Computer programmers usually work long hours, but they find the work satisfying. They also often have to meet tight deadlines with little help other than free food from the cafeteria. Instead of seeing another Mark Zuckerberg lookalike in a hoodie on TV, Julie Ann Crommett has dedicated her career to making sure young girls see scientists, mathematicians, and programmers who look like them. Crommett works with successful writers, directors, and producers at Google in order to cast more females into roles that require STEM-related professions. Why? So they can believe: I can do that too. Working hard is difficult, but when you’re passionate about the project and have a great team, it’s worth it. Recently, Levo had the honor of interviewing Crommett about her current work on ABC’s The Fosters and Silicon Valley.
Levo: We’re in awe of what you do at Google—it seems like the coolest job ever. Can you walk us through everything that goes into your role as a program manager?
Julie Ann Crommett: In 2013, Google conducted research to understand why fewer girls than boys were choosing computer science as a career path. We discovered that 95 percent of the time, decisions were based on four factors—all of which we could control. The primary reason is adult support–the concept that a young girl needs an adult figure in her life, such as a teacher, parent, or counselor, to tell her things like You’re really good at this. Keep going with it., whether the subject matter is math, science, or something else entirely. The second reason, for which my work is the solution, has to do with how they see their career. The high school and college girls we surveyed knew what computer science was but were less likely to pursue it as a career if they didn’t see enough people like themselves in the field. This is often the case, as we know from the “loner hacker” image of a white guy in glasses. What was most surprising to me was that they didn’t see how computer science could be used to further their career and have a positive social impact. They never thought, “If I take what I love, and learn to code, I can change the world.” I work with writers, directors, producers, and studios to create better narratives and break down the barriers between creatives and engineers. I believe that this is more important for girls than boys. When a viewer looks back, they will remember the type of person you are, as opposed to the stereotype.
What made you change your major from English and American Literature in college to computer science?
JAC: Although I excelled in math, my true passions lay in the arts. From a young age, I acted and this continued into my time at Harvard. Here, I was pushed out of my comfort zone when asked to stage manage a show- despite having no experience. I enjoyed the experience and realized that if I was in charge, I could see everything more clearly and have a greater impact on the final product. After I started working at Google and learned about this research, it suddenly made sense to me. I had falsely believed throughout my childhood that I wasn’t math-inclined, even though I excelled in the subject and was always ahead of my peers. I had great parents, attended an Ivy League school, and loved the arts– but for some reason, I told myself that those things weren’t related. As a result, I believed that I wasn’t good at math. I refuse to allow myself to be consumed by that negativity and I can only imagine how a girl, or someone who doesn’t feel like they belong, feels when reading those hurtful messages. My passion for this work was ignited when I saw the difference it could make. I am grateful to do what I love every day because through my work I give a voice to underrepresented women and communities. There is nothing more gratifying to me than publishing the stories of those who have not had the chance to share them.
As you said, you started out working for entertainment bigwigs like DreamWorks and Pixar before eventually taking charge of NBC’s entertainment diversity programs. When did Google come calling?
JAC: I aspired to shift my career into tech because I comprehended that the future of media and technology was becoming more entwined by the day. Staying relevant in my medical field meant learning about tech, so I decided to fully immerse myself in it. And what better place to do that than Google? I have a friend, Eliana Murillo. She’s Latina and she runs multicultural marketing for us at Google. We went to college together, and I had previously mentioned my aspirations in Hollywood to her. She responded with, “You have to come here—I don’t know what that means!” The diversity department was hiring in Spain at the time, and she said, “This might be your opportunity—why don’t you throw your hat in the ring?” I applied for a job as a diversity business partner, and I was hired to work on Latin American projects, build the US/Hispanic strategy, and collaborate with Google X.
After hearing your story, it’s no surprise that you eventually manifested your own dream job at Google. How did you make it happen?
JAC: I met Kristen Gil and Megan Smith, who both work(ed) at Google [Smith is now the Chief Technology Officer of the United States], while I was doing that work. They told me about an opportunity at Google to do research on changing people’s perceptions of computer science. Subsequently, I took initiative and created my own job. It started as a 20 percent project–a program at Google where you can explore your interests outside of your main job duties for up to 20% of working hours. Projects like Gmail were born out of this program. My project started out as a small side project, but eventually grew to take up 80% of my time. Google has a program called Diversity Core, which gives employees the opportunity to work on diversity-related projects in their free time. My project was one of the first 20% of projects for that group. I led a team of 10 Googlers in building this, and it gradually became my full-time job. Now, I have a department of two sitting with me to handle this work.
In other words, how do the TV shows and movies we watch about computer programmers contribute to the idea that they are loner male hackers, and what can we do as an audience to change that?
JAC: The media is powerful and can send us subliminal messages about many topics. I think that constantly showing certain visions of what a profession looks like to the public, can have long-lasting effects. A good example of this is with shows such as forensic science and CSI. The number of forensic science majors increased by 50 percent five years after CSI premiered. This surge was, in part, due to the show’s female lead detectives who inspired many women to pursue that field. Geena Davis, one of our great partners, often says that the professions we see women in have a direct influence on young girls and their career aspirations. “If you can see it, you can be it.” We hope to show people that anyone has the ability to see themselves taking on new roles.
Given that today is the age of social media, you have the control to share your voice and express Your thoughts on any given topic. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. I think you should go out and get what you want, rather than wait around for someone else to do it. Take matters into your own hands. Ponder, how can you become an activist in relation to this that is comfortable for you? You never know what might happen if you share your story—things go viral in the strangest ways. So shoot a video, on your phone or any other platform, and upload it to YouTube or another site. As long as you’re aware of what you post and make sure it’s positive, you’ll be fine. Keep the message encouraging and upbeat so we can continue building up excitement, instead of tearing things down.
Is it true that you were partially responsible for creating the character of Carla Walton, played by Alice Wetterlund, in Silicon Valley?
JAC: We had a small part in that happening! We hosted the entire writers’ room, including Mike Judge, for a half day at Google as part of their writers’ research trip. (The shows go on research trips to gather factual information for episodic content.) All of the engineers they met during their brief time at Google were women in different stages of their careers. Our engineer’s top priority is their quality of work, not their gender. Carla highlights this in the first episode. This idea was born from conversations with us, and it speaks to how our engineers feel.
Before you leave, you’ll have to do a lot of convincing in your job persuading writers that this dialogue is important enough to include in their scripts. For women who want to sound confident when making a presentation, what’s your best advice?
JAC: If you want to be successful at international travel, the most important thing you can do is prepare. I once received this advice from a woman and I thought it was really accurate. She said, “When you go into this meeting, you’re likely going to be the subject matter expert in the room. Never forget that you are likely teaching the people in the room a piece of information they didn’t know. Keep that in mind to hold your confidence as you present the material, and if you mess up, the likelihood is the audience doesn’t know.” My best advice would be to keep going and if you want to follow up on something later, you can.