10+ Things that men can learn from attending Grace Hopper's Women in Computing Conference

On October 3-6 2012, several thousand gathered in Baltimore, Maryland at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference.  The conference -- one of the initiatives of the Anita Borg Institute -- is the largest technical conference for women in computing in the world and results in collaborative proposals, networking and mentoring for junior women and increased visibility for the contributions of top technical women and researchers in computing.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, “although women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) jobs. This has been the case throughout the past decade, even as college educated women have increased their share of the overall workforce.”

I was invited to attend as part of a Technical Executive forum in hope of learning and bringing best practices back to our team (Twitter and Blog).

I came away with a few things from the conference that really stuck with me:

  1. Technology is awesome – it is an amazing time to be in computing! On Friday, University of Virginia and a Professor of Computer Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science Anita K. Jones talked about the impact of information technology on the world and the speed of change. One big takeaway is that we live in a magical time – the impact and influence that technology is having on everything we do is amazing – and for those in the field, the employment opportunities are just as amazing. There are twice as many jobs in information technology than all other engineering jobs combined. Robert Half released the 2013 salary guide, showing tremendous growth in a number of high tech jobs, suggesting that “Competition is expected to be particularly fierce for professionals who can support mobile, big data, cloud and virtualization initiatives.” The pervasiveness and optimism of students at the conference was energizing.
  2. Diverse teams foster a culture of increased creativity, collaboration, and  innovation. Having women on the team helps! The keynote for Thursday was delivered by Intuit’s Nora Denzel. She presented the latest formal and informal research on how having women on development teams helps companies develop a competitive advantage.  She discussed how women think differently and how that thinking will improve the bottom line. She used the example of the first machine gun - invented by a man – and the first bullet proof vest - developed by a woman.  Hmm… from voice automation to airbags, it wasn’t until women engineers joined the teams that they experienced break-through innovation. 

    I enjoyed her story of a research project that sent teams from several universities to Africa to help build clean water systems.  These teams were made up of a diverse set of social scientists, engineers, business and art students working together. The women in the villages were the ones responsible for getting the water and ensure children and families had water and were experienced in tackling the challenge of clean water. Women on the project teams were able to connect directly with women in the villages to find creative solutions.

  3. GHC is an incredibly inspiring conference. There are inspiring individual stories, and there is the overall success story of the advancement of women in technology fields. Nora Denzel had a great talk - and had several inspiring stories and quotes:  “Your attitude is like a flat tire - if you don't change it, you're not going anywhere,”  “Things don't happen TO you, they happen FOR you” and “You are either comfortable OR you are growing – but never both.” 

    Seeing thousands celebrate progress towards a shared goal is inspiring. As Nora said in her keynote, one of the reasons to work in computer science is that “you have the chance to change the world – you can work on things that change people’s lives.” Technology can change the world.

  4. When gathered in one place, the sheer number of smart technical women is powerful, impressive, and impactful. In most of the jobs I’ve had in software, there have been more men than women. Though I’ve been more aware in the last year of the tech population, there’s nothing more impactful than living it – and realizing what an impressive force a large body of technical women can be– and perhaps raising a question for me about how well we are leveraging these amazing talents.
  5. The majority of the GHC presentations are technical, educational, and applicable – regardless of gender. In their discussion on How to be a Thought Leader, Denise Brosseau,
    Shelley Evenson, Janet H. Murray, Nina Bhatti, and Candice Brown Elliott all shared great tips on the thought leader as a change agent, suggesting that aspiring thought leaders work first on building credibility, then using that credibility to create a path for others to follow. Think about credentials, expertise, and passion – and use those three elements in overlapping circles to be a change agent.

    Opportunity never comes wrapped in a big bow.

    In a discussion on Building Your Professional Network, Miche Baker-Harvey from Google and Elizabeth Bautista from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab talked about networking as a way to establish your brand. Think about networking as what you can GIVE to others, not what you get – and curate both a vertical network of those in jobs you aspire to - as well as a horizontal network of peers across your industry.

    Valentina Salapura and Maja Vukovic, researchers from IBM, discussed using productivity games to help with cloud computing.  Among others, there were presentations on mobility, big data, social computing, education, and innovation.

    Nora Denzel spoke of mentoring walks – the idea of walking instead of sitting while being a mentor or mentee – a great idea!

  6. A new environment will raise awareness and influence how you think and act.
    It’s always beneficial to take risks, put yourself in new situations and be open to learning from others.  Beyond the obvious demographic differences, the most powerful and impressive thing I experienced was the singularity of focus on a common goal. Being able to experience firsthand what it’s like to be one among many, I am more aware of what that feels like than I was last week. By being more aware, not just of the goals around women in technology, but what it feels like to be in a significant minority, I think I can be a better manager, better employee, and better co-worker – than I was before I attended GHC.
  7. There are lots of incredible engineering students doing amazing work.
    I met and heard from dozens of incredible students, from undergraduate to PhD, who are doing interesting work in, among other things, parallel computing, mapping, algorithms, operating system research, social computing, IT in third world countries and security. The Career Fair was crowded all week with interesting students.
  8. The attendees were welcoming and inclusive.
    When I arrived, I was unsure how my attendance would be viewed. As I learned more and spent more time amongst attendees, I felt more and more welcome. A rough estimate was that 2-3% of the attendees were men, but I felt included and welcome everywhere I went.  One of my goals for next year is to recruit more men at Microsoft to attend the conference. The number of women in technology fields who attended was remarkable, but this is an area where all of us (men and women) can make a huge difference.
  9. Great opportunities to network
    The importance of this was underscored by the “Building your Professional Network” talk. I met dozens of great people, and reconnected with some I already knew. The alignment of shared goals and focus of the conference really helped bring people with like minds together.
  10. Women share research, give talks about career-related situations, feelings, and thoughts that men have too, but men, in my experience, typically don’t talk about these, even one on one.
    This was fascinating – I was really able to identify with talks about being put in situations that challenge self-confidence (literally, while I was sitting in the audience – and how these were presentations and conference sessions, whereas I’d never had more than maybe one or two 5-minute discussions ever – in 25 years – on these same topics.

    For example, the “Imposter Syndrome” was discussed and mentioned several times throughout the week. According to Wikipedia, “despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.”  I think everyone experiences this to some degree, and the studies show that it’s not gender specific, but I found it useful and interesting that it was discussed openly, where my experience has been that these feelings are not openly discussed.Many others have written on the conference  – check out this link and Twitter #GHC12NBC, and the Grace Hopper.org RSS feed.

    Also, check out NetHope’s TechConnect initiative, the Anita Borg Institute and Equal Futures.

    On a personal note, I was pleased to meet many of the more than 150 others from Microsoft (including several men), most of whom I had not met before – and I was able to reconnect with a few of our summer interns who were attending with their universities. It was cool to see co-workers presenting in technical forums and made me personally proud to work in an industry and at a company that’s so supportive of the growth and advancement of women in technology. 

    I would highly recommend that men, particularly, managers working in high tech STEM fields, attend the Grace Hopper Conference – next year will be in Minneapolis. I did not know what to expect, but the experience was incredibly inspiring, rewarding, and valuable - and I definitely plan to attend again.

    If you are interested and want to learn more about my experience, please reach out – to either our lead, RaneJ@microsoft.com – or to me, Rosss@microsoft.com.  There’s lots of great stuff here and a tremendous opportunity for all of us to improve the world of technology by celebrating our differences. By the way, thank you for reading this far.  A bonus for number 11 is:

  11. Just because the sign says “Men’s Room” doesn’t make it so. ‘Nuff said
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