Thursday, October 4, 2012

First look at the Grace Hopper Conference

So can a woman with 2 decades of professional computing experience find something applicable at the Grace Hopper Conference?

This is my first time at the Grace Hopper Conference (GHC). Being a woman in computing, it sure sounded like an amazing event: 3600 women in computing under one roof. Luckily it's in my backyard this year (Baltimore) so I decided to go.

I spent the first day getting a feel for the sessions. It's only the second day so I don't have a complete perspective on the event, but I thought it was reasonable to provide a first impression of the conference.

My experience at conferences is 90% USENIX events. I admit that USENIX won my heart years ago with the LISA conference. As a Unix system administrator, it continues to be the place to go to keep up with the community, changes in technology, and the profession as a whole.

It's hard not to compare. It's a different event, different organizing body, different community. This is a good thing. I want to broaden my exposure; different is good.

GHC looks like something I would have loved when I was a student, or at least early in my career. Many of the sessions are aimed at students (e.g. resume writing, going to grad school, PhD programs, mentoring). There is a huge career fair with every national lab I can think of (e.g. Oakridge, Lawrence Livermore, Argonne, Los Alamos... ), many universities, and the big companies that hire computing professionals (e.g. Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Amazon, Microsoft, etc.).  People looking for a job can wander through the "vendor" area to talk to companies that are hiring. There are also on-site interviews and a special area designated for this purpose. I've talked to several students who had technical interviews schedule with Yahoo or Facebook right here at the conference. You see a lot of young people dressed in their interview clothes wandering through the halls and sessions.

This is a great opportunity for women to support women.  In several cases, a nervous student talked to those of us seated around her and received sage advice and encouragement "be yourself" "interviews are two-way" "don't sweat the whiteboard part--writing code on a whiteboard is hard to do perfectly. Focus on the problem you're trying to solve and be able to explain your logic." It was pretty cool to be a part of that.  I hope the encouragement I attempted to provide really did help because I do remember being the green techie, unsure about my skills. These kids are just starting out. Experience is not a strength for these applicants; what they've learned through school and summer jobs and their willingness and ability to apply that to new skills and experiences is big.

So what am I getting out of GHC so far?  I'm not sure. It is interesting to see 3600 women in computing. I feel like I've helped in some small ways (helping a couple of students with resumes, talking to students pre-interview, talking to some young women about the industry) but I feel like something is missing.  Maybe these sessions are up and coming.  So far I've heard a lot of "we can" as far as being a woman in computing. I'm not hearing a lot about what the real world can be like, for instance: walking into a meeting where the only other woman is the secretary, being on a team of guys where you feel like an outsider because of the overwhelming male culture of beer and high-fives, navigating the sensitivities of gender differences (e.g. being the only team member who has or will be pregnant), how to interview a company to see if you'll fit there.

It's great that we have this 4 day gathering where we can safely talk to anyone. In one of the opening sessions, one of the organizers described this conference as different from others you'll attend. She went on to say something to the effect of 'here you can walk up to anyone and introduce yourself and talk about what you do and the other person really wants to talk to you.'

That seems like an opportunity for GHC to provide a session on how to meet people at other events that aren't this one!  It seems like a missed opportunity to bring these women together to pitch that you need to come to this one event in order to safely meet other peers.  While it's great to have this as an introduction to networking at conferences, I'd like to see GHC lead the way for these women. So, the next time you attend that "other" computing conference in your specialty, here's how you meet people. Most other computing conferences are going to sway heavily to the male demographic unless they specifically target women attendeees. I want to be able to meet people who specialize in my computing area at these events rather than feeling like I should become part of the wallpaper there.

The downside to networking at GHC is the breadth of specialties. I can talk to any woman in the hall but the likelihood that she and I are in the same computing area is not high.  I've talked to web developers, programmers, women interested in robotics, and some other extremely specialized areas. As a former Unix sysadmin and now an IT manager, I'd love to meet some other sysadmins, but I don't see how.  I've talked to a few other women here who are in a similar boat. They'd love to meet up with some other women in their sub-specialty, but how do you find them?   The answer is probably, go to a different event to get that kind of community exposure. This circles right back to "but how do I talk to people at my speciality conference?"

FWIW, you can meet people at other gender-mixed events. Be prepared that there are trolls everywhere in computing so not all of your attempts will be successful, but I have found (in the past 17 years of conference attending) that the community is interested in making connections. Reach out to other like professionals. Take advantage of the social meet ups at other conferences and discount the trolls in favor of the other great people you will meet.


Ok, that horse is probably dead.

I don't want this to be a negative review of this amazing event. It may not be the event for me, specifically, where I stand in my career. We'll see. The jury is still out. I think it presents a unique opportunity for all the women in college who need help getting to the next level whether that is grad school or their first real computing job.

Things I really like so far:
  • 3600 women in computing under one roof
  • Friendly hallway track - everyone wants to meet you and hear your story.
  • Everyone, all the way to the top of the Anita Borg institute, wants to create a safe environment for women.  Sweet!
  • Great attendees!

Things I'm not enamored of:
  • Sessions fill up too quickly. If you're not there 10 minutes early, you risk that the room will fill and the room monitor will turn you away. I think conferences should consider that some sessions will be more popular than others and space should be reserved with that in mind.  Who cares if a room is half full. I'd rather have empty space than a closed door. Telling rejected attendees to find another session doesn't work if that was the session you were looking forward to.
  • Due to the above, I'm skipping all of the social breaks (e.g. what USENIX calls the hallway track) in order to get a seat in the next session. It sorta defeats the purpose of the networking break if you're worried about getting a seat.
  • The perception that this is the only place you can meet people at a conference. Let's change that!

Unrelated to GHC but tangentially having an impact, I have to mention the Starbucks in the conference center while I'm here.  7 to 8 of the most inefficient team I've ever seen at a Starbucks.  They could see a long line of women who were doomed to miss their sessions as cobwebs collected on us in line. The employees were busy joking, hugging, standing around waiting for direction, and taking orders in a serial fashion. To an intelligent observer, you could easily see some efficiencies they could implement on the fly.

They seemed nice enough when I mentioned that we really needed to get through the line faster or risk missing the conference we paid to attend.  I got a free scone, but I would rather have the manager look at the line and redistribute his/her staff to improve customer service. I have a feeling nothing will change. Ah well!

My advice to attendees: Plan ahead!

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