corporations, academic institutions, government agencies, and non-profits working to increase women’s and minorities’ participation in information technology (IT).
The reason I was there was to serve as the master of ceremonies with Jill Ross, the Director of the National Image of Computer Task Force, for a branding/image session to explore whether they should geek up, de-geek or geek-chic their brand to be a career of choice for young people, women and minorities.
The computer science industry as a whole is in challenging spot. Information, technology and computer science industries are exploding with growth, companies need skilled and educated talent, but, the number of young people enrolling in the field is at an all time low. In fact, 4 times as many are leaving the field than entering it. Research shows these perception gaps: stereotyping of socially disconnected nerds is not an appealing attribute, the word computer translates into cave-like programming and science, “a not for me career,” and the industry is seen as exclusive and dominated by white men.
What’s the best way to rebrand this field and attract new generations and a diverse knowledge pool to this industry?
Well that was the task of a distinguished group of professionals from the entertainment, media and marketing worlds. They included: Julie Benyo, WGBH, James Delorey, Global Strategy Group, Kate Starbird, former WNBA star and current PhD student in the ATLAS program at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Vicky McCann, Industrial Light & Magic, Andrew Billmann, Firepower Design Co., Dr. Anthony Chow, Star Alliance Foundation, Carlos Pimenta, Studiocom, Matt Fisher, Zyman Group.
They had two hours to explore the markets, the challenges and best channels to transform the old image of computing. It was an intriguing exercise. The two groups pounded out the target influencers by priority. They also defined the brand’s foundation, the purpose, the points of difference, the personality and the promise. The session concluded with a presentation to over 200 IT, educational and career leadership.
Both groups had great and passionate ideas, all with a common thread of move away from the logical side of the industry – Lose the term computer, don’t focus on the geek or non-geek persona, but on the diverse people that make up the industry and multitude of exciting opportunities that are available and communicate with an emotionally relevant voice.
The majority of the audience was very supportive of this direction. There were a few that reacted with an uneasy, almost defensive opinion. Their tone communicated “Math, science and advanced degrees have got to be in our messaging, or it’s some second rate campaign”.
So where does it go from here? We shall see. Jill Ross, Lucy Sanders, CEO and co-founder of NCWIT and team are navigating the movement forward. My week with this group was not only inspiring, but, eye opening. I will remain connected to their cause, as it is a necessary and important brand to evolve. If you’d like to get involved NCWIT connect with Jill at jill.ross[at]colorado[dot]edu.