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An Interview with Robert Parke, 2020 Tapia Conference Program Chair

Robert Parke

Robert Parke, Senior Lecturer of Information Technology and Art and Design at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, is the 2020 Tapia Program Chair. Rob has been attending the Tapia Conference since 2016. We interviewed Rob about his career and how he became involved with the Tapia Conference.

Tell me about your life growing up.

I grew up in Southern California with my Dad who was a doctor, my Mom who was a special education teacher, and two older brothers.

How did you end up in Computer Science?

I was a geeky kid. I had family friends who taught me about computers and I learned how to build my own. In high school I would help train senior citizens how to use their computers. I found I had the patience to explain things to people. I also had an interest in design so I developed web sites for people as well. I took AP Computer Science in High School which reaffirmed my love of Computing and introduced me to my future wife.

You attended USC and now work there. How did you select USC?

I attended USC for several reasons. One was that my Mom at that point was a single mom so we couldn’t afford college, and USC offered me a scholarship. One of the other major reasons was that USC was very wheelchair accessible. Being able to live independently and get around in my wheelchair was important to me, and USC offered me that. They also had a robust disabilities office that helped with accommodations such as arranging my housing and moving classes so that I would be able to navigate campus.

How did you decide to pursue a career in Academia?

I went to graduate school for Electrical Engineering. When I graduated, I worked as an IT consultant and web designer and became the manager of a web department. I had also studied audio recording in graduate school so I eventually worked for several years as a post-production sound editor on tv and film. I would edit the dialog and mix it with music and sound effects. Through it all I was still interested in teaching though. I was fortunate to earn a year-long faculty internship through the Los Angeles Community College District. After that, I began teaching computer science and photoshop at several community colleges. I spoke with one of my undergraduate advisors and friends from USC, and he encouraged me to come to USC, and I have been there for seven years. I’m especially excited to be teaching computing and technology classes to student from all majors (not just computer science or engineering majors) so English, Marketing and music majors all take my classes. It’s great to see people who never had the opportunity to learn programming or who thought it wasn’t for them become excited about programming and technology. Many take one of our minors, and some even switch to their major to CS. I also created an Android development course for our Mobile App Development minor, serve as lead faculty for the introductory Python programming course, and most recently I established the Connected Devices and Making minor to teach non-engineering students to create internet-enabled, hardware devices.

How did you become involved in the Tapia Conferences?

Timothy Pinkston (Vice Dean at Viterbi) encouraged me to apply for CMD-IT’s Academic Career Workshop. I was accepted and got my first introduction to CMD-IT. I had already started becoming involved in Diversity and Inclusion work at USC, and Timothy and I attended Tapia together in 2016. I attended a session on bias put on by CMU. It really spoke to my passion for inclusion, being aware of who is not here and who is being left out. Everyone at the conference was so cool and welcoming. The next year I volunteered and have been involved ever since.

Last year, you were Scholarship chair. What was that like?

It is very rewarding to see how much students get out of the workshops at the conference. Knowing that I had been part of the team to support their attendance and to see the opportunities it opened for them was really gratifying. Last year I also organized an internal scholarship program at USC to bring students to Tapia. One of our student scholarship winners had an interview at the conference and has secured a job at Capital One after graduation. A Tapia scholarship can actually change your life in a significant way. I encourage all students to apply for a Tapia scholarship.

This year’s conference theme is Inclusion Drives Innovation. What does that mean to you?

I know what it is like to be excluded because of physical barriers. To think that people who have different and more difficult circumstances are not included is not just unethical, it is morally wrong. Bringing people along with you, including them is the right thing to do. A more inclusive team builds better products. Your target audience is diverse, so you need a diverse group creating the products for them.

Why should students apply for a Tapia Scholarship?

The Tapia Conference is a chance for people who feel unwelcome, not included, or alone at your university to feel included. It is a place to learn great technical content, have fun and meet people. You can get experience presenting a poster, see what it’s like at a tech conference, build a network of mentors and peers. The mentors and peers are critically important for your professional and personal advancement. These returns are intangible and incalculable. It will change your life.