#OurTimeToLead – Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing

Be Bold - Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing

Last month I flew to Houston, TX to attend my first Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. I was accepted as a Grace Hopper Scholar, finding my travel, food, and lodging, and affording me an opportunity I may not have experienced otherwise. So, before we get too far into this recap, I would like to formally thank the scholar review committee and Qualcomm, my corporate sponsor, for their work and generosity.

This year represented the largest conference (12,000+ attendees) with the largest, most competitive scholar applicant pool (2,000+ applicants with a 21% acceptance rate). Then again, if you’re going to hold a conference in Texas, where everything is bigger, you’ve got to follow suit.

The numbers of GHC attendees has steadily increased over the years, then there was Satya Nadella’s blunder last year, but while GHC has grown substantially in the last few years, it is by no means new.

The first GHC brought 500 technical women to Washington DC in 1994. The Wellesley Computer Science department sent, and continues to send, students to GHC every year. I can only imagine that other colleges and organizations are encouraging their women in computing to attend the conference.

Grace Hopper Celebration felt like home. My Wellesley home, that is. Being in a room filled with brilliant, passionate women is a very comfortable space for me and I wish it wasn’t such an anomaly. I intentionally carried my Wellesley tote bag to attract the attention of other people connected to Wellesley.

Wellesley at GHC
Wellesley at GHC

(Eventually, I found my tribe.)

Yet, I was surprised at how many women I met at the conference that had only heard about GHC months prior to attending. I was happy to see them at the conference, but couldn’t help but wonder how many women should’ve been there that weren’t. Who didn’t know about Grace Hopper and was potentially missing a professional-life changing opportunity?

Lately, I’ve been feeling that I owe it to other Black girls and young women to show them what a coder looks like; that a coder looks like them.

Sometimes, it’s easy to believe that having resources and support groups is enough, but we can’t forget that impact is directly correlated to access. Women can’t benefit from GHC if they don’t know about it.

More than anything, the conference was validating and proved that the work I’m passionate about is worth it and of value. I’m passionate about creating avenues for women and underrepresented minorities in the tech space; a charge that Grace Hopper is obviously in support of.

Lately, I’ve been feeling that I owe it to other Black girls and young women to show them what a coder looks like; that a coder looks like them. Once I left Wellesley with a CS degree, I fell in love with product and decided I wanted to be more on the product / business side. That’s fine and all, but I do love coding. This semester, I’ve been tinkering with circuits, and playing around with code – falling in love all over again. I’ve hesitated to expand my technical skills for fear of pigeonholing myself. If I learn more front-end development techniques, I’ll only be asked to do front end developer jobs. If I tinker with physical prototyping, I’ll only be asked to do physical prototyping jobs.

This may be true, but since when has expanding a skillset been a bad thing? Never. So, let’s do this.

CRA-W 2015 Grad Cohort

Monet at CRA-W

My relationship with technology is intimate and deeply integrated in my thinking and view of the world around me. I could not imagine existing outside of the tech bubble, and am fortunate to know that I belong. Women in computing are brilliant, powerful beings that deserve supportive experiences to network, engage, and be inspired by other women in computing. I often assert this opinion to already agreeing crowds – preaching to the choir, if you will – but in my experience, this point can’t be stressed enough.

As a Black woman in this field, I often have to compartmentalize my identity and network with women or African Americans in a small, technical spaces to see myself validated in pieces.

I studied Computer Science at Wellesley College, an all women’s college in Massachusetts. This means that my education was cultivated in a bubble of support and validation by people that strongly supported women in computer science. The best part about attending an all-women’s college is seeing yourself reflected at the top. At Wellesley, women always held the prestigious titles of valedictorian, student government president, and first author. I saw myself reflected in these accomplishments and constantly felt the affirmation of my abilities and belonging. Upon graduation, I realized that examples of women in computing are not as abundant in the real world, so I have to intentionally seek these validating opportunities, e.g. conferences for women in computing.

The 2015 Grad Cohort Workshop was the first time in my post-undergraduate, professional career that I had the opportunity to meet a large group of women in computing. Among the conference attendees, I easily identified potential mentors, advisors, and peers that looked like me, shared my professional interests, and could understand the details of my experiences. This feeling of community and validation is exactly what I sought in attending Grad Cohort.

