Sherrie Littlejohn, who broke race and gender barriers in the 1980s as one of the first black women in computer science leadership, was overworked and dog-tired her entire time as a graduate student at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Littlejohn worked at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Naperville, Illinois during the daytime while taking classes for her master’s degree in computer science at nightime. She graduated from Illinois Tech in 1982 after finishing her undergraduate at Xavier University in 1979. To this day, she still recalls taking her fair share of naps in Stuart Building during night classes just to wake up at 1 a.m. to see her classmates still working.
When Littlejohn started college at Xavier University, she was not initially interested in computer science, rather majoring in mathematics. Along the way, though, she started coding, partially as a hobby and partially as a challenge for herself — beginning with FORTRAN and COBOL — before eventually declaring a minor in the subject.
written by Dan Marten
Littlejohn stressed to mention how proud she is of her marriage to her husband of 31 years, a Mr. Michael Littlejohn, and their 28 year-old daughter who studied environmental science at Stanford University in California. The Littlejohn family resides in northern California, and Sherrie Littlejohn kept an optimistic tone while discussing her family's lousy luck with the fires, ash, and smoke from the wildfires as of late.
Working as a graduate student is especially complicated when holding the responsibilities of a technical leadership position, which Littlejohn did thanks to a fortuitous early promotion. It didn’t come automatically, though; during the timeframe of her graduate studies, she recalls a peculiar saga of being transparently offered a similar promotion, later being told her offer was being declined, taking the rest of the day off, and going home to cry it out. The next day, she came back determined to work so hard the company would have no choice but to give her the promotion, which they would approximately six months later.
Unfortunately, Littlejohn recalls having to work twice as hard to get some of the opportunities that her predominantly white male colleagues would get — she graduated with her undergraduate degree only 15 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which required executive power to stop racial segregation and to guaruntee fair voting, after all.
Elsewhere in her career, Littlejohn previously served as an executive at a tech startup before the 2000-2001 tech bubble burst. When faced with layoffs, which would mean firing key technical employees which kept the company running, she opted instead to give up her own position and salary for the integrity of the company. She took the following year to reconnect with her then 8 year-old daughter and work on her work-life balance. She admitted that “balance” was lopsided and sympathizes with young professionals struggling to find that balance themselves.
Littlejohn remains involved with the Illinois Tech community, currently serving as the alumni chair for the university’s alumni association as well as on the Board of Trustees and the Academic Affairs Committee. She is also a leadership coach and an aspiring author, though her first book’s repeated production delays have become something of a running joke among her colleagues. All in all, she encourages students to branch out with their studies, to not feel restricted by their major, and breathe it all in — if this leaves you struggling in Stuart Building at 1 a.m. though, don’t worry, you’ve had generations of Illinois Tech students before you who have been there and turned out just fine.
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