Think of a computer programmer. Someone who works long but fulfilling hours writing brilliant code; someone who is focused on a hard and fast deadline—with a little help from a fresh plate of free cafeteria food. Are you picturing a man or a woman? Julie Ann Crommett has dedicated her career to making sure young girls grow up with scientists, mathematicians, and programmers on TV who look like they do, instead of another hoodie-clad, Mark Zuckerberg lookalike. Why? Because it makes them think, I can do that. At Google, Crommett works with top shelf writers, directors, and producers in order to cast more females into roles built on STEM-related professions. If it sounds like a fun job to you, it is. (Crommett’s recent collaborations include ABC’s The Fosters and Silicon Valley—yes *that* Silicon Valley, with the hilariously aloof Nelson “Big Head” Bighetti and badass programmer Carla Walton.) But it also took some serious hustle. Levo sat down with Crommett to get the scoop.
Levo: We think you have one of the coolest jobs at Google. Take us beyond the program manager title—what really went into the making of this role?
Julie Ann Crommett: Back in 2013, when Google researched why girls may not be pursuing computer science as a career, we discovered that there were four major factors that accounted for 95 percent of decisions—and they were all controllable. The No. 1 reason is adult encouragement—the idea that a young girl needs an adult in her life, whether it be a teacher, parent, or counselor, to say, You’re really good at this, keep going, whether it be math, science, or something in between. The No. 2 reason, which is where my work comes in, has to do with their perception of their career. The high school and college girls we surveyed knew what computer science was, but if there weren’t enough folks who looked like her—which often there are not, as we know from the sort of loner hacker image, a white guy in glasses—they were less likely to pursue programming as a career. The other really interesting thing was that they didn’t connect a career and social impact with computer science. They didn’t think, If I take what I love, and I combine it with a coding language, I can change the world. I can change my community. And that was more important to girls than boys. So, I work with writers, directors, producers, and studios to look at how we can craft really interesting narratives and break down those walls between creatives and engineers. That way, when a viewer looks back, they remember that type of person, as opposed to the stereotype.
You have a successful career in tech, yet in college you majored in English and American Literature. How did you become interested in computer science?
JAC: I was always a really advanced math student, and I loved the arts and acted throughout my entire childhood. Once I got to Harvard, I started acting and got thrown into stage managing a show, which I had never done before. I loved it and realized that if I was actually behind the scenes, I could see the whole picture and have more influence on an artistic outcome. When I started this work at Google and got introduced to this research, a lightbulb went off for me, personally. Growing up, I had convinced myself that I wasn’t good at math, even though I was two years ahead in my classes. I had supportive parents, I went to an Ivy League school, and I loved the arts, yet somehow I had convinced myself that those things were not related, and that I was not good at math. I said to myself, If I fell prey to that narrative, I can only imagine a girl or a diverse kid—by the way, I’m Puerto Rican!—or somebody else out there who feels like an “other” checking out as well. That’s really what started to drive me and my passion in this work. Now, I feel honored to be able to do what I do every day, because I think we’re representing a whole community of women and folks whose stories have never been told. To me, there’s no greater reward than that—getting folks’ stories out there who for whatever reason have not been able to share them.
You started out in entertainment, as you mentioned—interning for companies like DreamWorks and Pixar, and then rising up the ranks at NBC, eventually managing its entertainment diversity programs. When did you get the call from Google?
JAC: I had wanted to make a pivot to tech for my own career. I understood that the future of media and technology were only becoming more inextricably linked, and so I thought to myself, I really want to stay relevant in my media career, and understand the tech space and really submerse myself into it. And what better place to do that than Google? I have a good friend, Eliana Murillo, another Latina who’s at Google and runs multicultural marketing for us. She and I went to college together, and I had actually talked to her about what I was doing in Hollywood and she was like, “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 threw my hat in the ring and was hired as a diversity business partner covering Latin America, and building our US/Hispanic strategy, as well as working with Google X.
I love that story. And from there, you sort of built your own dream job at Google. How’d you do it?
JAC: It was doing that work that I met Kristen Gil and Megan Smith, currently and formerly at Google [Smith is now the Chief Technology Officer of the United States], and they told me about this opportunity at Google around this research of changing the perception of computer science. From there, I built my own job. It started as a 20 percent project—which is a program at Google where beyond your core role, you can work on a passion project, and it can take up 20 percent of your time. Really famous projects were born out of that, including Gmail. It grew into an 80 percent project. We also have a program called Diversity Core, which is an opportunity for Googlers to get involved in diversity-driven 20 percent projects, and mine was actually one of the original 20 percent projects for that group. We built out a group of 10 Googlers working on this under my leadership, and then it grew into my full-time job. Now, I have a department of two full-time people who sit with me doing this work.
So tell us, how are the TV shows and movies we watch unconsciously contributing to this perception of computer programmers as loner male hackers, and what can we as media consumers do to fix that?
JAC: Unconsciously, the media we consume can send us a lot of messages about a lot of things. And I think by perpetuating the vision of what a profession is—and the gender, ethnicity, race, or whatever characteristics associated with that profession—can have lasting effects. Some great previous examples of this work include forensic science and CSI. Five years after CSI premiered, there was a 50 percent spike in forensic science majors, many of which were women because of the prominent women on that show, doing that profession. There’s a direct influence by what professions we see and who does them, and the idea of, I can do that. Geena Davis, one of our great partners, often says, “If you can see it, you can be it.” That’s really the takeaway message of what we do—to start to shift those images so that more folks can see themselves in these roles.
And in today’s day and age of social media, you have the opportunity to speak up and share your opinion about any piece of content. That’s a really powerful mechanism. I also believe you shouldn’t sit around and wait around for somebody else to do what you want to get done. Do it yourself. Ask yourself, How can you become an activist in this space in a way that feels comfortable for you? If you have a story, share it. Shoot a video, shoot it on your phone, and upload it to YouTube or any other platform. You never know what might happen—things go viral in the strangest ways. Just be aware of what you’re putting out there—and make sure it’s constructive. When you push that envelope, keep the message positive and inclusive, so that we’re building up a message and a momentum, as opposed to just taking away.
I heard you may have had a hand in creating Carla Walton, played by Alice Wetterlund, on the hit show Silicon Valley. True?
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 for a lot of their content.) The only engineers that they met during their half day at Google were women—all engineers, all at different points in their career. The main takeaway that they shared back with us was this messaging from our engineers who said, “I’m not just a female engineer, I’m a good engineer.” Carla says this in her first episode, and that line was definitely derived from their conversations with us.
Before you leave us, you have to do a lot of persuading in your job—convincing writers that this dialogue is important enough to include in their scripts. What’s your advice for women who want to sound as confident as possible when making a big presentation?
JAC: First of all, prepare, prepare, prepare. That’s the most important thing. And somebody once gave me this advice—it was a woman—and I thought it was really spot on. 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.” That’s one of my greatest pieces of advice. Just keep going, and if you want to follow up with something later you always can.
Photo: Courtesy of Julie Ann Crommett