Ann Quiroz Gates, Chair, UTEP Computer Science Department

Ann Quiroz Gates Photo by Aaron Montes

Ann Quiroz Gates
Photo by Aaron Montes

Native El Pasoan Ann Quiroz Gates has decades of experience in computer programming and software development.

Her resume is 15 pages long, filled with the positions she has held and the computer science research she has participated in.

Her office reflects her background.

The walls are covered in books, awards and tech memorabilia. She has a small museum with an old computer that uses punch cards and a squarish mouse with three buttons.

On her desk, she has a black Microsoft fidget spinner.

“There is my museum,” she said. “I have the tapes and the floppy disks and the big floppies back there. Zip drives. That is an original mouse.

“It is interesting to see the differences. I started in Fortran IV; that’s the language I programmed in.”

Gates, 69, is the chair of the computer science department at the University of Texas at El Paso. It is the second time she has served as chair, a position she has held for a total of almost 10 years.

Early in her career, Gates passed up on an opportunity to work at IBM to pursue her interest in education.

“No regrets. I really do like teaching,” she said.

Gates, who has a doctorate in computer science from NMSU, oversees a department with about 16 professors and 800 students, twice as many as the department had 10 years ago. It is experiencing student growth on par with other universities across the country.

“And with the same number of faculty. It is just really crazy. It is a nationwide thing,” she said. “Part of it has to do with the whole emphasis on data science, data analytics and data mining. Automation, if you want to call it that, it’s everywhere and in every profession.”

Microsoft announced in March that it has selected El Paso as a TechSpark community – one of six in the country. The computer science department is working with Microsoft to implement the program, which is designed to foster economic opportunity and job creation.

The department is also working with Microsoft on the Technology, Education and Literacy in Schools, or TEALS, program, which is developing advanced computer science programs in El Paso schools.

Gates sat down with El Paso Inc. in her office on the third floor of the computer science building at UTEP. She talked about why Google and Microsoft are investing in El Paso, the dire need for computer science teachers and why she gave up her dream job.


Q: How many graduate students does the department have?

We have about 70 in the master’s program and 30 in the Ph.D. program. We have grown a new program called masters in software engineering that has a focus in cybersecurity.

We are certified by the National Security Agency in cyber operations. There are fewer than 20 that have that designation.

Q: Does that pull students from different parts of the United States?

It is beginning to. I also lead a large alliance called the Computing Alliance of Hispanic Serving Institutions, so we are able to disseminate across a broad range of institutions. We are going to be working with providing workshops around the country on cybersecurity.

Right now, we are working with Google intensely. We are creating a program called domestic study, where the students will go off to spend a semester at Google and take university courses.

I am working right now to align our courses, and we are recruiting professors to go spend the semester there with the Google researchers, teaching courses that are project based. That is a big investment.

We are working with them creating courses around problem solving. We call it “whiteboarding,” where you are given a problem and given a whiteboard and answer questions and think out loud and have a problem-solving strategy.

The Google software engineers have been giving us problems to put in our databank. I just got off a call this morning with around eight other institutions around the country interested in adopting what we are creating.

Q: How prepared are students when they come into the program, especially when they are from El Paso?

You have the FabLab and Girls Who Code. You have these programs that are trying to give El Pasoans more exposure.

Some students come in because they’ve played with computer science. So we are seeing a broad range – some with no experience and some with experience.

Q: How does El Paso compare nationally?

We need to see more computer science in the high school and middle school curriculum. Microsoft recognizes this and its Technology Education and Literacy in Schools, or TEALS, program is really working on trying to prepare teachers to be able to teach computer science.

I am a Google ambassador to the Computer Science Teachers Association, and last year, they sent me to a meeting in Washington. I was shocked.

These are all the teachers that are teaching computer science, and the stories I was hearing was “I am a librarian and I am told that I have to teach computer science in the fall.” “I am an art teacher, and I have to teach computer science.”

I mean there were all of these teachers that were being told they had to teach computer science with no background in it.

Q: What did you think?

There’s a dire need for preparing teachers. There are just very few teachers that really have that experience.

Q: How will Microsoft’s TEALS program help?

The TEALS program has come in to work with teachers, and whether you’re from the industry or not, they’re looking at college students to come in and coach.

It’s a great program.

Google is doing something similar. We have been working with Google to create a program, and we have been working with middle school students in the Socorro Independent School District to bring in computer science.

