From Hopper to Hired

Are you headed to #GHC16? Excellent! Here’s what I learned when I attended my first GHC…

photo courtesy of http://ghc.anitaborg.org/

The 2014 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing — or ‘GHC’ for short — was a first for me in many ways:

  • the first plane ride I took completely alone
  • the first time I’d gone to the Southwest (Phoenix, Arizona)
  • the first large conference I had ever attended
  • the first time I sat in a room with thousands of other people, and
  • the first time women clearly dominated the scene. And I say this coming from Wheaton College, a small liberal arts school that is 2/3rds women, and a graduating class that had more woman computer science majors than men (6 to 5, but still).

Going to GHC, I wondered how much it could truly live up to expectations. My professor had told me on a scale of “1 — do not attend” to “10 — get here by whatever means necessary,” this conference was an 8. I would call that an accurate assessment.

In terms of inspiration, GHC delivered. I was able to attend so many conversations about supporting and encouraging women in tech, and perhaps even more valuable, I was able to attend countless talks about the amazing things women are already doing in their respective fields. When you’re constantly hearing about the struggles women face in this industry, it’s nice to hear the flip side: there are plenty of women out there overcoming obstacles, and you can too.

In terms of the much-hyped job fair, GHC really delivered. There were several hundred companies in a space big enough for a football stadium, each set up with a booth and armed with swag. I’m serious, you’ll want to leave room in your suitcase for it all. I got an umbrella and a pillow that I still use to this day!

photo courtesy of http://ghc.anitaborg.org/

Just like the concept of an 8,000 person conference was intimidating at first, so was the job fair. I didn’t take my first computer science class until sophomore year, initially starting at my liberal arts school with the intent to double major in English and Mathematics. Walking down the aisles of booths advertising the likes of Google and Facebook, I was both awed and unconfident in my ability to land a summer internship. Still, I had come armed with dozens of resumes and a determination to go up to every booth that seemed like it might come close to a good fit.

In actuality, about half the time it was the person at the booth that approached me. The “biggies” didn’t need to do this since they were constantly swamped, but what drew me in more than the name of a company I didn’t recognize was someone saying, “Hi, can I tell you a bit about Company X?” This was always the moment after I hovered on the edge of the booth, afraid to waste someone’s time if I wasn’t interested.

When someone jumped in and started the conversation for me, I usually learned a lot more about the company, and I usually wanted to leave a resume with them. It’s what happened with Olark. I’d never heard of them, but they were enthusiastic about their company, and that in turn made me enthusiastic about them. I found out they had just started using a technology I’d learned the previous summer, and that they were a smaller company where everyone knew everyone, exactly what I was looking for.

In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t been so reliant on those companies making the first move. If you have the time, you should talk to someone at any booth that strikes you — you never know what you could hear. I also wish I’d spread out my visits more. I did a huge marathon session but was tired out and not as focused as I should have been by the end of it. The conference is several days long; take advantage of that fact.

Practically speaking, the job fair was the most valuable aspect of the conference for me. I gave out maybe thirty resumes, and heard back from a few of those immediately. The last night of the conference I spent filling out applications online. It all seemed so quick to me, but it made sense. I was competing for these positions among hundreds of other people but they were also competing for me among hundreds of other companies. Olark was one of those first responders, and I Skype-interviewed with them only a few days after the conference. When they offered me the internship hardly a week after I’d returned from GHC, I was so excited I jumped up and down in a grocery store. They were community driven and I’d get to do work I was interested in. I accepted right away and didn’t even feel bad turning down future interview requests, knowing Olark was the perfect fit.

It was months and months between that email offer and ringing the doorbell on my first day, but it all felt in that moment like it was happening too fast. I’d spent so much time in preparation: thinking about what it would be like, booking my tickets, finding a place to live — and it all boiled down to now. I was nervous.

Why was I nervous about this internship before I’d even started? Because I’m a normal human and because for me, the imposter syndrome was very, very real. This was a term I’d heard many a person warn about at GHC way back in October, but that didn’t lessen the feeling.

Here’s the thing: it can be very hard to fight the idea that you’re not cut out for the job, especially when starting a new position, but it can help to name the feeling for what it is. Just by recognizing that it was imposter syndrome — that it’s so common it’s a universally acknowledged term — I felt solidarity with all the other people who had it as well.

Of course, there was still the sense of, “I feel imposter syndrome because I actually am an imposter,” but I told myself I wouldn’t know if this was the case or not until I actually started work. Ultimately you have to remember that even if it is true, you were still hired for a reason — and internships are meant to teach you. Otherwise what’s the point of being there?

Over the course of the summer, a lot of that imposter syndrome faded as my camaraderie grew with those around me and I settled more into my role. It wasn’t so much that I was wrong about not knowing everything — I didn’t know many, many things. But there were other things I did know and that was the list that kept growing. Instead of focusing on not being the smartest person in the room, I focused on the fact that these people had so much to share with me and I should take advantage. In turn, on several occasions I was the one who knew things other people didn’t.

When I got my job offer at the end of the summer, I had to say yes. I’d learned my lesson and interviewed at other places before accepting the offer, but deep down I knew Olark was the place for me. Fast forward to today and I’m three months in, and loving it. I thought that time would stand still as I finished my last year of college, but I came back to see a lot had changed for the better. One important aspect of that is an increased dialogue and action steps around the need and desire for diversity within the company. This kind of dialogue was something GHC introduced me to, and I’m excited to see what happens when Olark goes again this year.

About the Author: Lithia Helmreich is a Data Illustrator at Olark. Her first GHC was 2014. Since accepting Olark’s job offer, she works and lives in Ann Arbor. In her downtime, she likes to shop for new toys for her cat, Ada (after Ada Lovelace).