20161019_095501

What We Learned from the Largest Women Technology Conference in the World

This year, our very own Andrea Frost had the pleasure of attending the Grace Hopper Conference in Houston, Texas. The following is her account of the this year’s conference, key takeaways for women in technology, and why you should attend the 2017 Grace Hopper Conference in Orlando, Florida.

What is the Grace Hopper conference?

The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) is the largest gathering of female technologists in the world! It all started when Anita Borg and a small handful of women crossed paths in a bathroom at a systems conference back in the ‘90s. There were so few women in attendance that the women thought perhaps they should meet and talk more after the conference. This led to the creation of the Systers Mail List of women in tech, which today has more than 6,000 members worldwide.

Anita Borg, sadly, died some years ago from cancer, so her best friend Telle Whitney created the Anita Borg Institute, named after her beloved friend. These women were the first drops of water in a waterfall that now carries oceans of women through their careers in tech. This year, the ABI brought 15,000 women technologists (and a few men) together under one roof in Houston.

The panel on caching

“Cache Me If You Can” panel. Speakers: Ashley Jin, Distributed Computing Engineer, Paxata Anna Povzner, Software Engineer, Confluent Alice Yeh, Software Engineer, Eventbrite Vartika Agarwal, Technical Program Manager, Google

Why did you attend this year’s conference?

Last week was my third time attending GHC! Three years ago, Kelly Lyon and I both attended as GHC Scholars back when the conference had only 5,000 attendees. Last year there were 12,000 attendees, this year there were 15,000, and next year they expect 18,000+ in Orlando, Florida!

When I went the first time, I was only a year or so into my computer science major at school and was having a rough time. I wasn’t sure if I belonged or how I would fit into the tech world. I hadn’t met any female role models at my school, and I didn’t yet know about the many cool women in industry in my town and around the globe. There is something very tantalizing about being under the same roof as thousands of other intelligent women technologists. While that might sound intimidating at first, it is quickly understood that the group is incredibly inviting, open, personable, silly, and fiercely dedicated to the cause.

Years later, I too am a fierce warrior for the cause. Kelly and I were the first students from Western Washington University (WWU) to ever attend, and we knew we had to get more people from our school to this incredible conference. By selling t-shirts, I founded a scholarship that has since brought seven students from the WWU Association for Women in Computing (AWC), to GHC. We have also had the pleasure of helping bring awareness to the national scholarships that made it possible for eight more to attend. In total, this year there were 23 students, faculty, and alumni from WWU at GHC!

WWU group photo

WWU group photo

I attended this year so that I could officially pass the torch on to this new group of students, and so that I could meet other female technologists who, like me, are in their early careers in tech. At GHC it doesn’t matter what level you are at, be it student, early-mid-late career, industry or academia, entrepreneur, CEO, researcher, recruiter, or a simple observer. There is truly something for everyone. Where other than GHC could a software engineer from a tiny startup in Bellingham, WA walk and talk casually with the CTO of the United States government?!

Megan Smith and Andrea Frost

Megan Smith and Andrea Frost

What happened this year at Grace Hopper 2016?

Watching the excitement and camaraderie of women from my school at GHC was such a stark contrast to my experience three years ago! I felt proud to have helped create opportunities for such a large group of us to be there together, and it was fun to laugh together and see them encourage one another to apply for jobs, attend talks, introduce themselves to new friends, and explore new areas of technology. (Spoiler: three of them got job offers at the conference!)

The keynotes were fabulous and insightful. Latanya Sweeney, the first black woman to earn a PhD in Computer Science, now professor of government and technology in residence at Harvard University, spoke about bias in software and how data science is saving the world.

Ginni Rometty, President and CEO at IBM, reminded us that “comfort and growth never coexist” and to work on something bigger than yourself.

ABIE Award winner Anna Patterson showed us that women can rise up to all kinds of challenges while being a great leader all along the way.

I have a particular interest in cyber security, so I was excited to attend relevant talks in that arena. From panels on defense against the dark arts to presentations on policy and surveillance (Jennifer Stisa Granick) and new paradigm in cyber tactics (Andrea Limbago), we have much work to do in the cyber space. Women must be involved in these efforts, so be sure to also put the Women in Cyber Security (WiCYS) conference on your radar!

