Ida Byrd-Hill, CEO of Automation Workz Institute.

iSTEAM For Kids – Inventions, Science, Technology, English, Arts, And Mathematics — Scavenger Hunts

Ida Byrd-Hill’s pioneering program is educating our youth on technology and cybersecurity

Di Freeze, Managing Editor

Northport, N.Y. – Feb. 7, 2020

When Ida Byrd-Hill looked up into the night sky in Flint, Michigan, as a young girl, she knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“I was obsessed with the stars,” she said. “I wanted to be an astronaut doctor.”

Life doesn’t always unfold the way we dream it will. Instead, she eventually became president of Uplift, Inc. and CEO of Automation Workz Institute, a Cisco Networking Academy program that develops urban IT workers as network engineers, cybersecurity specialists, and Linux programmers. And, as she puts it, she’s “building Wakanda in Detroit.” More about that later.

So, what derailed Byrd-Hill’s earlier dreams?

“During college, I worked on a cancer oncology floor. I realized I don’t like being around sick people. Doctors have to like being around sick people,” she laughs. “I decided I had to do something different.”

Byrd-Hill took the required social science classes and an economics class.

“I fell in love with it,” she said. “It had both the social science and mathematics that I love.”

A job she had in high school helped shape what her initial career would look like. When many of her friends were working for fast-food restaurants, she worked in the library.

“I was a walking card catalog,” she said. “I could tell you where every book in the library was. We were in a suburban district that had about ten branches. They decided that they were going to start transitioning the card catalog from paper into an electronics system. They asked me to be on that team.”

In high school, she’d taken Fortran, BASIC, and COBOL, so she knew a little bit about programming and was able to use of those skills for that project.

Her first work study job at the University of Michigan was also in a library and she was again involved in automating the card catalog to an electronic system. When she graduated, she went into human resources and automated the HR department at Domino’s Farm Services as well as a bank where she worked.

Byrd-Hill next got involved with financial planning. In 2004, she became president of Uplift, Inc., a nonprofit in Detroit. The organization allowed her to share knowledge with children through school workshops. One thing that took her by surprise was answers she would get when asking kids why they should want to learn STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). A popular answer was to earn money. Her response?

“Money is not primary. It’s secondary to patents, trademarks and copyrights. Inventions are what move this world. I couldn’t understand why K-12 schools weren’t teaching them this.”

That gave her an idea for a learning tool. She created a boardgame she named Fluke: The Wealth Building Game of Accidental Inventions. Her plan was to transition the game to a mobile game, but she ran into complications.

“I couldn’t find any good game developers in Detroit,” she said. “I figured the first thing was to start with the programming and work my way back to game development. I ended up finding a developer in Boulder, Colorado.”

Uplift organized family fun nights in dozens of schools, run by volunteers. When they had expanded to 50 or 60 schools, the school district asked Byrd-Hill if she’d consider running an alternative high school there.

“I was in the financial planning world and I just laughed,” she said. “I wasn’t going anywhere.” But a conversation with her 11-year-old son began to change her mind.

“He asked me why he had to go to school every day,” she said. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Whatever I learn in that six to eight hours, I could’ve learned in two hours over the internet and saved the other hours to do something else.’”

Intrigued by her son’s idea, she went back to the school district and said she was interested. In 2006, Detroit Public Schools made a contract with Hustle & TECHknow Preparatory High School, situated inside Compuware, a software development company in downtown Detroit.

“We were looking for places where the students could build their career, in case they decided they didn’t want to go to college,” she said. “Compuware was looking for mainframe engineers, because it was a dying art and a lot of the colleges didn’t teach it anymore.”

Byrd-Hill said the school was ahead of its time.

“It was a wonderful school,” she said. “The students learned a lot. We had no textbooks. The whole curriculum was online. But it died because at the time, the city was really pushing charter schools.”

The school would be a stepping-stone to other adventures though.

“We were doing workshops in a school district,” she said. “I told them, ‘We really need to do more things for parents because the disconnect is not the kids. Children do what their parents do, and we need to fix some of the things that the parents do.”

This led to the idea of doing scavenger hunts in schools.

“I called them iSTEAM – Inventions, Science, Technology, English, Arts, and Mathematics — scavenger hunts,” she said.

In 2013, Byrd-Hill decided to make the hunts one big community event.

“It started in Pittsburgh and then I brought it back to Detroit. I was talking to someone at the UAW 4. He said, ‘You really shouldn’t do that for middle school. You should do that for high schools.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but high school parents don’t come out with their children.’ He said, ‘Then make the event where the parent has to come if the child is going to participate.”

The scavenger hunt, under the name of Automation Workz, eventually moved to the North American International Auto Show.

“We put cash prizes to it. The auto show gave us space for free to see if it would work. High schoolers competed with their parents as a team. We did that at the auto show three years. It kept getting bigger and bigger.”

When they did a survey of the parents to find out what their interests were, some responded “postsecondary training.” Byrd-Hill talked to the parents to learn more about what they were thinking.

“One of the things that they said was, ‘Because we don’t learn technology and computer skills in high school, when we get to college we’re so far behind, even if it’s community college, and we’re never able to catch up. We need someplace that can help us catch up.” It got me thinking, ‘How do I do that?’”

She had heard of Cisco’s Networking Academy program and had tried to contact someone with Cisco, without luck. That changed, however, when she sat next to the senior vice president of Cisco during a conference. She wasted no time telling her about her idea to start a postsecondary school.

