Reverse Engineer an Awesome Grace Hopper Celebration Experience

Zocdoc Engineering
Dec 10, 2019 · 12 min read

I will never forget the excitement of attending the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC), the largest gathering of women in computing, for the first time in 2014. While I wasn’t sure what to expect, I never anticipated the energy and inspiration I felt, nor the influence that GHC would have on me lasting far beyond those incredible days at the conference.

This past October, I had the pleasure of attending GHC once again, this time with a group of my colleagues at Zocdoc. The same emotions rushed back, and I felt very fortunate to be where I am, working on what I love with smart and supportive people—in part thanks to the confidence and stamina instilled by this celebration.

Grace Hopper is a catalyst for change towards a more inclusive tech industry by empowering women technologists at all stages of our careers, and promoting our “recruitment, retention, and advancement.”

Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or planning to attend the conference for the very first time, here is some information on how to get the most out of your Grace Hopper experience.

Some history about the Grace Hopper Celebration

The first Grace Hopper Celebration took place in Washington, DC, in 1994. It was founded by Dr. Anita Borg and Dr. Telle Whitney, women technologists who realized that the already small percentage of women in computer science was shrinking as the field was increasingly considered a branch of engineering.

The conference is named in honor of Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, a computing pioneer and member of the Navy since World War II. She is best known for popularizing high-level programming languages that led to the development of COBOL, working on Harvard’s Mark I while in the Navy, and developing the UNIVAC I, the first commercial digital computer.

I fell in love with Grace Hopper’s witty personality as she illustrates the speed of a nanosecond through a piece of wire. Her career and the long-lasting impact of her contributions are honored every year in a celebration to recognize the achievements of women technologists, advance and empower women in their technical careers, increase opportunities for women in technology, and create strong networks.

Dr. Whitney once said that technology will define our future and the future of the next generations, so women are fundamental in shaping it

What should I expect attending Grace Hopper Celebration?

First and foremost, amazing and brilliant women who will inspire you to keep doing what we do. More specifically, the conference hosts:

Introducing women whose contributions are incredibly impactful, such as creating accessible technologies for autistic children, innovating on new propulsion technologies for satellites, or providing low-cost cervical cancer screening technologies for underserved communities. It’s hard to describe the energy. You need to experience it firsthand.

Technical and career development talks: Technical tracks include Software Engineering, HCI, Data Science, Hardware, Security and Privacy, among others. Career-oriented topics address advancement challenges, leadership, entrepreneurship, inclusion, mentorship, career choices, effective networking, and work/life balance. The talks are presented in the following formats:

  • Panels involve group discussions around a specific topic.
  • Presentations convey knowledge on a specific topic or technology.
  • Workshops are interactive sessions to train and demonstrate tools.
  • Tech meetups allow discussion following a short presentation.
  • Mentorship circles provide small group discussions guided by a mentor.
  • Poster sessions showcase new technologies within the industry and academia.

Attending and seeking funding

If you plan to attend GHC, I strongly recommend adding the registration date to your calendar and setting an alarm to register as early as possible. It usually fills up within the first 2–3 hours.

If you are a full-time student or faculty within a Computer Science or a related program:

There are many funding options to attend GHC. AnitaB.org offers scholarships for both students and faculty covering registration, accommodations, airfare, and a travel stipend. Additionally, many companies and organizations, such as Google, Facebook, and Goldman Sachs, also offer scholarships for students. As a student at UC Irvine, I was fortunate enough to be awarded scholarships to attend GHC from Microsoft and Intuit in 2012 and 2014. Be on the lookout for these opportunities!

If you are an industry professional:

I encourage you to talk to your manager and advocate for financial support to attend GHC. Zocdoc recognizes the importance of promoting diversity within our tech organization, fostering stronger connections between women engineers, designers, and managers.

This year, a team of Zocdocr’s attended the conference. Among us, there were two of our male managers, eager to learn how they can play a role in making tech a more inclusive, fair, and welcoming environment for female engineers. Following the conference, we shared our experience with the entire company, highlighting the importance of empowering, recognizing, and retaining women technologists, and of making our teams more diverse. Thank you Zocdoc for this awesome experience 💗

Zocdoc team at GHC 2019. From top left to bottom right: Kunal Mudgal, Anchal Dube, Courtney Epstein, Laura Wade, Judith Park-Ebeling, Leah Hays, Karan Bhatia, Alegría Baquero, Mawunyo Akabua, Katie Huang.

