My employer recently sent me to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing — which is basically an 8,000-attendee-and-growing conference centered on removing the barriers that keep women from technology. It was a great opportunity to see some wonderful speakers, connect with amazing people, and remember that I wasn’t alone in this very male-dominated field.
It was also a chance to get a selfie with CTO of the United States (and fellow MIT alum) Megan Smith.
But here’s the thing. I’m kinda old. I graduated 1.5 years ago, and originally applied to MIT in 2006(!). And as I fade into irrelevance and pursue my post-MIT adventures, I have less to offer you. But! I still know undergrads!
I bumped into Lilly C. ’17 at the conference, and she was willing to write up her experience at Grace Hopper this year. I hope you all enjoy.
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to attend the 2014 Grace Hopper Celebration thanks to funding from TechX and the MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department. The Grace Hopper Celebration is the largest conference for women in computing, catering to all levels of technical ability, including undergraduate students.
When I applied for the TechX scholarship, I was really excited about getting the chance to learn more about how other female engineers dealt with gender inequality in their careers. Grace Hopper certainly did not disappoint; I really appreciated the openness and wide-ranging dialogue at the conference. At the keynote, the speaker asked everyone who was the only woman in their workplace to stand up and be recognized. I was really surprised by how many women stood up. Although I had been aware of these issues to some extent (being the only girl on my high school robotics build and programming team led to some interesting situations), it was quite enlightening to see how these issues played out on a larger scale – as well as seeing how people were actively trying to create change. People here weren’t afraid to speak up, as evidenced by the huge hubbub that sparked from remarks made by Microsoft’s CEO. In the most striking case for me, Yoky Matsuoda, the VP of Technology at Nest, she admitted that she didn’t do enough to negotiate her salary and benefits upon joining Nest. I’m very interested in Matsudoa’s neuroscience and robotics research as well as her ability to juggle family life with an incredible work life, so it was really fascinating to hear her reveal her own difficulties in her career path. I really appreciated the opportunity to think more about career decisions as well as the affirmation that other people cared as deeply about these issues as I do.
Although Grace Hopper was definitely a great place for career planning, I do wish that there was more of a focus on higher-level technical talks. Most of the technical talks that I went were on an overview level and didn’t have as much meat as I would have liked. For example, “Linux Hacking 101” focused more on how to get involved in the Linux community and less on how to understand the system or the fundamentals of the kernel. Many of this technical detail that I craved was probably in the poster session which I unfortunately had to miss due to scheduled interviews. I got a chance to skim the posters after the main presentation time and found many interesting ones that I wish I could have asked the presenter about.
One surprising and really unintended side effect of the conference was that I found out that I still really enjoy biology. As I was packing and heading home, I realized that the talks that I enjoyed the most all had biological applications. Anne Condon’s talk on DNA programming offered an interesting way to abstract chemical reactions and DNA folding behavior to a generalized version of computing, while Avani Wildani gave a great whirlwind overview of new directions in computational biology. It really encouraged me to continue to stay generalized and pursue my interest in biology rather than getting too specific too early. While MIT does tend to foster incredible depth into one specific field, I’m trying to stay broad and pursue all my interests, letting myself take biology and mechanical engineering classes out of interest, not because I need to fill out my prerequisite sheet. This is a really hard luxury to take advantage of at MIT, but these talks made me realize that there certainly is value in staying broad.
However, the biggest highlight of the conference for me was definitely meeting up with old friends that I totally didn’t realize were going to be there. The schools they went to now certainly ran the gamut: Princeton, Harvey Mudd, Harvard, Yale, Swarthmore and most surprisingly, a friend from elementary school who now goes to Stanford. I hadn’t seen these people in several years, yet we all were able to meet up thanks to our love of computer science.
Relatedly, I do wish that I had made more friends at the conference. There were nearly 8,000 people at the conference, and it was incredibly intimidating when people showed up en masse to interact with anyone. It was very easy for me to just stick with people I knew from MIT or earlier rather than try to talk to others (even after attending the talk “Networking for Introverts” at Grace Hopper). I really appreciate Abra S. (’16) dragging me along on a crazy adventure to the Desert Botanical Garden with some new friends that she had made just by chatting with some people she was standing next to in line. Trying to leave my comfort zone and spark conversations with people is definitely something that I’ll need to work on in the future.
In short, I had a great time at the Grace Hopper Celebration and definitely would like to come back in the future. The community of women there provides great support for female students, industry engineers and academic researchers and I definitely feel that at each juncture in my career, Grace Hopper would provide a great foundation of advice and opportunities.