The Fruits of Perseverance — Byron WilliamsByron Williams - Computer Science and Engineering
Title: Assistant professor, department of computer science and engineering, Mississippi State University
Education: Ph.D., computer science, Mississippi State University; M.S., computer science, Mississippi State University; B.S., computer science, Mississippi State University
Career Mentors: Ray Vaughn, Mississippi State University; Jeff Carver, University of Alabama
Advice for new or budding faculty: “Set aside time, each day/week to write (publications/proposals) as if you were setting a regular meeting or a class to teach. Don’t allow others to impede on this time set specifically for writing activities (writing, data analysis, literature review).” Dr. Byron Williams knew from the time he was 8 years old that his future would include computers.
His parents exposed him to computers early, and, while other kids were playing computer games, he was editing basic computer programs.
Infused with incentive and strong family values on education and achievement, Williams enrolled in Mississippi State University poised to take on his destiny first and ask questions later.
After a year of college, his storybook destiny stood on the verge of being rewritten from that of conquering hero to one of tragedy. Williams had been placed on academic probation.
“There were several challenges early on including a lack of personal focus on my studies and a lack of confidence of how prepared I was to start college and major in engineering,” Williams says.
“After reality struck and several of my colleagues did not make it to their third [semester], I then determined that I would not only take it but also thrive,” he adds.
And thrive he has, becoming the first African-American to graduate with a Ph.D. from his alma mater’s computer science department where he now teaches.
Williams credits his support system of family, church and mentors as key factors in helping him shrug off his early challenges in a field where Americans in general are losing pace and relatively few African-American males trod.
Access to programs including the Alliance for Graduate Education in Mississippi and the Engineering Entrepreneurship Program helped Williams “to think big and look past just being satisfied with a bachelor’s degree.”
They gave him access to internships and mentors granting Williams the insight necessary to shift his major from computer engineering to computer science and to focus on software development.
With a focus on soft ware, his career has skyrocketed and included serving as associate director/chief soft ware engineer at the Center for Defense Integrated Data at Jackson State University, where he provided support for development of large projects and programs for the departments of defense and homeland security.
Recently, Williams contracted “to support soft ware development efforts for a statewide-integrated education and workforce longitudinal data system as prescribed by the America COMPETES Act.”
The central theme in his work emerges from practical applications of his research, which often means that those seeking to exploit society’s expanding reliance on soft ware for negative purposes will face a challenge.
“Every time I read about a major software project failure or security vulnerability being exploited, it motivates me to continue researching and working on solutions to these problems,” Williams says.
His eventual goal is creating an applied software research center focused on “research and contract development projects for government and industry, while rapidly transitioning soft ware research to practical application.”
Williams is a rising star in his field, not simply for his technical abilities but also for his work ethic and commitment to helping others, which has garnered him admiration from both the community and colleagues including Dr. Donna Reese, head of Mississippi State’s Computer Science and Engineering department.
Reese says she sees Williams’ potential impact as transcending the boundaries of academia.
“Williams is a positive role model for underrepresented minority students. Williams has already demonstrated a desire to mentor others in his field so that they, too, can find success.”
While there has been a recent increase in the number of African-Americans entering graduate math and computer science programs, according to the Council of Graduate Schools, the overall numbers remain under 1,000 students.
“I consider it a responsibility to ensure that other students are given similar support and mentoring that was essential to my accomplishment,” Williams says. “I understand the environmental and socioeconomic challenges African-American males face and the impact on their academic self-concept. I want to use my experiences to help mentor other African-American males to complete Ph.D. degrees in computing.”