Dr. Laney Strange advocates inclusivity in computer science


Photo courtesy of Khoury College of Computer Science

Strange began teaching at Northeastern in 2017.

Jordan Baron, news staff

Life has taken Dr. Laney Strange to many different cities and through many different jobs, but the one aspect that has remained constant throughout her life is her love for computer science, and her mission to make it inclusive and inviting for all.

Strange was a “teenage runaway” to New Orleans. After that, she was a student at Simmons College. She’s taken jobs across the United States, from San Francisco to Silicon Valley to Memphis. She’s started a company and ditched it. She has done extensive work to support women and other underrepresented groups in STEM. And now she is a professor in Northeastern University’s Khoury College of Computer Science.  

Before all that, however, Strange was a kid growing up in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Her family moved to Vermont when she was 11, and after years of living in the Northeast, Strange decided that she was done with New England life. 

“I figured the exact opposite of a small New England town would be a big southern city,” she said. “So, when I was 17, I got on a bus with everything I owned and went to New Orleans.”

Strange picked up a minimum wage job making $4.25 an hour. After some time, she said she began to feel trapped in the city, and although the thought of going to college crossed her mind every now and then, the idea of paying tuition, or even an application fee, was inconceivable for her. Still, according to Strange, New Orleans was not a bad place to be as a teenage runaway. 

“That’s also where I met my husband down in New Orleans, waiting for the streetcar at 3 o’clock in the morning. We’re still together,” she said. “It was very cute.”

Strange walked into her first Simmons College computer science class at 20 years old having never read a line of code. Strange said she picked it up fast, mostly because of a professor named Nanette Veilleux.

“She’s amazing,” Strange said. “I’m still friends with her. She’s the whole reason I’m in computer science, and she made a very welcoming and inclusive kind of atmosphere and I never felt like I don’t belong here, which is a really common feeling among women in computer science.”

With the help of Veilleux, Strange graduated Simmons with an undergraduate degree in computer science. However, in 2002, the computer science industry was very different than it is now. Most higher-ups in computer science were masters students or doctorates. Strange did not want to just be a “code-monkey,” as she described it, and instead opted to attend graduate school. 

Strange attended Dartmouth College for her doctorate and worked on a dissertation to make it more efficient and easier to run parallel programs, which are pieces of code that run on multiple computers. 

After graduating from Dartmouth, Strange and her husband packed their things and moved to San Francisco. She got involved with a startup called H5, which wrote code that worked with companies that were getting sued. 

Strange then went to work for Amazon, in Silicon Valley, contributing to their search team. She worked on the very first version of the search component of Amazon’s website, working on auto-completion of phrases, recommendation and spelling corrections. 

After four years at Amazon, her next step was to work at a non-profit called TechSoup, which specialized in donating technology resources to other nonprofits. She helped build a software that other organizations could use to set up competitions for people who have ideas that use technology for social good. 

Strange spent roughly three years at TechSoup, and then got wrapped up in an idea to start her own company, and moved to Memphis to pursue the idea. The premise of the startup was to be a media company for people who have other creative hobbies outside of their technical field. Unfortunately, the company did not go far, and soon the idea was scrapped.

Luckily, she had prepared for the sudden fall, and had secured a job as a professor at the 

University of Memphis teaching intro-level computer science. Strange said she quickly realized that she enjoyed teaching and decided to pursue the professor track more persistently. She moved to another opportunity at Tufts University before joining Northeastern in 2017.

At Northeastern, Strange is involved in many extracurriculars. She is a graduate teacher for the Northeastern Align program, which is a program for people of many ages who are going through a career shift that want to receive a crash-course bachelor’s in computer science. 

“We have Align students right now who are firefighters in the Boston Fire Department, we have former military, we have people who did psychology as undergrad, someone who went to the Savannah College of Art and Design,” Strange said. “And so, all these different kinds of ideas and perspectives come into the classroom, and it’s really cool.”

She also runs coding workshops for the Women’s Community of Code, in which she helps bring in females of all ages to provide them with a first experience that is supportive and welcoming, something that Strange says is not something that many women get.

“What I like to say, especially with the girls, is that you don’t have to go on and major in computer science. But we’re all consumers of technology … so we should be aware of what we’re doing,” she said. “And if you don’t want to study computer science, like cool, but you should reject it on its merits, and not because you felt like you weren’t included.”

Strange is also a MAGIC Mentor. She is paired with new mentee each year and is currently helping a girl who is interested in creating a software that will identify plants by just taking a photo of it.

In taking part in these programs, Strange is building towards her overall mission to make the first experience for women and under-represented groups in computer science more inclusive and less intimidating. 

Outside of Northeastern, Strange is an avid runner. She has run marathons across the country and is part of her local running group in Dorchester.

Strange and her husband have always been very flexible and spontaneous, and decided when they were getting married to change their last name to Strange. Strange’s arms are covered with tattoos, ranging from her last name to a full Dr. Strange comic strip to the locations of all the marathons she has run. 

Behind the unique last name and tattooed arms, however, is just a professor who wants to help her students learn.

“People don’t remember what you say, they remember how you made them feel. And so, I hope that my students feel like they can ask any question and learn anything in computer science.”