Top Ten Reasons Grace Hopper is the Most Important Conference of the Year

By: Andrea Frost, Data Science & Analytics Engineer, Ionic Security

As part of the national effort to diversify the computing world, Ionic Security sent me to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) in Houston, Texas! The funniest thing I saw last week was the hashtag #dataisbiggerintexas (credit: PROS). While that would be a hot topic to debate, one thing is surely true, the biggest thing in Texas last week was the group of 12,000 women (2% men) technologists together under one roof!

Two years ago, I attended GHC as a Scholar with a fellow student. My colleague Kelly and I were the first people from our university to attend this conference. It was hugely influential in our lives, and therefore in our communities when we returned home.

This year, I had the pleasure of attending with ten other people from my university: eight students and two professors.

Here are our collective Top 10 Reasons Grace Hopper is the most important conference of the year.

0. A note on diversity

The lack of diversity in tech is well known. The computer science department at my university is only 10-percent women, and far fewer come from other underrepresented groups. GHC is an opportunity to see the vast amount of opportunity, success, and passion that exists in our industry. At GHC the numbers are completely reversed. Women and people of color make up the overwhelming majority! It turns out engineers come in all different shapes and sizes, personalities, interests, ages, ethnicities, genders, and sexual preferences. We don’t need to all fit into any particular box or cookie cutter. In order to think outside the box, diverse minds must have a seat at the table.

1. Networking, networking, networking

This year’s attendees came from 60 countries and over 1,000 companies around the globe. These women and men represent completely varying levels of seniority in our respective industries and universities. Casual and professional networking happens between people who are as young as three (yes, kids are welcome) all the way

up to senior VPs and CEOs, with persons who may be retired, just entering the field, entrepreneurs, students, and people making career shifts. GHC is the most diverse space I have ever spent time in, and the networking avenues are unparalleled.

2. The talks

Seriously, the talks are amazing. There are so many talks in fact, that the worst part of the conference is having to choose just one of 20 different sessions to attend at a given time:

· Megan Smith

· Hilary Mason

· Clara Shih

· Anna Lysyanskaya

· Susan Wojcicki

· Manuela Veloso

· Lydia Tapia

· Lydia Kavraki

· Sheryl Sandberg

· Isis Anchalee

· Telle Whitney

That is just a few of the hundreds of speakers who presented at GHC15. There are tracks for Security/Privacy, AI, Data Science, HCI, Software Engineering, Gaming/Computer Graphics, IoT/Emerging Tech, Career, Community, Faculty, Open Source, Productization, and Organizational Transformation. Literally something for everyone.

3. Solidarity: you are not alone

We all have struggled or felt alone at some point. Whether one is adjusting to a new town, job, team, living arrangement, subject in school, and more, people may experience a sense of isolation and suffering. At GHC, there are talks addressing exactly that and how to navigate through those feelings. The problem extends beyond ourselves.

It is helpful to sit in a room full of women and know that we share similar struggles and fears, whether it be about the past, a current issue, or foreseeing a struggle in the future and discussing how to plan ahead. GHC offers us a place to discuss our hopes and fears, as well as to offer and receive guidance. Being able to talk to women at all different stages of their careers is invaluable. Seeing 12,000 women together, in one place, supporting a common cause helps you believe that any dream is within your reach. You are not alone!

4. Career fair

This circles back to #1. Networking at the career fair is like you

have never seen before. The conference needed an entire building for the companies who sought representation while actively interviewing and hiring conference participants. Also, companies use tons of free swag as a gateway to conversation between themselves and prospective hires. Brownie points to Cisco for screen printing shirts on the spot with the name of the conference and a cyber crime superhero named Penelope!

5. Yes, companies do care about diversity

A common perception is that companies focus solely on hiring people with the highest test scores, the most impressive resumes, and those who have won the most hackathons. Don’t get me wrong, we should be hiring those kind of individuals, but companies are also interested in complimenting the workforce with qualities we bring as human beings. For example, I take note of companies who ask me about my work as a Hospice Volunteer and ones who purposefully use inclusive language. Companies at GHC, and their employees who gave talks, demonstrated a particular interest in diversity, including the need for more empathy in the computing world.

