Brandon Long, a junior computer science (CS) student at North Carolina A & T State University always wanted to go to an HBCU and play in the band. So when the alto saxophonist saw A&T play while in high school, Long knew it was the perfect school for him. What he didn’t know is that he’d go from not even knowing what code was, to loving CS and being a leader within his department on campus.
“Since 4th grade, I wanted to be an architect” said Long. “In high school I started thinking about the ways architecture has changed; they don’t really draw up blueprints by hand anymore, now it’s all using computers. I was thinking about how it has changed the architecture industry and about how everything is being changed because of computer science. I realized that A&T not only has the best band but also the best computer science program at an HBCU.”
During Long’s freshman year, he saw an opportunity to intern at NASA and got it. “I didn’t know anything” Long said. “I went to do web development; that’s really what kicked off everything” In Long’s downtime he looked into what was going on in the tech world which piqued his interests. “I started looking at companies that I felt would have more work that I’m interested in and provide the best experience for me to learn from.” After looking into AT&T and Oracle, Long settled on an eight month position at Oracle which turned into a year long position. “It was old school with lots of cubicles, not the new age tech environment I hoped for.”
Looking to expand his horizons, Long interviewed with 25 companies during the Fall of 2016, netting 11 offers and chose an innovation co-op offer from Sam’s Club in the Spring semester, followed by a Software Engineer internship at Apple as a Thurgood Marshall College Fund Apple HBCU Scholar. He was selected along with 34 other students from a pool of over 1,700 applicants. Each Scholar received a Summer internship, an Apple mentor, and a scholarship of up to $25,000
Long’s vast internship experiences haven’t interfered with his education. “I’ve sustained my studies by continuing online classes and maintaining my 3.78 GPA” said Long. “I accrued an extra semester and now I’m doing the co-op without having to take classes and while still being on track for a four-year graduation, Spring 2018.”
Long advises that high school students interested in majoring in CS start learning the basics of object-oriented programming. “It’ll make you more competitive because some companies do hire freshman, like Microsoft and Facebook.”
For current students looking for internship opportunities, Long said there are plenty of HBCU internship opportunities if you know where to look. “A lot of stuff is shared via word of mouth, like Code2040 and Black Valley, and HBCU to Startup and Jopwell are really great.” Long also uses intern.supply. “It’s not HBCU specific, but it has listings of over 100 tech internship applications on one website.”
For students deciding between internships at large companies vs small startups, Long thinks bigger companies are beneficial as a student. “As an intern, you’re looking to gain as much experience and knowledge as possible” said Long. “Larger companies have so many of the best engineers it’s pretty much guaranteed that you will gain meaningful experience and expertise…when you’re at a start up you’re kind of gambling, because you don’t know how knowledgeable and experienced the engineers are or how much you will learn.” But post-grad, Long thinks small start-ups are valuable. “After grad school, I would like to start my own artificial intelligence company, so going to a small start-up will provide me with the experience of building something from the ground up.”
As the president of his chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery Long helps to host an introductory coding experience for high school students in the Greensboro, NC area through a weekly lecture series. He also tries to give his fellow students a leg up by teaching skills like git, and holding coding competitions using tools used for interview processes like HackerRank.
Hackathons are somewhat a passion of Long’s. “Each time I get better and better.” said Long. Most recently, Long and his team, Aggie++, won the BE Smart Hackathon. “We built an app called ‘Let’s Go Black!’, inspired by Ford’s ‘Let’s Go Places’ campaign. It was a travel app, and the idea was for a user to give it a few parameters, like location, how far you want to travel, and how many days. And then we created this specially curated trip with black owned businesses, historical monuments, and things that will help you get more entwined with your African American culture.” When asked about the future of the app, Long replied, “We are interested in developing the app more but as a team of scholars, it’s difficult to find time where we can further the project. Maybe later on we will be able to get together.”
Companies looking to recruit students like Long should go to HBCU job fairs, and partner with programs like Jopwell. “I actually got an offer through Jopwell.” said Long. For smaller companies who might not have the budget to come out to HBCUs, Long says they should use LinkedIn and even Facebook to recruit.
Silicon Valley often talks about not being able to find black talent. “Considering how many Universities we have dedicated to us…that statement shouldn’t even exist”.