UOPX Alumni Profile: Kesha Williams
One alumna’s journey in software engineering and tech, overcoming barriers to reach a position of respect
Kesha Williams was in ninth grade in a small town in South Carolina when she was exposed to what would become her life’s passion ― computer programming.
Her father had brought home an early personal computer to manage the family’s finances and placed it in Williams’ playroom. Soon, it was one of her favorite “toys.” She remembers having a Barbie doll in one hand and a computer manual in the other, not realizing that she was learning computer programming.
Seeing her enthusiasm, her father, a chemist, sent Williams to a six-week enrichment program focused on computer science and chemistry at a local college when she was a high school junior. Williams was hooked — and has never looked back. Now an award-winning software engineer working at A Cloud Guru, Williams is a machine learning practitioner and technical instructor. She has become a role model, teacher and mentor for young women – particularly those of color.
Williams said her experiences as a black woman in tech particularly inspired her to help younger women. A huge driving factor for Williams is her 12-year-old daughter and not wanting her to experience some of the challenges she had during her career. Too often, she feels she has been held to a different standard.
“When I would look up the ladder, there’s no one who looks like me,” Williams said. “When people look at me, they don’t see me as being someone that’s technical because they’re not used to seeing people like me in this role.”
For instance, she once organized a meeting with high-level executives to talk about artificial intelligence. As she was in the room preparing, one of the executives walked in, took a look at her, and walked back out to make sure he was in the right room.
To help spread awareness of tech careers to young women, Williams works with a range of groups, from Technovation, which exposes middle- and high-school girls to tech by helping them design and build apps, to The New York Academy of Sciences, where she mentors college-age women.
She also speaks at women-in-tech conferences and mentors women already mid-career through Women Entering & Staying in Tech, WEST. She founded Colors of STEM, which is an online social and professional networking platform for women in STEM careers, and is the co-organizer of the Northwest Atlanta AWS (Amazon Web Services) Meetup.
Williams is encouraged that diversity and inclusion are now discussed often in tech and the wider culture, unlike when she began in software engineering.
“There are so many organizations out there trying to make a difference,” she said. “I’m hopeful for my daughter and her generation.”
Williams’s expertise has led her to become a recognized figure. She appeared on the TED stage as a winner of TED’s Spotlight Presentation Academy. Because of her pioneering work in the field of artificial intelligence, she earned the distinction of both Alexa Champion and AWS Machine Learning Hero from Amazon. She was also the keynote speaker at the KeepCoding Connect 2018 conference in Madrid.
When people look at me, they don’t see me as being someone that’s technical because they’re not used to seeing people like me in this role,
— Kesha Williams
Award-winning software engineer, machine learning practitioner and teacher
Sharanna Richardson, Williams’ college classmate and friend, who is now a programmer for Delta Air Lines, Inc., was at the conference. Richardson said young professionals stood in line to speak to Williams.
“I didn’t know Kesha was almost like a celebrity,” she said. “Williams has always been committed to two things: keeping her technical skills current and teaching.”
In fact, it was those two things that prompted Williams to enroll in University of Phoenix’s online master’s program in 2005.
Having completed an undergraduate degree in computer science and mathematics at a college in Atlanta, Williams was moving up in management at Chick-fil-A, and doing less and less coding. She realized if she wanted to keep current, she should become a teacher, and to do that she would need a master’s degree.
University of Phoenix was a good fit because she was able to pursue her online master’s degree at night, after her three children were in bed. For a single mother who was rising in managerial ranks, that was important. She completed her master’s degree in Management Information Systems in 2007.
Errol Hooper, a software engineer who worked with Williams at Chick-Fil-A, said he was always impressed with Williams’s ability to tackle technical challenges. Her team always won the company hackathons, said Hooper, now a lead software engineer at Georgia Tech Research Institute.
Hooper said that Williams was always innovating, and came up with a program to train company analysts on what they needed to know to be certified as Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud practitioners.
“That was born out of her desire to not take ‘no’ for an answer and drive for results,” Hopper said. “She wasn’t afraid to tackle anything.”