These companies get excited when they learn about a person working on the intersection between design, art, and computer science. For example, Miral Kotb and her team of rock star dancers at iLuminate took the stage at GHC to show off the awe-inspiring combination of dance and software engineering! This is the space in which innovation takes flight. Diversity on our teams will take us there.

6. It must come from the top

Diversity needs to be something that companies value from the top-down. This includes opening the door for more female CEOs and board room executives.

I am proud to say that Ionic has two women vice presidents. Can your company say the same? If yes, awesome, carry on! If not, please take a look around and ask yourselves why that is. There is still much work to do. As an intern, I was invited to have lunch with several higher ups, which really shows that Ionic values even the newest and youngest employees. Support from the top-down highly influences the decision to get involved with one company over another.

7. Need more cowbell: I mean, confidence

There is a huge problem with confidence in our industry. I’m not talking about the guys who have been programming forever, or people who were naturally self-taught. I’m talking about the millions of people who haven’t even tried computer science yet. I’m talking about students in their first class. I’m talking about students in every class. I’m talking about talented graduates afraid to apply because they don’t think they are good enough. I’m talking about skilled engineers who never ask for that raise or that promotion because they don’t think they have a chance at getting what they want. The time is now to stop with the self-deprecation.

The time is now to lift each other up and help match people’s dreams with opportunity. Sometimes it takes a thousand noes before you get one yes. It is up to us to encourage each other to try in the first place, to take that first step and put yourself out there. If you want to help in this area, start by complimenting people you admire. Start by pushing your friends to reach a little higher and tell them not to be afraid of failure. There is no such thing as failure. There are only opportunities for growth.

8. Strength in numbers

Some colleagues of mine attended a showing of “Debugging the Gender Gap,” a startling film that showcases why we have a gender gap and ideas on how to change. This documentary points out the story of Julie from GitHub and how scary it was for her to become a victim of internet violence. By coming together at GHC and making space to talk openly about our successes and our struggles, we give voice to very serious issues facing women today. Sometimes one voice is loud enough to make a difference, and sometimes we need the voices of many.

Online violence against women is just one situation in which we need that strength and support. If you hear unacceptable language, or worse yet, see physical violence happening, it is imperative to speak up. Exercise love-based thought rather than fear-based though. Help raise people up rather than tearing them down.

9. New Technologies & Research

New technologies are emerging all around the globe. While GHC has an emphasis on climate and atmosphere in the tech world, it also provides opportunities for researchers and industry professionals to showcase their technical work. It’s almost impossible to find time between work and school to explore all the new toys and tools that we learned about at Grace Hopper. Specifically, I learned about anonymous encryption, open source, data science, NASA and the aerospace industry, brain-to-piano monitoring, wearable tech (a dress used as a hearing aid), “inclusive VR” (create virtual bodies that are not always male), autonomous robotics, advances in algorithms for transportation, machine learning, and software used to help identify problem areas in the hiring pipeline.

10. Reinforced value in your own company

Look, I’m not shy. I love my company! Being at GHC really reinforced the fact that I am completely inspired by Ionic’s mission, and that we are doing many things right. There area lot of ups and downs in life and in business. Being exposed to so many different topics and discussions at GHC can also confirm or reaffirm what things you and your company are doing right.

Women and persons from other underrepresented groups want to solve the big problems of our world. It will take diverse minds to combat the complex issues of today and tomorrow. Together, our creativity will build the world in which we want to live: a world where privacy is restored, where people help each other, where education is accessible, and one in which we collaborate and rejoice in each other’s uniqueness as well as in the places where we overlap.

A huge thank you to Ionic Security for showing me they care about these issues and for doing their part in contributing to diversity in tech.