As a child, Tennessee-native James Hill enjoyed playing with K’NEX and Legos, toys that allowed him to express his love for building and creation. What he didn’t know was each time he stacked one block upon another, he was constructing his future. Hill, 33, associate professor of computer and information science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), has become one of the youngest African-Americans in the U.S. to become a tenured professor in computer science at a research university.
He believes he achieved this goal by ambition and connecting with the right individuals.
“I kept thinking, ‘I hope I did it, I hope I did it,’” laughs Hill, whose tenure was instated in late 2015. “Here (IUPUI) you have six years to prove your research has value and that you have some sort of recognition, at least nationally. It’s either you have a job, or you don’t.
“It’s hard to believe … especially in this field. It’s not about me, it’s more about what others can achieve. When I look around at my field and the industry, there aren’t many African-Americans in this field,” said Hill. “I’m the only (ethnically) American professor in my department who is a part of the tenured faculty — most are Asian or Indian.”
Morehouse conducted a study that found there are only 93 male African-American computer science Ph.D. students in the country. According to data from the Computing Research Association, just 2 percent of technology workers at seven Silicon Valley companies that have released staffing numbers are African-American.
Education continued to be a strong foundation of Hill’s success. While he worked at EBay one summer as a software QA engineer, he turned down an offer for a full-time job. He was also offered a job at Facebook and turned it down, because he wanted to pursue graduate school and become a professor.
His father was a high school math teacher and, although Hill found his competitive spirit on the high school track team where he was a three-time all-American and placed among the top eight long jumpers in the U.S., he was instructed to develop an academic backbone by his father.
“If I brought home a ‘C,’ I was off of the team. He really pushed me to work on my academics. When I began seeing what I could do academically, I was motivated,” he said.
He enrolled in a summer program at Tennessee State University, where he rapidly excelled through the engineering program. In this program he was introduced to computer programing. Hill finished 36 weeks’ worth of material in two days.
Hill completed his undergraduate degree in computer science at Morehouse College, where, he admits, he wasn’t even aware a Ph.D. in computer science was available. Each summer of his undergraduate career, he visited computer technology companies and programs such as IBM and California Institute of Technology.
He later earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, making him the ninth-youngest African-American in the country to obtain a degree in computer science from any university.
“Once I found that out, I realized I could be the youngest to become tenured,” Hill said. “My nature is that if I do it, I do it to best of my ability. I thought, ‘I can get it; let’s make it happen.’”
Although Hill graduated during the Great Recession in 2009, he found interest in IUPUI. He credits Bart Ng, a former dean of the school who personally recruited Hill, and the Department of Computer and Information Science for his tenure.
“The world is not going to go back, because it’s moving forward. Technology is pushing the world forward in my mind. Eventually you become a part of the force or you get left behind. By African-Americans not being immersed in this field, yes, we do use technology, but users aren’t what is changing the world. ‘Makers’ of technology are changing the world,” said Hill.
With rapidly developing technology like Google’s self-driving cars, driverless semi trucks and automated checkout machines in grocery stores, Hill said minorities must get involved in technology advancement.
“There is a lot of security in the STEM area. People who are developing technology are changing the world into what they want it to be. How are we supposed to do that if we don’t understand how to get involved?”