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Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing 2017

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing for the second time. The first was back in 2015 when I spoke during the open source track. This year I was attending to represent Mesosphere at our booth in the career fair, we were a silver sponsor of the event.

I arrived on Tuesday afternoon and met up with my colleagues Amita Ekbote and Susan X. Huynh. I was able to get checked in for the conference, have some lunch together and visit the booth in the expo hall to confirm our delivery of stickers and t-shirts had arrived. Since we work on different teams at Mesosphere, it was really nice to spend the afternoon together talking about our work, the company, and thoughts around diversity initiatives that were inspired by our attendance at the conference.

GHC is a very career-driven event, which is showcased in what is not an expo hall, but a career fair. Companies from around the world pour a lot of money on event sponsorships and booth setups to attract talent to their booths, whether in the form of internships or full time employment. The conference had 18,000 attendees, mostly women, and that’s a big pool to draw from.

This was my first time doing booth duty with this kind of focus, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. As a startup, our booth was modest but we have a great logo and the traffic at the booth was brisk throughout the event. I met a lot of women who are interested in security, which I was very glad to see, since the field of security in technology is quite male-dominated. More applicable to our work, I did meet several women who had experience with distributed systems, some of whom had even worked with Apache Mesos before. There were a few times when I got to go off into the weeds a bit, geeking out with an engineer who came to our booth and was enamored with infrastructure work.

Margaret Sy, me, Shira Oatis, Amita Ekbote and Susan X. Huynh, credit to Shira for the sticker display!

There’s something incredibly special for me about getting to work and geek out with other women. As a woman working in the intersection of infrastructure and open source it’s rare for me to be able to. Throughout my entire career, the vast majority of my colleagues have been men. While I’m very happy with the men I’ve worked with, there’s a different connection I have to other women that I really enjoy when I can find it.

And one afternoon I also spent some time with my droid buddy R2-D2. Thanks to the Disney booth!

Now I wasn’t able to make it to any of the sessions at the conference, but I did watch the keynotes. They showcased an incredible lineup of women in technology. On Wednesday morning at the conference kickoff I really enjoyed hearing the funny anecdotes from Melinda Gates as she walked us through her teenage love for her Apple III (“this isn’t Bill’s favorite story”) and the failure of Microsoft Bob, a project that she was a project manager for. She concluded her talk by imploring us and the industry to examine and appreciate non-standard entrances to computing. I loved computers as a teen, so did Melinda, we could geek out about old computers we had all night, but we’re the ones who succeeded. Not every woman, or person, comes into computing that way, but it is the path we focus on and venerate. We need to embrace different paths to careers in tech and make sure we’re reaching the women who don’t match our stereotypes.

The speaker I was most excited about on Thursday was Debbie Sterling, the Founder and CEO of GoldieBlox. Thanks to the grape vine that is the women in tech community, I knew about and I was one of the early believers in GoldieBlox. I voted in the campaign to get them an ad in the Super Bowl which catapulted their success. Hearing her story of following her passion and incredible resistance and rejection she faced before finally succeeding to get VC and funding through a Kickstarter was inspiring. The whole idea of GoldieBlox was also something I believe in, we need more toys for girls that allow them to create and build, and not be read-only participants in the pink aisle.

The other thing that jumped out at me was how incredibly accomplished every single one of the keynote speakers was. At most conferences I attend the keynote speaker may have written a book or founded an organization, but every woman up on the keynote stage as the days progressed had several noteworthy accomplishments under her belt, and I’d never heard of many of these women. Between the keynote speakers and the sold out audience, anyone attending this conference must walk away feeling like we have an incredible talent pool of women in tech in this country.

Theme-wise, there were a couple that jumped out of me. The first was the diversity of their speaker line-up, and how many of them came from less affluent communities. There were women from Ghana, Ecuador, Rwanda, Mexico and China, many of whom immigrated to the US and all of whom have overcome discouragement and adversity to push ahead and achieve incredible success. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience who was then doing a great deal of self-reflection. We struggle with and are exhausted by microaggressions and harassment throughout our career, but these women have had to overcome so much more and still believe that it was worth it. Improvements of the “first world problem” type definitely still need to be made since they do still take away from the time we have to work and succeed, and still cause women to leave in significantly higher rates than men, but perspective I gained from the experiences of these women was important for me. Keep going, it’s worth it to be players in industry that builds our future.

The second theme was one in the direction of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML). Both of these fields are already having an impact on our lives today, and will to a much greater extent in the future. From Dr. Fei-Fei Li we got clear examples of how “machine values are human values” and that even the most well-intentioned developer still has unconscious bias that can lead to problems where they have blind spots due to their background, gender, race and more. The AI and ML fields need diversity of engineers, data sets and people who ask real human problems when crafting technological solutions.

Finally, throughout the keynotes there were projects and initiatives that speakers mentioned, the following are a handful that stood out for me:

You can watch the keynotes from each day by following these links, and details about the speakers can be found here (where I got these links from):

I had several great meals with my colleagues, but no conference would be complete without a party, and Women Techmakers put on a great one over at the Epcot World Showcase. From 7 to 9:30 we enjoyed small plates and drinks, a great pro-women DJ, a bunch of activities brought in by Google, and even a Waymo self-driving car! I got to check out the new Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, which was great since I think the Pixel 2 XL will be my next phone and getting to play with one was really nice. I also stood in line with my colleague Margaret to get “selfie stickers” printed by Google Allo, which took a picture of you and then generated a cartoon image from it (mine are here).

At 9:30 the park closed to the general public and we had 90 minutes to explore it on our own! The countries in the World Showcase were all closed, and no wine and food festival for us, but we did get to go on the iconic Spaceship Earth ride and Soarin’: Around the World before the evening wound down. Unfortunately my sprained ankle wasn’t a huge fan of this late night, but I’m glad I pushed myself a little so I could take advantage of the evening.

The conference concluded on Friday with a couple final shifts at our booth, during which my boss, and company co-founder, Ben Hindman joined us at the conference and the booth for the day to meet with folks who came by. The four of us remaining then took the opportunity to swing by the eBay booth to pose in front of a great quote from Grace Hopper, “The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.'”

Thanks to Shira for sharing this photo (source)

I decided to depart before the afternoon keynotes in order to avoid rush hour traffic and the rush on cars for hire, but I did watch them later. I was really amused by Ayanna Howard’s keynote where she shared that her studies show that people trust robots, even when they’re not working properly, so there needs to be caution and thoughtfulness involved as we program them. I also had a particular fondness for Maureen Fan’s keynote where she talked about her company, Baobab Studios, and her livelong love for animation. I share this love, and for the same reasons of hope, dreams and taking you to faraway and imaginary places.

In all, I enjoyed the conference and all the people I had the opportunity to meet. It’s nice to be reminded now and then that there are a lot of women working in tech, even if the percentages aren’t where we want them to be. We’re here, and we belong.

A few more photos from GHC here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pleia2/albums/72157686015448772

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