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28 October 2020

An Interview with Manuel Pérez-Quiñones on the Impact and Importance of Awards

Dr. Manuel A. Pérez-Quiñones is Professor in the Department of Software and Information Systems at [MOU1] the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.  Manuel is also the head of the CMD-IT University Award Selection Committee and the winner of the 2017 Richard A. Tapia Achievement Award for Scientific Scholarship, Civic Science and Diversifying Computing.  We spoke to him about his life and the impact and importance of both awards.

You were very busy at the 2020 Virtual Tapia Conference, have things calmed down a bit?

Some of my colleagues asked about why was my name being mentioned in so many sessions.  I jokingly said what I had offered a free virtual drink in return for a name drop.  It became a running joke of how I was paying with beer for mentions. Seriously I am always busy at Tapia. Our Hispanics Birds of a Feather is a regular event by now, I am always doing a session or two with the University Award and often I have participation in other events. This year I was moderator for some sessions too. I love this community and love what the conference means to students.

For me, it has been a very busy time between recording classes, being interviewed for a podcast and recording a lecture for the College Board. I find myself worrying about getting better lighting in the room, better acoustics, things I never envisioned I would worry about.

Tell us how you grew up?

I was born and raised in Puerto Rico.  My grandmother was a nurse, she wanted to be a doctor but wasn’t allowed to enrolled in medical school at the time.  Her two daughters, one of them my mom, were both college professors and my father was a lawyer.   People in my family had a lot of education and most of them were public servants in one capacity or another. But the one thing I didn’t want to be was a professor. I saw my mom’s working hours, grading exams until late, being upset after faculty meetings (she was a department head).  So I went to college to study accounting and to be a lawyer, following my father’s footsteps. My English was a little weak at the time, so I took a lot of math classes which came very natural to me.   My advisor suggested I try a programming class and I fell in love with programming.  I thought it was a lot of fun, like solving puzzles and I wanted to do more of it.  I switched to a Computer Science major and minored in Business.  I finished by undergraduate degree and returned to Puerto Rico. I had several odd jobs and did a lot of consulting. Then, someone asked me if I could teach a class in computing at a junior college. After teaching for 2 years as an adjunct in several institutions, I decided to go back to school and make that a career choice.

So many of the computer scientists we talk to share your love of puzzles.

I have a bucket of logic puzzles like Rubik’s cubes.  I have always enjoyed logic puzzles.  But enjoying it is not enough, you also need to have a passion for computer science as well.  If you have a passion for it you can get better at it with more training. 

You have been the Program Chair for the CMD-IT University Award the last 4 years.  What have you learned about the impact is it having?  

At the conference we did a session called “Five Year Journey of the CMD-IT University Award for Retention of Minorities and Students with Disabilities in Computer Science”.  We thought it would be so cool to do a panel with all the previous winners:  Georgia Tech, University of Texas El Paso, University of North Carolina Charlotte.   We found that though all the schools are very different we face many of the same challenges:  recruitment, outreach and student engagement to name a few.  It was very interesting how people used the funding they received from the University Award.  Georgia Tech shared that they used some of the money to fund student scholarships for a bridge program that brings first year students to campus six weeks early to help them acclimate.  University of North Carolina Charlotte used it to fund more students attending both the Tapia Conference and a local computing conference.  They also used the money to help enhance their mentoring program.  University of Texas El Paso to provide scholarships for female Hispanic students to encourage them to enroll in a fast-track/early entry program so they will complete a graduate degree without a major financial burden.  One of the key benefits they all highlighted was how exciting it was to have unrestricted funding to help support and build programs that directly benefit the students.

Why do you think Universities should participate in the CMD-IT University Award?

A year or so before the first Award we were having a meeting at the Tapia Conference in Boston.  We wanted to find a way to provide a consensus on programs that will enable us to do better on retaining under represented students.  This is a way for all the Universities to share their experiences with various types of programs and understand what is and is not working.  It’s not about how you are doing but rather what you are doing, how is it working and how can others implement it effectively?

Overall, I think all universities are struggling to increase numbers, but there are lots of really good programs being run out there that are helping retain and promote students that have traditionally not been in computing. The numbers are low, but the programs that are keeping those numbers steady and maybe even increasing a bit are worthy of support. We hope other realize that and share with us what they are doing.

You won the Richard A. Tapia Achievement Award in 2017.  What impact has that had on you and your career?

I believe it has had a huge impact on my career.  Shortly after receiving the Tapia Award I won the Nico Habermann award from CRA and became an ACM Distinguished Member.  One of the things I’ve learned is that minorities are nominated for awards at a much lower rate than other faculty.  Did you know I am now one of only five people to receive all three awards and I am the only Latino to do so?  Awards help you elevate your visibility and when you receive significant recognition it gives you more credibility.    It has also given me more confidence that I have been doing good stuff.

You were very active at this year’s Tapia.  In addition to the University Award content you led a workshop entitled Everything I Need To Know About Diversity and Inclusion I Learned From Listening to Salsa.  That is such an amazing topic – where did it come from?

I have loved Salsa since I was ten years old or so.  And what I have learned over the years is that the songs that really hooked me had a very strong social message.  The music has stayed with me all these years.  A few years ago I was at an NCWIT meeting where they defined diversity as being asked to a party and inclusion was being asked to dance at that party.  That image shocked me because there was a salsa song from the 1970s by Tommy Olivencia that said “Aqui bailamos todos o rompemos la radiola” (Everybody dances or we will break the jukebox). After that meeting, I realized that some of the social messages in Salsa that I so much enjoyed were similar to some of the work I have been doing in diversity. I wanted to share this connection with an audience who would appreciate it.  The best place for it was Tapia. I think the session went well, I saw lots of messages in social media about the session by people I do not even know.

You also attended the Hispanics in Computing Birds of a Feather session.  How has that grown over the last few years?

The very first Hispanics in Computing BOF was at the Oregon Tapia conference. Later when we meet in DC, after the BOF we went out as a group to a local restaurant. That gathering had about 15 people.  We created a listserv to keep us connected between conferences. Now we have more than 400 members on our Listserv.  We encourage everyone to join and become part of this thriving community. Over the last two years, and at the request of one of our long-time female members, we have asked students and younger professors to take over organizing the BOF at Tapia, as a way to give them visibility and leadership experience. I remain closely connected to the group, managing the listserv and the website. But it is a large community that was made possible by the Tapia conference. The group’s website and instructions for joining the listserv are available at http://hispanicsincomputing.org.

2020 has been a tough year for many people.  What are you doing to stay connected to and to help your students survive and thrive?

I’m teaching online this year as many people are.  It makes it very hard to get to know my students.  What I try to do is to post messages to the students regularly to keep them engaged.  I’ve also worked to make things easier by making deadlines more flexible and removing late penalties.  I am trying to make sure I keep in mind the challenges everyone is facing.