Meet Clarence Ellis, the computer scientist who pioneered remote work

BY Preta Peace Namasaba September 15, 2023 9:01 PM EDT
Clarence Ellis. Photo credit: Collegeboard

Clarence Ellis’s groundbreaking contributions in Groupware and Operational Transformation technology have revolutionized the way we work. As the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Computer Science, his innovations paved the way for real-time collaborative document editing, becoming a cornerstone of modern remote work tools such as Google Workspace and Microsoft SharePoint.

Raised in a challenging environment on the South Side of Chicago, surrounded by gang violence, Ellis’s determination kept him on a different path. His first encounter with computers at the age of 15, while working as a security guard, led him to become a self-taught expert. He stepped in heroically when a shortage of punch cards threatened a project, showcasing his talent.

Despite financial obstacles, Ellis’s journey took a turning point when he received a scholarship to Beloit College, becoming the only African American student on campus. Despite initial challenges, he excelled academically, and his passion for computers led to the establishment of the college’s computer lab.

Furthering his education at MIT and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Ellis delved into computer science and made history by becoming the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in the field in 1969. His career continued to soar as a researcher and software developer at Bell Labs, where he applied probability theory to computing.

Notably, at Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Ellis played a key role in developing Alto, the world’s first personal computer, and made significant contributions to graphical user interfaces, icons, and collaborative technologies. His work laid the foundation for modern computing experiences.

Ellis’s legacy is defined by his pioneering work in Groupware, which enables multiple users to collaborate on a single document, a technology that underpins vital remote work tools like Microsoft’s Sharepoint and Google Docs.

Throughout his career, Ellis held teaching positions at prestigious institutions, inspiring students from diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in computer science. He taught at Stanford University, the University of Texas, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Stevens Institute of Technology, and in Taiwan under an AFIPS teaching fellowship. He joined the University of Colorado as a professor of computer science, where he taught for nearly two decades. He became the first African-American Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) in 1997, marking his significant impact on the field.

In 2013, Ellis received a Fulbright Scholarship to contribute his expertise to Ashesi University in Ghana, focusing on computer systems for simulating alternative forms of government in developing countries. He dedicated much of his work in later years to Ashesi University, and died unexpectedly at the age of 71 of a pulmonary embolism during a flight home from Ghana on May 17, 2014.

“People put together an image of what I was supposed to be. So I always tell my students to push.”

Clarence Ellis in the February 2002 issue of Black Issues in Higher Education