Happy Times at Grace Hopper 2011

This year, November 9th through 11th, I went to my first technical convention. The Grace Hopper Celebrating Women in Computing is not your typical convention, however. It is plugged as primarily for women attendees (men were, of course, welcome but it turns out very few elected to come). It is held in a different city in the United States every fall and I was lucky enough to have it come near me this year, Portland, Oregon. Not only that, but as a student, I was selected through lottery to become a Hopper, which is a student volunteer at the convention. This meant that in exchange for a few hours of my time during the weekend I would receive a refund on my entrance fee. Not an insignificant amount of money. Even though it was in the middle of my school semester, all my professors made allowances for me to go and my computer science professor was particularly enthusiastic that all the women in his class attend.

I knew all this was going to be a huge opportunity for me to grow as a woman in technology and as a person in general. I didn’t fully realize how much of an effect it was going to have on me until I was a part of it.

I arrived at my hotel the evening before the convention opened. I had to be at the convention center before 7 am in order to get debriefed on my Hopper shifts. I wanted to get to my hotel with plenty of time to walk around and time how long it would take me to get to various places, but I ended up packing and repacking so many times that we didn’t get there until 8:30 at night. Now, bear in mind, that my house is a 30 minute drive to the hotel room. I was packing out of sheer nervousness and excitement for the weekend. Had I forgotten something (which I invariably always do) I knew I could just run home and get it, but that didn’t matter. It was the act of getting ready for the trip that made the whole thing seem more real for me. I spent so much time in the weeks preceding thinking and talking about how wonderful and fun the convention was going to be that I had really worked up into this glorious thing, the night before I was worrying my expectations were too high.

Anita Borg Institute Throws Grace Hopper Celebration 2011.

I hadn’t. I got there early the first day to go to my shift debriefing, as I mentioned. The place was very quiet, there were only a few early birds like me. I didn’t have to wait in line to pick up my goodie bag and badge. Having never been to a conference or convention like this before, I had no idea how much free loot I was going to get. The crazy amount of swag was impressive. My only comment to the companies out there would be: 4 different compact mirrors? Really? That’s what webcams are for. Someone is CLEARLY not in touch with today’s technical woman. I would have been much happier with cute flash drives.

Lots of Goodies From the Conference!

On the plus side, Google and Microsoft both had very nice t-shirts (women’s cut ++) that I actually feel sexy in. There is something about Microsoft’s red “Geek Girl” shirt that makes me feel really good. Also, Microsoft wins again by giving out air plants at their booth instead of more plastic crap, thereby showing they have a vested interest in reducing their carbon footprint. I’d say they get the overall prize for best free stuff ever.

One of my first thoughts as I wandered the halls locating the essentials (coffee stands, food carts, escape routes, and bathrooms) was, “The lines for the bathrooms are going to be ENORMOUS. What a pain.” Well, apparently, I wasn’t the only one who had that thought because almost every single men’s room door had this taped on them:

Men's Rooms were all converted to Women's except for one.

Glorious. In his speech about how important diversity is to the future of technology and encouraging women to join the technological field could only be a good thing, President of the ACM, Alain Chesnais said that he finally understood what it was to be in the minority because he had to walk halfway across the convention center just to go to the bathroom.

Overall, there was an energy about the conference and a camaraderie that I have not really felt before. The closest I think I’ve ever come to it is at PAX (when I had the good fortune of going a few years ago.) There were about 2600 women in attendance at Grace Hopper and they were all there to help each other out and give the kind of support that is hard to get in a male dominated classroom or workplace.

I learned a lot from everyone I interacted with and a motivation to excel in my field was rooted in me that I didn’t know existed. I came home from the conference with a desire to pursue my dreams of making my own computer games and starting an ACM-W chapter at my school. I want to share this support and courage that I gained from the women at the convention with all the women in my department that didn’t have the good fortune of attending. I guess you could say I want to pass it on or pay it forward.

Most importantly, I want to keep going because I’m not just doing it for myself but all the women who will come after me, who perhaps just need a little more encouragement to get there.

Grace Hopper Celebrating Women in Computing 2012 is being held in Baltimore, Maryland next year. I’m already brainstorming ways that I am going to get there. This year’s convention was that good.

You mean there are women in the tech industry?

As I sat down to write this blog, I was consumed with an overwhelming sense of anxiety and self-doubt. Chances are that everyone reading this will understand the feeling of not feeling good enough. However, I was very excited to begin the process of writing and writing about a subject I am very passionate about and then I froze.

I didn’t just freeze in the sense that I had a bad case of writer’s block and couldn’t get my blog written. My whole life froze. I spent an entire three day weekend doing absolutely nothing but watching streaming on Netflix and playing the Sims 3 Pets expansion, with a little WoW thrown in just to show you how completely I managed to waste my time. Something must be written if I ever expect my blog to become something more than a mere idea. Where to start?

I am an undergraduate computer science student. I am in my “third” year of the program and plan to graduate in 2013. What I will do after that is still a bit of a mystery to me, but I’m hoping it will become evident in the near future. I just started taking my computer classes at my university this summer after having transferred from another institution. Several weeks into the fall term I had a woman in my calculus class (we are actually in almost every class together) come up to me, curious as to who I was and where I had come from. She asked me what my major was (this being a small campus, the only students in calculus class are engineers and computer scientists). When I told her computer science, she was delighted. “That brings are numbers up to…” she paused to count in her head. “Ten women!”

Yes, in the computer science department on my campus there are only 10 women declared as either undergraduates or graduates (we have one woman in the graduate program.) I did say that we are a small school, but the computer science department still has about 100 students in it. That’s only 10% women, for those not inclined to do the math. The sad truth is, however, that this isn’t a particularly low ratio for a university computer science program. The current average is about 14%. This is the only profession in which the ratio of women to men is getting smaller instead of larger. To me this is a wholly depressing.

There are people out there that have dedicated their careers to figuring out why this ratio of women to men has become so skewed. Books have been written about it. For me, though, it is a very personal and a real everyday experience. When I started my studies in computer science, I had no idea that women were so underrepresented. Yet, I came into the program with the same stereotypes and misconceptions that I am sure dissuade many of the women that had the slightest inclination to study computer science. It has taken a long time (years) for me to convince myself that I am just as good as the men in my classes and that I’m not inherently “bad” with computers simply because I am a woman. Even at home, when I’m working on my own computer system, I still catch myself deferring to my brother or my husband for their knowledge when I have it all inside my own head. I spent more classes that I care to admit aiming to “just pass” thinking I would never have the ability to be a top student.

The bottom line is confidence. Just like in writing beginning this blog, I have found something I am passionate about. I love computers and being a nerd. I would like to share my thoughts and experiences as one of the few, the proud women in computer science. I want to share my stories from the front and have some fun while I’m doing it.

Just remember: don’t panic.