An interview with Miranda Lewis ’08, Senior Product Manager at Amazon Future Engineer
First off, tell us a little bit about your background. What all have you been doing since you graduated Paideia, and where are you now?
I got my career start working in social enterprise in Nairobi, Kenya where I worked for a company focusing on healthy sanitation - a huge problem in much of the developing world where access to clean toilets is not a given. The company I worked for was a small start-up with really big goals, which gave me an opportunity at the start of my career to explore different sides of the business. I got to try on many different hats there, and the one that stuck was developing internal tech platforms. This will be no surprise to my Paideia teachers or classmates, but I had never identified as a “STEM” person up to that point so I was surprised to find that I loved working in tech. The rush of having a problem and then getting to fix it using technology felt like magic! The skills I picked up in that first job eventually carried me back to a tech start-up in the US. Up to that point, Kenya was the only place I had ever had an “adult” job, and that gave me a bit of an outsider’s perspective on the culture of US companies: one of the things I recognized right away was the lack of diversity in the tech field. After a few years building my own career in tech, I started looking around for ways that I could combine my tech skills with my passion for social impact to make a difference in the diversity of the tech industry. That search led me to the program I work on now, Amazon Future Engineer.
With regards to the Amazon Future Engineer program, can you tell us a little bit about how it works?
Amazon Future Engineer is focused on making computer science education accessible to underserved and historically underrepresented students. We first focus on building activities that allow students of any age to explore computer science – often tied to things they might already be interested in, like music or robotics. We also offer opportunities to explore Amazon through virtual tours or classroom visits. Next, we focus on helping Title 1 schools (schools that serve primarily low-income students) get access to the tools they need to start offering computer science courses – schools get access to free curriculum, professional development for teachers, and a Teacher of the Year award program. And finally, we offer a 4-year, $10,000 per year college scholarship plus internship program to students interested in majoring in computer science in college.
I specifically focus on our college program, and I have the great honor of getting to work directly with the brilliant recipients of the scholarship award. One of our students who won the award the first year, Jailynn, is a terrific example of this works. Jailynn is from a small town in South Carolina and taught herself how to code in high school. She got into Howard University, but wouldn’t have been able to afford it without college scholarships. Winning the Amazon Future Engineer scholarship helped, but paying for school is only one piece of it – she also needed to gain confidence about her ability in the tech industry in order to thrive. After COVID disrupted her freshman year of college, she lacked confidence in her tech skills – but she’s incredible and she pushed through and really impressed her team at Amazon in that first year. She’s now a junior, will be coming back for a 3rd internship at Amazon, has (well-deserved) confidence, and she’s even mentoring others. She’s an inspiration to me and to the next generation of young women computer scientists like her.
Who can apply to Amazon Future Engineer?
High school seniors who want to pursue a major in computer science should apply to the college scholarship – you don’t need to be 100% sure that computer science is your “thing” yet, but if you’re excited about trying it, you should apply! The award is also needs-based, so students should only apply if they have a financial gap to fill for college.
Why do you think this is important right now?
Computer science skills are some of the most in-demand in today’s economy – and wages for these jobs are more than twice median annual income for other jobs, but the people in those jobs today are not as diverse as the country. To me, it’s not just about making sure that everyone has access to high-paying jobs– it’s about having a seat at the table. Computer science shapes every part of our society at this point: our governments, our healthcare systems, the way we communicate with each other and the way we express ourselves.
A few years ago, I worked with the non-profit Code.org to develop a database of schools in the US teaching computer science. Despite the fact that computer science is such an in-demand field, we found that less than half of US public high schools teach computer science. 2021 was the first year that the numbers went just above 50% - that’s exciting progress, but we need to move much faster. We also need to pay attention to which schools have access: our report showed that access was much higher in wealthier, less diverse schools. The exciting thing, is that despite these access gaps, students are equally interested in computer science across demographic groups. If we can help students access computer science, and remove barriers from them getting into higher degree fields, we’ll start to see a tech workforce that looks a lot more like the diversity of the country. Personally, I want to live in a world where students like Jailynn are building the technology that shapes our lives.
If you could go back in time and give the high-school version of yourself advice, what would it be?
Given what I do now - I would tell myself to go back and pay more attention to math, because math is really a foundational skill to learning computer science!
If I can sneak in a second piece of advice (I’m banking that my stubborn high school self didn’t take my first piece of advice) I’d remind myself that high school is only 4 years of your life, and your world will get much bigger after this. I was a Paideia lifer and had two younger sisters at Paideia too, so I’d either had a teacher or knew them through my younger sisters. While there was certainly a comfort in knowing the world of Paideia so well, I often got caught up in thinking that this would be my world forever. I think my high school self would get some hope and a healthy dose of reality if she knew that her world will get a lot bigger after high school.
Any favorite teacher(s) you want to give a thank you or shout out to?
I’d have to thank my art teachers, especially Ginger and George, who gave me a space to explore creatively and be myself. I’d also thank John Greene, who inspired a love of writing at an early age—that has proven very useful throughout my career.