Outside of traditional network opportunities, I felt like the community at Grad Cohort was genuinely invested in the professional development of each attendee. My secondary objective for attending Grad Cohort was to answer a personal question: Should I pursue a PhD after my Master’s program? This is something I have been grappling with and trying to figure out in a silo. At my institution, there are brilliant professors and advisors, but without seeing my identity reflected in the roster, I wasn’t sure that pursuing an advanced degree was right for me. At Grad Cohort, I received a variety of opinions and spoke with people that genuinely cared about my decision. I strongly believe in these forums as opportunities for successful women in computing to advocate for the collective inclusion and offer informed advice to other women.

As valuable as seeing so many women in computing was to me and my experience at Grad Cohort, the number of African American women pursuing advanced degrees in computing blew me away. As a Black woman in this field, I often have to compartmentalize my identity and network with women or African Americans in a small, technical spaces to see myself validated in pieces. I met intelligent, driven women pursuing Human-Computer Interaction and working on things I’ve always found interesting. The connections I made at Grad Cohort will follow me, as I am positive that I met the movers and shakers that I will continue to read about and work with throughout my career. I will continue to rave about my experience at Grad Cohort, because I want to spread the word to as many other women in computing as possible. Every woman deserves to feel overwhelming support and validation a professional, research-oriented, computing space such as Grad Cohort.

Revision Path

I got to geek out with Revision Path’s Maurice Cherry about UX, HCI, women in tech, design trends, travel, networking, a design-driven approach, and my experience speaking at PRO/Design. To say it was a great interview is an understatement. In line with most things in my life, this opportunity came about through a series of conversations, events, conferences, and happy hours, talking about the things which I’m most passionate. I have to send a huge thank you to Adekunle for putting Maurice and me in contact!

In their own words, “Revision Path is a weekly interview show that focuses on showcasing Black graphic designers, web designers, and web developers. Each week, we explore the stories, processes, experiences, insights, and creative inspirations of these awesome creators from all over the world.” In my words, Revision Path is a wonderfully curated podcast allowing the Black-tech community to voice their passions and show the continuous beauty of diversity (in tech and beyond). The work they’re doing is important and I’m honored for the opportunity to contribute!

This will also go down in history as the day my face appeared on the front page of a website in the tech section, thanks to EvolveUX!

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 2.50.41 PM

Listen to the podcast at: RevisionPath.com, SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher Radio

Mobile Privacy

I think it’s interesting to base an entire body of research on the technological consumption of a population (teenagers) so heavily affected by authoritative figures (their parents). Teen tech consumption is based entirely on their parents’ involvement and support, usually in a financial sense (e.g., purchasing cellphone plans, buying a home computer, etc.). The authors also took some liberties in the study design, using data from privileged, early-adoption populations living in areas with high tech influences (e.g., Silicon Valley) and higher-than-average household incomes. I’d be curious to see a similar study play out with another, less skewed, population.

There is a brief comment in the beginning of the Grinter piece about early opinions about technology.

…in 1929, in their study of Middletown, the Lynds reported that the telephone and the depersonalized communications it offered were in part responsible for the increased sexual liberation of teenagers

At it’s core, this is not a unique or profound claim. This is an evolved version of the “Back in my day, children respected their elders” argument – everyone thinks their generation was more wholesome, respectful, and positive than later generations. However, there is something interesting that occurs with the introduction of technologies that can help parse one’s time and social opportunities; there are several implications here. I first thought about the possibility that these technologies increase teenage communication, which leads to more sexual liberation, assuming that more opportunities to communicate lead to more opportunities to establish relationships (romantic or otherwise).

Though, I think the bigger question is what happens when communication becomes easier and more discrete without trading off authenticity? Before technology, when all relationships were established with good old face-to-face time, it was arguably easy to understand how social groups were constructed. Everyone knows your friends because you eat lunch together every day. With the introduction of landlines, I imagine it was simpler to maintain existing relationships and easier to establish new relationships in private. Talking on the phone with a new classmate each evening is a private way to establish a relationship. Of course, this action is visible to your immediate family and those sharing the landline which leads to, as Srivastava points out, parents “knowing” their children’s friends. Then came SMS and IM technologies. Now, people can maintain existing relationships, establish new relationships and talk to complete strangers with less outside visibility. Those in your immediate vicinity may identify that you’re communicating with someone (though Grinter mentions some stealth texting practices) without identifying the person outright.