Industry-wise, we are still a long way from achieving 50/50 equity by 2025-AnitaB.org’s mantra-but raising awareness of this disparity within our institutions and getting their support to attend these events will help us get there.

Strategies towards attending GHC

Grace Hopper can be overwhelming for a first-time (and even returning) attendee to navigate. This year, there were around 350 talks-with 15 concurrently happening at any given time-therefore your biggest challenge is choosing which talks to attend.

I’ve experimented with four different strategies to make the most of my time at GHC. In my experience, your approach should largely depend on your interests, career stage, and what you want to gain from the conference. Here are the best tips I’ve learned and a few personal recommendations to consider as you’re thinking about and planning your own adventure:

The Specialist

You know what you want. You work in a particular area and want to deepen your knowledge, or you want to learn a specific technology. You curate your schedule intending to later apply the knowledge you gained within your organization. Nope, you can’t miss that workshop on Docker.

Tip: Pay attention to the audience level of each talk so that you don’t end up attending introductory presentations on topics you already know.

The Explorer

To you, the world is an endless sea of discovery. You leave your comfort zone with the desire to expand your horizons and are eager to discover new technologies of which you know nothing about. I was intrigued by, for example, Quantum Computing-who knew that the caffeine molecule cannot be represented properly with current computers?

Tip: Note the intended audience level; if you are brand new to the topic, you may not get much out of attending an advanced-level talk.

The Introspect

You are at a turning point in your career, choosing between industry and academia or between management and a technical path. You may also experience, like many of us have, impostor syndrome. You may be having some challenges at your workplace, have been treated differently due to your gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, or are having a non-ideal relationship with your manager or coworkers. Maybe you are having an existential crisis that is hindering your professional stardom.

Tip: GHC is the place to be when you are at a crossroads. This year, there were more than 80 panels and presentations addressing fundamental issues around career growth, inclusion, diversity, and healthy work cultures.

The Hybrid

You want it all. You understand the world is a complex place, a balance between specialization and exploration, between introspection and bold actions. You attend talks you are unfamiliar with to learn something new, but also familiar topics to solidify your knowledge.

Tip: Your multi-armed bandit strategies may come in handy. Being a hybrid this time around, I feel I gained a more comprehensive view of the conference, learning about the role of machine learning in wildlife conservation, the impact of AI in product design principles, techniques to hinder gender discrimination, and the benefits and challenges of “Function as a Service.”

The bottom line

….is that you can’t go wrong. There are so many interesting talks that your time will be spent well no matter what you choose. Remember, there is an opportunity cost given the plethora of options and not enough hours in the day so you may want to plan ahead.

How to plan

The conference schedule and a map of the venue are available through the website and its mobile app. This year, the site/app allowed reserving a seat in a session and adding it to your calendar. Even without a reservation, you can walk in, unless the talk is very popular, but you might have to wait in line longer and perhaps lose the best seat. My recommendation is, if possible, taking the time to reserve the talks you really want to attend and bookmark those “nice to have” so you have them ready if they fit into your schedule. Check regularly for updates from the site/app as details may change.

Something important to consider is the distance between conference rooms. Usually, GHC is hosted in a large convention center, often spanning neighboring hotels. DO NOT be surprised by a 10–15 minute walk between sessions. If you are planning to attend consecutive sessions, I recommend looking at the conference map in advance to check if it is feasible. Also, give yourself some breather time between sessions, grab a coffee, or meet up with a friend.

A more spontaneous approach is to look at the schedule and see what catches your eye from the later sessions scheduled nearby.

Extending your network

Grace Hopper is the best place to network. It allows you to meet people with similar interests through panels and presentations, and also hosts receptions promoting diverse communities. For instance, I am a proud member of Latinas in Computing, a community whose goal is to support and promote Latinas in our industry.

Reception Celebrating Latinas in Technical Roles, Grace Hopper Celebration 2019

There are many other communities that meet up at GHC, such as Black Women in Computing, the LGBTQ-A community, Student ResearcHers, among others. There are also networking opportunities for academic faculty, researchers, and mid-career professionals. The goal of these groups is to promote diversity in STEM, celebrate leaders in our communities, create stronger networks, and make us proud of who we are and what we bring to the table.

I cannot emphasize how important it is to network at GHC; I would argue that it is the most important aspect of the conference. You may meet your next mentor, a career contact who is a job reference, or a long-lasting friend.

