Googling, Gaming, Navigating into Silicon Valley

Chris Hocutt

Computer science graduate Chris Hocutt (B.S. ’15), recently hired at Google, may signify a step in repairing the long-standing “404 error” of Silicon Valley’s relationship to diversity.

Hocutt is officially Google’s first software engineer hire from a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), a company spokesperson said.

Bertram Richardson (B.S. ’15), a fellow computer science major and Hocutt’s roommate since freshman year, was present during the winter holiday break when Hocutt’s phone rang with the job offer. Pausing their session of Nintendo Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Hocutt answered.

“He [Richardson] motioned for me to come back,” laughed Hocutt, “and I was like, ‘Hold on, hold on, I’ve got to finish with this [call].’”

Thirty minutes later, Richardson found himself congratulating his Suther- land, Va.-born friend on his impending Silicon Valley-bound journey.

“Even though a lot of things come easy to him,” said Richardson, “Google wasn’t just [a piece of] cake. ... He worked really hard to do something pretty cool.”

Hocutt, a graduate of the Googler-in- Residence (GIR) program—an instructional partnership between the tech giant and Howard University’s computer science program aimed at increasing the number of HBCU-educated Google job applicants—had also heard back from Charles Pratt. Pratt taught the pilot semester of the GIR program in fall 2013. After receiving an email from Hocutt within 24 hours of the job offer, Pratt responded with both a heartfelt congratulatory email and an announcing tweet.

“That tweet was burning a hole in my pocket, waiting for him to find out [and] tell the world first,” Pratt said. “Google is a strongly data-driven company. ... I knew the potential significance of what Chris accomplished prior to even starting the GIR program. Once I arrived at Howard and saw all the talent, I knew Google’s first full-time new graduate engineer was just a matter of time and hard work.” 

The Power of Mentorship

Charles Pratt Tweet

Hocutt and Pratt first met at the Department of Systems and Computer Science. Department Chair and Professor Legand Burge suggested that Hocutt, the newly elected president of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM), take Pratt’s web-development course. Burge also wanted Pratt to speak at an ACM membership-growing event.

“His primary purpose was to talk to the freshmen and the sophomores, make sure that they’re getting the preparation that they need [for] technical interviews and ... higher-level jobs,” said Hocutt. “We became pretty close friends, to where I was just like, ‘Maybe not just the freshmen and sophomores should get a little edge ... but let’s just kind of spread the love,’ and then he was able to help us [juniors] through the application process to get internships.”

Hocutt said Pratt stayed after hours, after classes, just hanging out and talking with him and the other students about programs and the department or preparing students for technical interviews.

“I approached it like I did all of GIR,” Pratt said. “If I saw a need and thought I had the bandwidth to help, I stepped up.”

Hocutt applied to Google once during his freshman year, got denied and kept his options open.

“I was applying to other companies, like Microsoft, Baxter, Capital One,” Hocutt said.

“I think a lot of people felt like Google is this unattainable thing, just out of reach, but Chris being able to get a full- time position there, and also helping us, it makes us [underclassmen] feel that we can do it, too,” said Alanna Walton, an underclassman Hocutt mentored and assisted with mock interviews, who also landed a summer internship. “He gives us a lot of confidence that we can follow in his footsteps.”

But Hocutt said he did nothing differently than any other student would have 

done to land the position with Google— same technical interviews, difficult project, no special treatment. In his opinion, it’s important to simplify the application process and prepare for the interview style Silicon Valley companies expect.

Burge believes Hocutt’s next step is to use his energies to help change a tech culture stuck at the startup or post-startup phase—common in businesses around 10 years old—wherein companies are con- tent to recruit employees primarily from their pool of friends or other places with which they’re already familiar.

“I tell him to knock the door down. Go in, knock the door down, do what you have to do,” Burge said. “And then, make a change in the culture [and] diversity that needs to happen.”

Not willing to pause the game on his hard-earned success by giving merit to individuals who might detract from him, Hocutt would rather continue ahead and teach others how to play.

“I can move around there for years, for decades, if I want to, ” Hocutt said, “but I definitely want to go into maybe a startup at some point, maybe teaching, which I can do as a Googler-in-Residence.” 

Starting Up and Accelerating HBCU Entrepreneurs

For those who come after Hocutt at Howard, startups and entrepreneurship are definitely within reach.

Howard’s College of Engineering, Architecture and Computer Sciences (CEACS) has adapted the classroom model of its entrepreneurship classes through the Bison Startup course. The new model—patterned after the Lean Startup process model, the standard by which most Silicon Valley startups most commonly develop—has recently led to a partnership between Howard University and Y Combinator’s Michael Seibel.

The result is a new course, Bison Accelerate, which made its debut this fall 2015 semester.

“[While] Y Combinator’s goal is to get companies to the next step of raising money,” Seibel said, “[with] this pro- gram, the goal is to basically have people on campus who have experience launch- ing a business.”

According to Burge, this is the first themselves—at a diversity education event hosted on Stanford University’s campus; and, the relationship evolved from there.

Seibel said, as one of only a few minority tech executives in Silicon Valley, he’s always wanted to give back, especially through helping inspire more minority founders to start companies. The most compelling reason for his decision to partner with Howard University, though, was simply that the professors he met represented an enthusiastic partnership, as opposed to coming to the table with the typical list of limitations many bring.

“They were like, ‘Let’s get this done,’ and to me that was exciting,” Seibel said. “That’s kind of that startup energy; and, that’s something that I want to support.”

If traditional business classes are silos, Bison Startup and Bison Accelerate, in combination, are to be the open-door test kitchen, where ingredients come together from different sources, are iterated, reiter- ated and baked into something a bit more palatable to the marketplace, a bit more interdisciplinary and a bit more effective.

According to Warner, the precursor to the Bison Startup program, Lean Launch-terminology and finance to the curriculum—and made acceptance competitive for the spring semester.

“I started seeing these fliers around campus, which said something to the effect of ‘Calling all hackers, hipsters and hustlers,’” said rising sophomore and computer science major Alston Clark.

After coming to one of the four inter- disciplinary mixers, Clark assembled a team of freshmen, and they pitched their business idea before the panel. The result: admittance.

For their Uber-style campus snack-ordering and delivery concept, each week, the team had to conduct at least 10 one-on-one interviews with potential customers and use the information to change elements of their business model. More than 250 interviews later, Clark’s team has not only revised its service, but was accepted to interview for the television show Shark Tank.

“Bison Startup is really about developing your idea, your business model and getting some experience,” Clark said. “The next stage, Bison Accelerate, is going to be about launching your idea and iterating your product development.” 

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