(v)GHC 2020: What I Learned While Pretending to be in Orlando

As I logged on and got comfortable in my seat to attend this year’s virtual edition of the Grace Hopper Conference (vGHC), messages of skepticism and curiosity flooded the #ghc Slack channel we created for Zocdoc attendees to come together during the event.

If you’re not already familiar with the Grace Hopper conference, check out my colleague Alegría’s post here. I, along with many others, expressed disappointment that we couldn’t journey as a group to Orlando (or another warmer destination); my bedroom-turned-office doesn’t quite elicit the same excitement as a stadium full of fellow female technologists.

I wondered: would I still benefit from attending this year? Is it possible to stir up inspiration via a computer screen amidst these chaotic times? After attending various keynotes, sessions and workshops, the answer was overwhelmingly, yes.

Below are some of our key takeaways from this year’s vGHC. Not only do our learnings show that some ideas and emotions can be shared regardless of the medium and circumstances, but I hope they also encourage others to attend in the future.

Key Takeaway #1: A sense of community can be fostered remotely.

The learning curve of attending this virtual conference spurred the most activity I’ve ever seen in a Slack channel. We all had the same questions and apprehensions upon navigating the conference interface:

  • How can I ask questions to session presenters? Can we chat with the presenters?
  • Are the sessions really live? If so, the presenters are very smooth. They lacked the typical question of, “Can you all see my screen?”.
  • What content will be made available offline? Why are workshops capped?

But beyond our curiosities, our #ghc Slack channel fostered a sense of togetherness. We shared reminders of upcoming keynotes and started threads of discussion for each topic. For workshops that had limited capacity, we shared our learnings with those who couldn’t attend.

Surprisingly, the virtual environment allowed us to reflect and discuss the presentations in real time. Jess Peck, a data scientist on the Search team noted, “Conversing over Slack concurrently with the session presentations was a unique benefit of this year.” In person, it’s also possible that we would have been too distracted by the commotion of the arena to truly appreciate the value of each presentation. Although we weren’t together physically, there was a strong spirit of camaraderie. Watching a session with fellow Zocdoc’rs still felt like we shared a community. Community in this way was largely a function of the setting rather than the content.

Beyond the Zocdoc community, the conference built a larger community around shared experiences. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that this vGHC, due to its virtual nature, brought in a record number of attendees, with over 30,000 people based in 115 different countries. Our geographic separation was bridged by the same issues: challenges of working in tech as part of an underrepresented group, with additional challenges brought on by the pandemic. Many sessions reminded us that we aren’t alone in facing the unique challenges of this time. Other attendees felt the same obstacles of burnout, balancing other activities, and anxiety. I appreciated that some content was so reflective of these times.

Some of the most compelling sessions addressed enduring topics and obstacles like impostor syndrome and negotiating tactics. It was somewhat comforting to see many sessions fill up way ahead of their start times. Common topics among conversations revealed that regardless of many facets of our identities, we shared many of the same problems and fears. Acqualine Lobo, a member of the QA team in Zocdoc’s Pune office, shared that during the conference she could “see a common thread. It’s all universal”.

Some presentations highlighted ways to capitalize on our communities. Keynote speaker Megan Rapinoe advised us to “throw our ladders down”. Beyond participating in communities around us, we should facilitate other members’ growth by sharing the tools, resources, and advice that we found helpful. I love the metaphor of support as rungs of a ladder on a journey towards female upward growth and advancement.

Key Takeaway #2: Given the growing prevalence of technology in our lives, diverse representation in developing tech is key.

Many of the sessions at this year’s vGHC emphasized that tech is truly integrating itself into every aspect of our lives — whether at home, on our bodies, or for our work and recreation. For example, I was amazed to hear Swetha Prabakaran explain the future of DanceTech, with innovations in training and performance. That said, the homogenous group of people that make up the majority of the tech industry have a vast amount of power in designing our futures. The potential consequences of a homogenous group driving the future of tech is boundless; one likely result is the creation of products that do not reflect us as a society.

For instance, many of us may have one or more “smart assistant” responding to our every request. After listening to “Home Automation and Inclusive Design” by Rachel Been and Kate Freebairn of Google, I thought more closely about how seemingly helpful devices may perpetuate unintended biases. The ingrained bias of a female assistant is the somewhat obvious takeaway to women working in technology, and we in tech need to think more carefully about what we set as our “default settings” in our systems. But worse, I cringed when someone hit on the Amazon Echo and it responded, “I’d blush if I could.” What kind of message does that send if technologists make light of sexualizing a “female” assistive device? I wonder if that would be the Echo’s response if a more diverse group were responsible for creating the device or training its models.