If you are shy, don’t worry! This is not about turning into a social butterfly overnight. Attend a luncheon or dinner and mingle with those at your table, adding people you meet to your LinkedIn contacts or taking a picture of their badges.

Lastly, if you are a seasoned professional or a recurrent Grace Hopper attendee, please pay it forward. There are many opportunities to mentor and give others your invaluable advice.

Career fair and networking events

GHC hosts one of the largest career fairs with more than 450 participants. It is an excellent opportunity to meet and ask questions to potential employers, find out about new company initiatives, and interview on-site. If you plan to interview, try to schedule it before the conference and come prepared to rock it. The career fair is open for the duration of the conference, so it is a fun venue to wander around between sessions, talk to people, and get some cool swag.

Also, many companies host fun networking events designed to help you meet people. They usually take place in nearby hotels, restaurants, or other entertainment venues. You may receive an invitation to attend by email; otherwise, you can ask about at the organizers’ career fair booth, or apply online by doing some research. Look for these events in advance because they tend to fill up quickly.

The conference also hosts a party on the last evening that can’t be missed. There is music, food, fun activities-but above all everyone is joyful and energized. It’s the cherry on top of the GHC experience.

Tip: If your company or school is sponsoring you, I encourage you to wear your branded t-shirts so that you promote your organization throughout the conference.

Getting involved and supporting GHC

There are many ways to volunteer for the GHC program and logistics, as well as support AnitaB.org’s initiatives.

Apply to be a speaker

If you are interested in contributing to the conference’s program, you can apply to be a speaker by submitting a proposal. The conference website describes the scope and content expectations for the different tracks, as well as the submission guidelines for the various session formats. This is a great opportunity to get exposure, broadcast your contributions, and promote your academic/industry organization.

If you are an entrepreneur, this opportunity is for you. The competition awards seed funding for your business enterprise, plus being in the top 10 finalist awards you a complimentary conference registration, and covers your travel and lodging expenses. It also gives you great exposure to pitch your idea to other potential investors.

Become a Committee Member

All panels, presentations, and workshops go through a peer-review process. You can apply, usually early in the year, to become part of the committee which reviews these submissions within a specific track. This year I had the pleasure of being part of the Software Engineering committee. It was an incredibly fulfilling experience to be a part of this great event and to be more involved in our community.

Part of the Software Engineering Track Committee, GHC 2019

Be a scholarship reviewer

Volunteers also review student scholarship applications. Allowing the next generation of technologists to have this amazing experience is definitely something you could get involved with. Committee members and scholarship reviewers also get discounted conference registration and are treated with a lovely luncheon at the conference to network with each other. It also lets us reflect on the process.

Become a Hopper

Hoppers are on-site volunteers, for example, by directing attendees to their next session and making sure microphones and screens work in each session. Hoppers are rewarded with complimentary conference registration.

Join Systers

Anita Borg started Systers in 1987, an online community that brings together women at any stage of their tech careers. Their mailing list provides a job board, technical information resources, and diverse topic discussions.

Donate to AnitaB.org

You can also pay it forward by supporting Women in Computing by donating to this organization or purchasing GHC swag at the conference. This money helps fund GHC scholars, the PitchHer competition, and other women in STEM programs.

Why is it important to attend GHC

Grace Hopper is an inspiring place and has made a significant impact on my career. It has given me a confidence boost and the affirmation that I belong in this field that I love. The uplifting talks have given me momentum to keep growing and discovering. After three wonderful days, I left re-energized, even prouder to be a woman in computing, and ready to take on the world.

As a community, we need to strive towards diversity in our schools and organizations; create stronger networks among diversity groups; broadcast our achievements; revisit our recruitment process to be more inclusive; share our experiences; provide mentorship; pave the way for future generations of technologists and elevate each other.

In an interview, Telle Whitney asked how would the world change if women had more impact on technology. Now is the time to enact that change and have a more inclusive future, whatever that may be. This is our mission as women in technology, and I am thrilled to be part of it.

About the Author

Alegría Baquero is a Senior Software Engineer in the Sponsored Results and Telehealth team. She moved from Ecuador, her home country, to California where she received her Ph.D. in Information and Computer Science at the University of California, Irvine (2014).


Originally published at https://www.zocdoc.com/about/blog/tech/grace-hopper-celebration-2019 on December 10, 2019.

Zocdoc Engineering

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The Zocdoc Technology Team

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