“She looked at me and said, ‘Where do you plan on putting this?’ I said, ‘In Detroit.’ She said, ‘We haven’t had good success in Detroit.’ I said, ‘It’s probably the way you’re doing it.’ She said, ‘What would you do differently?’ I said, ‘I’m going to put it in the library system so that we have four branches, one in each portion of the city. So now people have no excuse, because it’s in their neighborhood.’ She said, ‘Well, let’s try it and see.’”

After getting Cisco’s approval, Byrd-Hill started taking classes.

“I wanted to see what the curriculum looked like and what type of tweaks I needed to make,” she said. “Instead of jumping straight into the certification courses, we had two career readiness classes to remediate some skills so they can be able to get to the certification and breeze right through but still learn new content as they go along. We beefed up some classes, added some gaming, did a lot of things. They took our redesign and put it into the classroom.”

They started the pilot for Automation Workz Institute in 2017 and completed it in 2019, and then rolled the school out into its own self-standing entity. Once students have registered, the class materials are online.

“If they have any problems, they go to one of the four branches and see an instructor,” she said. “They have the best of both worlds. They have online curriculum, but they also have a physical body who can help mentor them through the process.”

Anyone over the age of 18 can attend the school.

“It’s for anyone who decides, ‘I really don’t want to go to college, but I want to go into the tech field.’ Instead of getting a college degree, they take these preparations for certification courses.”

The institute has three teachers, each with a specialty. Byrd-Hill specializes in network engineering and has two branches. One teacher specializes in Linux, and the other in cybersecurity ops. She explains why the institute believes that being a network engineer comes first, as well as the importance in training Linux programmers.

“They need to understand what the network entails so that they can be able to protect it and defend it against hackers,” she said. “Also, many people do not realize that Linux is the language of choice for a hacker. They love open source and they really love Linux. Linux has so many versions. A lot of people who go into the technical world do not have a Linux background, which puts them at a significant disadvantage. You understand the cybersecurity world much better when you understand Linux. You understand how a hacker thinks and what they’re going after.”

The third branch combines the Internet of Things with Linux.

“Our first class is called Introduction to the Internet of Things,” she said. “The tech industry has infiltrated every industry in the world. When you see that, it opens your mind to all the potential opportunities that are available. That class also has entry-level programming. In order to work with a network, you have to program things. You have to have that mindset.  Even though you may not be building software, or programming the software, it runs the hardware.”

Byrd-Hill refers to what they are doing as “Wakanda of Detroit.” Wakanda is the fictional country located in Sub-Saharan Africa, created by Marvel Comics, which is home to the superhero Black Panther.

“When the Marvel Comics movie came out, the black community was so excited about Wakanda, because they’d never seen that type of innovation in an urban setting,” she said. “My concept of having that type of an environment really came before Wakanda. It came when I decided to build an invention lab that would have cybersecurity, automation, and artificial intelligence.”

Byrd-Hill won a competition for economic development in 2013 for her idea.

“When I presented the idea of inVENTURE TRIP, a lot of the economic developers thought I was a tad crazy. Here I was saying that I was going to build this very high-tech inner city community when we don’t have that many African-American kids in the high-tech industry. Then this Marvel movie comes out, and you could physically and visually see how that’s done.”

Building Wakanda in Detroit is also Byrd-Hill’s way of breaking down barriers.

“I want to make sure we have a significant supply of diversity in the tech industry, rather it’s African-American, Hispanic or women,” she said. “If we overflood the industry with talent, companies won’t be able to say, ‘we can’t find anybody.’ It’s not that they can’t find talent. They want white males, or Asian males.”

The subject of mentoring is also one Byrd-Hill finds very important.

“When we opened Automation Workz Institute, Cisco said, ‘What is it you need other than money?’ I said, ‘I need mentors.’ Black people, and in particular, black women, need to see others who have done what they’re trying to do. When you see what somebody else went through, you see that your struggles are not abnormal. Somebody else went through the same thing but they ended up on the other side and they were successful. To see that gives you hope.”

Byrd-Hill requested that Cisco invite some of their employees to do a virtual mentorship of the students.

“We created a program called Mentor Workz 4 U,” she said. “Nine ladies and one gentleman who are either network engineers or cybersecurity specialists came and talked via Webex to my students.”

 Byrd-Hill recorded the talks and embedded them into classes. She was surprised and happy when Cisco told her they were stealing her idea.

“They said they showed it to somebody in the company who said, ‘We need to do that for our own employees.’ In November 2018, they launched a women mentorship program, set up in the same way but for Cisco women all over the world.”

The institute recently launch two activities to allow the general public to experience cybersecurity.

“We’re holding these events at the library,” she said. “One, the second weekend of the month, is called Future Tech in Movies. We discuss some of the cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and machine learning that happens in movies, so they can visually see what that means. And then during the fourth weekend of the month, we have something called Game-Workz, which are cybersecurity games where they can participate in being able to defend networks. By playing these games, we’re hoping that people will learn what it is and be interested in coming into the industry.”

She said that Game-Workz began years ago in a few high schools.

“We rolled them out of the high schools into the community because we realized that the students were understanding what was going on, but the parents had no clue,” she said. “Now, it’s mainly parents and high school students. You say Game-Workz and the first thing people think is high school students, but a lot of adults play video games. The average age for women playing video games is 34 and for men is 32. We want to use what they already do to move them into a new industry.”

She said the goal is to eventually have a bigger Game-Workz event that will involve thousands of people.

“In March, we’re hoping to expand Game-Workz beyond a physical gaming scenario, to include virtual competitors,” she said. “We want people all over the world to start experiencing  cybersecurity and admissions to Automation Workz Institute.”

Full STEAM ahead!

Women Know Cyber Archives

Di Freeze is Managing Editor at Cybersecurity Ventures.