Problematic bias is rife even in online dictionaries and encyclopedias. Janeen Uzzell, COO of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs Wikipedia, emphasized the basic importance of documentation in her talk, “Who Tells Your Story — How Technology Can Help Amplify Underrepresented Voices”. Only 18% of the millions of biographical profiles on English-speaking Wikipedia are about women, and that impact is widespread. Wikipedia has more than 1.5 billion monthly users from unique devices, which for context, exceeds Instagram. Janeen emphasized that, while lack of representation on the platform is a problem, the bigger problem is the lack of diverse contribution. Of Wikipedia’s 250,000+ editors, most are white and male, and that leads to inaccuracies and incomplete stories on behalf of diverse populations.

In the Wikipedia on cornrows, for example, key information was missing on the history and context of a hairstyle traditionally worn by black women. It was clear that the article wasn’t written by anyone with authority on the subject. Janeen reflected, “Without an understanding of the rich and regal history of cornrows, you can’t appreciate the excitement of a young girl who is getting her hair braided and twisted for the first day of school.” With that anecdote, she made it clear that the internet’s wide breadth of information can be made much more powerful if we include varying contributors. Physicist and 2020 Change Agent Abie Award winner Dr. Jess Wade took matters into her own hands on this front, and she has been writing Wikipedia articles on women and people of color every night since 2018. She just finished her 1001th article. 👏

Other talks at vGHC introduced me to types of diverse talent I otherwise haven’t been exposed to that might be missing in the tech industry. In “Inclusivity Power-Up: Lessons Learned Mentoring Formerly Incarcerated Software Engineers,” Morgan Weaver of 98Point6 discussed her experience volunteering with Un-loop, a program aimed at reducing recidivism by teaching software engineering to formerly incarcerated people. She mentioned that her mentees often learned engineering without internet access. That is an incredible feat, and I commend the organization for working to increase representation in the industry among those with distinctive perspectives.

Key Takeaway #3: There are actionable steps to improve inclusion in our organizations.

Many of the talks that focused on inclusive representation didn’t just identify the problem, but also offered solutions that we can apply to our work at Zocdoc. A recent initiative at Zocdoc has been the creation of formal ERGs, or Employee Resource Groups, which are Zocdoc-supported, team-member led communities that aim to bring Zocdoc’rs together around shared beliefs, identity, social issues, experiences and perspectives to foster an environment of inclusion. Jess Peck of the Search team, who co-leads one of our new ERGs, Women in Tech, had a chance to attend a few talks centered around these types of organizations. She noted helpful tips like, “ask members to bring an ally with them to events. Otherwise, sometimes allies think events are not for them.”

Some Zocdoc’rs who attended discussed how they will promote inclusivity in their daily product work. Acqualine reflected, “As a QA, I could be more aware of ensuring representation. Ensuring that our product is whole, and not biased. I’ve brainstormed quite a few ideas to make our product more inclusive.”

Some learnings are applicable to any tech organization, and I hope vGHC participants across the industry are moving to implement them. Keynote speaker Ellen Pao encouraged organizations to measure themselves against the highest benchmarks and best performers in recruiting and retaining diverse talent; it’s not enough to aspire to match average numbers for the large players in tech. Another talk urged us as underrepresented people in tech to push our managers to overcome “protective hesitation” in giving feedback to maximize our career growth.

There were also plenty of technical and skill development opportunities.

Despite the number of non-technical takeaways, the team still gained plenty in technical knowledge from attending vGHC. Natalie Romero, a member of Zocdoc’s integration support team, noted that at vGHC, “I got to build my technical skills. Being able to see what is out there, particularly learning about open source and being able to contribute, that is pretty amazing.” Other members also had the chance to branch out of their typical roles. Acqualine and Prachi Vahile of Zocdoc’s integration support team, who usually concentrate on QA and data analysis work, had the opportunity to solidify some Git skills and experiment with open source. For me, I was able to bring learnings back to my team about service availability, re-engineering legacy products, product development processes with our UX team, and more.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was worth attending with an open mind.

Even though we managed to gain a lot from the conference, the remote setting was not short on challenges. The conference had obvious shortcomings, like the loss of Q + A at the end of each session, and the career fair for those using GHC as a means to access new employment prospects. It’s also much easier to get pulled back into daily work when you’re still available on Slack, as opposed to being fully immersed in the out of town conference. Alegría Baquero, an engineer on the Search team, reflected based on her years of prior attendance (read more about her prior experience here), “What you lose is the energy, the interactions, meeting people from other companies.”

However, the conference changed my view on the possible gains from attending various virtual events in this uncertain time ahead. It was uplifting and inspiring, both feelings needed by many during right now. I hope the lessons learned stick with attendees, and that they use them to create change within their organizations and communities.

We’d like to thank AnitaB.org for the effort put into maintaining this annual inspiring celebration. You can be sure to catch Zocdoc’r’s at GHC (in whatever format it may be) next year!

About The Author

Melissa Masia is a software engineer on the Provider team at Zocdoc. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, doing yoga, and reading nonfiction.

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