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.
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.
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:
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.