Updated: Feb 13, 2020
Jody Sharpe didn’t mean to eavesdrop on the conversation happening next to his table at a coffee shop one day but it’s a good thing he did. What are the odds that Sharpe, an African American adjunct professor with a background in computing would be sipping coffee next to the table where Tiffany Gamble, the founder of the Emerging Ladies Academy, a tech education nonprofit for black girls was also having coffee?
Sharpe overheard Gamble and her companion talking about STEM education in Omaha and decided to introduce himself. “It perked my ears,” Sharpe said. Gamble was thrilled. She had been looking for instructors in Omaha to help teach tech skills to her students in workshops and after-school programming. Sharpe has two masters’ degrees, one in computing and one in software engineering.
Both Gamble and Sharpe came to tech in unexpected ways. Gamble, with a background in human services, saw tech as a means of empowerment in her community but did not come from a traditional path in tech. Sharpe, on the other hand, says his path to computing was a long one.
“The first time I touched a computer was in the 70’s” Sharpe says, speaking of a time when Apple computers were not as ubiquitous as they are today. His cousin, a woman, taught him the basics of computer programming. As a young child, he became fascinated with building programming loops that generated streams of numbers.
This nascent interest in computers was slowly nudged along by teachers and family members who encouraged Sharpe to keep learning and exploring. When Sharpe attended Vanderbilt University in the late 80s as a student athlete, he decided to take a computing course to take up some credits.
“This is where it gets a little unbelievable,” Sharpe warns me. “I sat down one sunny afternoon and started jotting down some notes,” about issues that Sharpe says that his instructor, who was a graduate student at the time, had told him were impossibilities. The results of those notes, Sharpe says, eventually found their way to the New Product Developer at Microsoft by means of a relative who Sharpe shared his notes with.
“A lot of the features you will see in Java,” Sharpe says, referring to a common computing language, “come from my experiences here at UNO, at Vanderbilt, and when I was at Grinnell College.”
It does seem unbelievable, but perhaps what is even more unbelievable is what Sharpe has been able to achieve despite his long road towards computing and working as a professor. In 1998, while playing football at Vanderbilt, Sharpe sustained an injury that caused his doctor to diagnose him with a degenerative brain disorder. His doctor considered Sharpe’s future to be fairly dim and thought that he should “consider a career as a garbage collector.” Later, Sharpe would wryly request that one of the features in Java be called a “garbage collector” as a reference to that experience.
Sharpe has taught at colleges and universities around the area. What Sharpe does with the Academy, however, is fresh territory, as far as he’s been able to really build a curriculum from the ground up with Gamble. They use free resources online like W3Schools which offers free lessons on web technologies. The students, or “young ladies” as Sharpe calls them, essentially run through tutorials with the added benefit of having instructors like Sharpe around to help guide them through. It’s an approach that Sharpe likes because of how it teaches students to teach themselves.
“Really the goal of education is helping them become critical thinkers and learning how they can teach themselves,” Sharpe says. In an industry like tech, where paradigm shifts can feel like everyday occurrences, knowing how to constantly learn new things is an invaluable skill.
“In some ways it’s easier teaching someone who doesn’t have a number of years of training in your area because their mind is more open,” Sharpe says. The Academy’s students, Sharpe says, are bright and can think in an unconventional manner, allowing them to do things that are conventionally thought to be “impossible.” He laughs, however, because the generation divide between him and the students means that they often don’t appreciate the 80’s high science fiction fantasy origins of computing terms and phrases like “lost in hyperspace” and “hypertext.”
The Academy’s mission is important to Sharpe, in more ways than one. He thinks back on his time as a software engineer in the early 90’s. “If it weren’t for the women in the office,” Sharpe says, “I probably wouldn’t have survived.” The women he speaks of were predominantly white, but he was more welcomed in their network than in the network of his white male coworkers.
“It was really hard building a community,” Sharpe says. What Tiffany is doing, encouraging and supporting black girls in tech, Sharpe says, would do much to help build such a community for minorities in tech and computing.
“It’s been less than a lifetime since Brown v. the Board of Education,” Sharpe says. Long after Rosa Parks, he says, “I can remember being forced to give up my bus seat in Arkansas when I was young and on the bus with my mother.”
The work the Academy does is critical in helping address some of the inequities that remain to this day although Sharpe is quick to point out that the work they do is supplemental to the work that the Omaha Public School does.
“I think sometimes the community loses out when they write off some certain folks as being not worthwhile or having any value,” Sharpe says. “You never know when someone can provide something worthwhile, regardless of how they’re labelled.”