Back to my original question: what happens when communication becomes easier and more discrete without trading off authenticity? Does it lead to a more trusting society, because you can “meet” new people and develop strong bonds? Does it lead to a less trusting society, because you don’t have the benefit of the context that face-to-face communication offers? I think the answer is that it depends. Early-adopting teenagers forged a way for these technologies to leverage freedom, communicate social popularity, and control their availability; a fact that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Referencing recent class discussions, I think it is increasingly important for technology designers to consider these factors as they’re creating the next big things. I mean, did cellphone manufacturers intend to create an innately flakier society that will use SMS to bail on plans at the last minute? Probably not, but they may have intended to make it easier to tell someone when you’re running 15 minutes late.

Of course, I wonder how technology has changed or evolved since these times. Both of these papers were written in the mid-2000s (2005 and 2006), with the latter assessing mobile usage data collected in 2000. What would these authors say about the upcoming technologies teens are using today? How does Yik Yak’s anonymous communication change the social interactions of knowing the people you’re communicating with? How does Tinder evolve the concept of an extensive buddy list, when the people in your address book are less tied to shared experiences and may be one-off contacts?

References

Grinter, R.E., Palen, L., and Eldridge, M. Chatting with teenagers. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 13, 4 (2006), 423–447.

Srivastava, L. Mobile phones and the evolution of social behaviour. Behaviour & Information Technology 24, 2 (2005), 111.

.tech and i go way back

This piece is cross-posted in Wellesley Underground.

My relationship with technology is intimate and deeply integrated in my thinking and view of the world around me.

In the mid-1990s, my mother started a company called CompuKidz, teaching children how to use computers. She recognized that technology would shape the future and we can best leverage that shift by supporting computer education for children. There was always a computer in our house loaded with creative games and educational programs. I would type stories for hours and then design accompanying illustrations. By the time my elementary school offered a computer class, I was already bored with the introductions. Didn’t everyone’s fingers glide across the keyboard without looking? Who needed help turning the computer on and finding Oregon Trail? Didn’t everyone have a computer in their house that they could use after their homework was done? The answer, I found, was no.

I attended a high school with a Science and Technology program, meaning that in addition to standard high school courses, the program offered specializations in biology, engineering, and computer science. I majored in computer science and learned to program.

Learning to code was a breath of fresh air. Understanding how to communicate with a computer was like learning to speak my crush’s language. We were both logical. We both broke big problems into smaller, sequential steps. We both processed information and assessed the solution. We were finally speaking the same language. Before, I was communicating at my computer but now I could communicate with it. I was in love. I wrote programs for fun, I thought about how everyday technologies were coded, I refactored my code to make it shorter and more efficient. This, kids, is your brain on code.

In my senior year I applied to a bunch of schools, got into them, and narrowed down to two. I could attend Carnegie Mellon University and study with some of the best computer scientists in the world for free, or, I could attend Wellesley and get an excellent liberal arts education, going on to become a lawyer or writer with tons of student debt. I visited Wellesley and knew this was where I needed to be.I made promises to study English and leave computer science behind.

I broke up with computer science in favor of being around an environment that motivated, challenged, and excited me. I vowed to do whatever it took to be around these brilliant minds that would change the world. (Spoiler: my personal mottos are “Why pick one when you can have both?” and “Treat yo’self”. I don’t do well denying myself things.)

Fast-forward to 2008. It was late in my sophomore year and I was preparing to tell my mother that I’d declared a major. Inhale. Exhale. Dial. “Mom, I decided to major in computer science.” I said as I’d been practicing.

“I thought you wanted to major in English and go to law school.” She had a point. But how could I explain that I took a CS class to fulfill a requirement and free-fell back into the comfort of it. I felt guilty for ever having left computer science; you can’t deny a love like that. I couldn’t leave it a second time, so one required CS class turned into two CS classes, which turned into possibly minoring, which turned into majoring.

As my studies progressed, I became more fascinated in what coding could create. How could computer science concepts develop innovative softwares and solve important problems? Next time, I’ll tell you a story about the jump I made from programming to product management and how that journey is going.

For now, I’ll say that I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to identify and cultivate my passion so early in life. If you’ve identified something similar in yourself, we owe it to ourselves, and our respective industries, to never deny ourselves the pleasure of diving deep and not coming up for air.

With a smile,

Monet