Having Microsoft come to El Paso and invest like they have is priceless.

Q: What does Microsoft’s TechSpark program bring to UTEP?

It is going to bring that innovation. When new companies form, they need talent.

We are working on a model called Collective Impact. That looks at how we increase the number of Hispanics in computing and the number of people that go on to get degrees, whether they are Hispanic or not.

We can’t answer that question unless we work with people in the community and people in economic development. It is going to be a collaboration.

Q: Is El Paso offering the kind of jobs graduates are looking for?

There are pockets. There are companies like Currey Adkins, and you can look at White Sands Missile Range.

The students go to jobs at Fort Bliss and Hewlett Packard. Do we need more? Yes. We are seeing a lot of our students start their own side businesses.

The army research lab has provided a doctoral level expert in cybersecurity to be in our department 20 hours a week. Jaime Acosta, Ph.D., runs the ethical hacking group at White Sands. He has come here and worked on a lot of the cybersecurity courses.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has come in, and they want training as well. It’s good having that avenue, and they hire a lot of our students.

Q: What are some things your students do outside of the classroom?

I am seeing a large number of students going to hackathons. I just had a group of students that went to Colorado and placed first in a competition. The students see themselves as innovators. It’s a new generation.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you have in the department?

It’s bringing in the professors. There are so many opportunities, but we are limited.

Our classes are growing. It makes it harder to do project-based learning, which is what students need. It needs to be hands on. You have to keep up with the latest. It changes constantly.

There’s a shortage of computer science professors because they are being pulled into startups and the industry. They make much more money.

Q: How did you get started in software development and computer science?

I worked at White Sands Missile Range, I worked at Fort Bliss, I worked in Houston writing programs and I taught high school math and adult education.

At El Paso Tech, it was like a magnet school so students would come in and take programming and I taught the class. That was with my high school teacher that taught me my introduction into data processing at Burges.

When I was a high school senior, they had just brought that program. Mary Ellen Paul taught me there. Her husband worked at International Business Machines, or IBM, so she taught data processing. I learned on the old machines.

You would wire the machines and put your cards through and write programs. I fell in love with programming in high school.

When I got my master’s degree, my dream was to work at IBM. I interviewed and they offered me a job. But at the same time, I was offered that job, I was offered a scholarship to go on and get my doctorate.

I actually went to Tucson to see if I wanted to live there. I was not crazy about it. I ended up deciding I would get a Ph.D. So I gave up my dream job at IBM. The rest is history.

Q: No regrets?

No regrets. I really do like teaching. Recently, I have been working with middle schools and teachers, and it got me excited.

Q: I am sure you have also noticed how technology has changed since you were in high school. 

I have. There is my museum. I have the tapes and the floppy disks and the big floppies back there. Zip drives. That is an original mouse. It is interesting to see the differences.

Q: What’s the biggest change for you?

Well, it was working on the big mainframes. I worked for a company called Bradley Dunn & McDonald, and I was a keypunch operator.

The change is what we can do with the amount of memory that’s found in our iPhone and the power of that. It used to take a room full of computers to do the same thing.

Q: What was the department like when you first became chair?

It was a long time ago – over ten years now. We’ve always had a good computer science department and good chairs, so it was not that hard because I had models of what it was like to lead a department.

UTEP has always had strong professors here. That’s something we have always taken great pride in. We have been able to attract strong professors that care about students and also do good research.

Q: In 2008, the country was in a recession. How did that affect things?

There was a big drop in computing, and now it’s completely turned around.

Q: How have things turned around?

I served on a National Academy of Sciences study group on booming enrollments. Two years ago, they saw the big push for computing is now doubling and tripling nationwide because of the ubiquity of computers.

People are asking if things will be like they were in 2008. There was a huge boom and all of a sudden, it dropped. It was for a lot of reasons. It was this big emphasis on web, and it led to a huge crash.

We have seen growth. When I came back into the department we were about 350 undergraduates and now we have 800.

Some people say if your university does not have computer science at the center, something is wrong. It leads to all the innovation, technology and introduction to new ways of doing things. It really is an economic driver.

Q: How do you see things changing in computer science education in the next five years?

How universities operate is going to have to be much more integrated. Yes, we have disciplines, but we are seeing a blending. How do we meet that? It is something we have to do, but how is the challenge.