Cyber security panel: Defense Against the Dark Arts -- Protecting Your Product From Bad Actors.  Speakers:  Clara Liu, Software Engineer, Pinterest Jenelle Bray, Team Lead, LinkedIn Ava Zhang, Software Engineer, Twitter, Inc. Jackie Bow, Software Engineer, Facebook, Inc. Angelina Huang, Software Engineer, Airbnb

Cyber security panel: Defense Against the Dark Arts — Protecting Your Product From Bad Actors. Speakers:
Clara Liu, Software Engineer, Pinterest, Jenelle Bray, Team Lead, LinkedIn, Ava Zhang, Software, Engineer, Twitter, Inc., Jackie Bow, Software Engineer, Facebook, Inc., Angelina Huang, Software Engineer, Airbnb

Passing in the hallways offered many opportunities to walk and talk with well-known, important people. At GHC, people take time to get to know one another rather than brushing off time with strangers. Some of my favorite encounters include:

Lisa Seacat DeLuca

Lisa Seacat DeLuca

  • Jamie Chappell at Red Hat – Created the Women in Open Source Award to help bring more recognition to women contributors.

  • Heather Ricciuto and Diane Delaney at IBM – Fabulous women I cross paths with at every conference who inspire all those around them while making important connections.

  • Ambareen Siraj from Tennessee Tech University – Founder of WiCYS who always encourages me to reach beyond.

  • Carol Willing – Director of the Python Software Foundation who also happens to run an OpenHatch table at the GHC Open Source Day each year.

  • Megan Smith – United States Chief Technology Officer (CTO) in the Office of Science and Technology Policy and closing keynote speaker. She works with President Obama and I got to meet her!

And of course, it wouldn’t be a proper GHC without closing keynotes and a stellar after party! Closing keynotes included: Megan Smith who brought important attention to the upcoming film Hidden Figures, the silly MC, Nora Denzel, Marc Benioff from Salesforce, and a panel of amazing women from NASA.

Megan Smith with panel of women from NASA

Megan Smith with panel of women from NASA

At the after party, we danced all night with a live DJ and a silent DJ party on the opposite end of the room, spinning gyrospheres, Ms. Pacman, a giant LightBright, Skee Ball, and some pretty awesome photo booths!

Silent DJ at GHC after party

Silent DJ at GHC after party

Favorite piece of swag?

My new custom emoji from Made with Code of course!

20161019_231953

What are your top 5 take aways for women in tech?

It’s so hard to narrow it down to just five things! The following is my best effort to do so:

  1. You belong and the world needs you! We must have diverse minds at the table making decisions about the future direction of technology.
  2. Don’t be afraid to explore! There is so much more out there beyond what we can see and imagine, but you have to do the work to put yourself in a position to gain exposure to other ideas and people.
  3. Let connections run deeper. When you meet other women, keep in touch with them via LinkedIn, Facebook, email, user groups, or whatever tools suit your needs. I am still friends today with people from every conference I have been to, and I look forward to following all of our careers as we progress. Those contacts are your lifeline both to share in the good times and in the struggles.
  4. Look for the light. There will probably always be frustrations for women in tech, at least in my lifetime. No matter what you are going through, there is always a lesson to be learned and light at the end of the tunnel. Make sure you are looking for the light.
  5. Say thank you to those who have helped you along your journey. Almost every woman at the Systers luncheon raised their hands to say they would like more recognition for their work and for their accomplishments. It takes a village, and I believe we should acknowledge each other for the work we do. Women have been written out of the history books; it is up to us to make sure we have proper representation in the future.

Bonus:

The winning company and results, from the Top Companies for Women Technologists program was also shared during the conference. This is a national program that recognizes companies committed to building workplaces where women technologists can thrive. This year, an unprecedented 60 organizations across multiple industries participated! That’s a 71 percent increase from 2015.

This graph shows in red how far ahead the winning company was this year.

This graph shows in red, how far ahead the winning company was this year.

Why should you attend GHC next year?

There are so many reasons to attend GHC! Off the top of my head:

  1. If you want to be inspired, go to GHC
  2. If you want to connect with awesome women in tech, go to GHC
  3. If you want to learn about emerging technologies, go to GHC
  4. If you need to find talented women to join your team, go to GHC
  5. If you aren’t quite sure where you fit or what your next job should be, go to GHC
  6. If you want to participate in inclusive open source workshops, go to GHC
  7. If you want to know how to help in this mission, go to GHC

About Andrea Frost:

Andrea is passionate about using technology to make the world a better place. With many years of non-profit experience, she is incredibly excited to build ActionSprout tools that make life easier for non-profits. When not officially at work Andrea volunteers with the Creators & Innovators Club for Girls, Whatcom Hospice, and WWU Association for Women in Computing. She loves getting out in the mountains with her dog from Alaska. She is currently an engineer at ActionSprout.