Refreshed and refocused: my experience at the 2014 Grace Hopper Celebration

A 7 minute read written by Kim November 12, 2014

Grey vector image of Grace Hopper on a green background

Everyone. Everywhere. The theme of the 2014 Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) for women in computing science rings true. Over 8000 women (and men) gathered in Phoenix, Arizona to celebrate how we’re changing the world.

I returned from this year's celebration feeling totally re-energized about the technology industry, eager to make amazing things happen and share the things I learned. Technology is more accessible than ever – we are constantly building, adapting, and changing the way we engage and deliver technology in the modern web world.

Why is Grace Hopper Celebration important?

People often ask why I care so much about women in tech. They suggest that if more women wanted to be in tech or STEM fields, then they would be, and maybe women are genuinely not interested in the topic. I attend events like GHC to support women in tech and gain a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding gender in this industry – and there are many.

Here’s what I know: most women don’t stay in the tech industry

There have been countless studies on factors that work against women joining the tech field. Even more shocking: 39-56% of women who go into tech end up leaving the industry altogether. That’s 4-5 times higher than males in the same industry. So we don’t have to just encourage women to join tech – how do we get them to stay?

Women who stay in the tech industry often express feelings of isolation as they, more often than not, find themselves in hostile and uncomfortable environments. Women can often feel like they are frauds or imposters. As we have recently witnessed, women in tech (especially in gaming) are threatened with sexual assault and even death just for asserting themselves, their beliefs and their rights.

There is also a lack of recognition. No one seems to know about all the women in tech who have changed the world, yet there are so many. They are forgotten women. If you’d like to see some of the amazing women who had made a difference, check out Yellow Pencil’s Twitter feed from the International Day of the Girl. 24 amazing women in 24 hours – and that's just a small sampling.

This brings us to Grace Hopper

A navy admiral and mathematician, Grace Hopper created the first compiler, had a heavy hand in the creation of COBOL and coined the term “computer bug” after finding a moth inside her machine. She was an amazing woman, and so we celebrate other women in computing science and their achievements at this extraordinary event in her honour.

Gathering all these women in one place, sharing our experiences and stories, and realizing that you have a vast support network is a truly amazing thing. To quote one student who attended:

It told me I was normal, and it told me I was important.

A photo showing an event hall concourse with a sea of people.

My take-aways from Grace Hopper Celebration 2014

Inspiration: attending the GHC will without a doubt leave you feeling inspired. There’s a tangible energy when you talk to other women in tech and hear their stories. You don’t have to be technical, or heck, even female to appreciate the exciting atmosphere of this incredible conference.

A united front: I’ve shared my experience as a female in web development before. I work in a predominantly male industry and sometimes it can be difficult to be heard, let alone valued. At the GHC when you tell someone what you do, they believe and support you. Fellow conference-goers ask smart questions and you feel confident answering. You realize that there are a lot of talented people out there making a difference.

Mind-blowing revelations: I met a woman from Amazon who worked on their warehouse robots. I met a woman from Microsoft who worked on the Azure platform. I met women from Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox – so many huge companies, super complex problems, and really interesting solutions. When you see what people are working on and share your own work, it makes you feel like you are collectively moving towards something worthwhile. When I realize the work we do (together) affects so many people, it makes me feel proud to be a web developer. That’s pretty rewarding to think about – anyone, anywhere can see something I’ve made.

Long-lasting relationships: I spent most of my time at GHC 2014 with 16 amazing students from the University of Alberta, my alma mater. They are the only Canadian university that sponsors students to attend (so take note, universities. This is important). I also got to reconnect with amazing people that came with me to the GHC in 2007 and 2008. We’re now working together to organize Coffee & Code events to support female developers at U of A.

A photo of a group of students from the UofA; Kim's alma mater.

One student mentioned that she was having a hard time finding anyone at school that was also interested in web development. I remember feeling the same way when I was in school (in fact I got called a “sell out” for being interested in it), so I offered to help her get started. Now I get the chance to help someone answer all the questions I once had.

Highlights from Grace Hopper Celebration 2014

This incredible event is not only about inspiring women; there’s a lot of knowledge and insight to be gained. Here are just a few of the things I learned:

Zero knowledge proofs

The first keynote was by RSA professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, Shafi Goldwasser. She gave a very technical presentation on cryptography and zero knowledge proofs. You want to prove to someone that you have the correct proof, but how do you do so without giving them the proof? You don’t want them to know what you know, but you need them to know that you know! Watch the full video of Shafi’s presentation to find out how (starts at about 47:00).

A photo of a presentation slide showing zero knowledge proof dialogue.

Male allies

The second keynote was an interview between my idol Maria Klawe, and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Almost the whole interview was great – you can watch it here. I say “almost” because as the media has reported, Satya fumbled near the end when he responded that women should not ask for raises. This caused a lot – a LOT – of backlash, despite the fact that he apologized. Most responses focused on his error instead of the many other great things he said.

A photo of a keynote interview between Maria Klawe and Satya Nadella.

Keynotes and controversies aside

There were so many other great sessions:

  • Building dynamic and effective teams
  • How to have difficult conversations
  • Life of a Chromium Developer on Open Source Day
  • The value of mentorship
  • Bias of job interviews and job postings
  • Multiple lightning talk sessions:
    • How to ask for a raise (everyone’s favourite)
    • A woman who set up a development community in Peru
    • A panel of coloured women who talked about their experiences
    • Networking as an introvert

I haven’t listed everything I went to, but my days were filled with fascinating speakers and information-packed sessions.

Three days later

So after three days of sessions, networking, career fair swag gathering, and mediocre food (except the one night we went for chicken and waffles) I was back home. I definitely needed to hide from people for a few days to recharge. I had about 20 Linkedin requests and dozens of Twitter notifications. My brain was full of the new technical and soft skills I learned, and I was excited to share my stories with others. And I had a fantastic time hanging out with all the University of Alberta women.

Recently, I went to the University of Alberta to hear fellow GHC attendees talk about how the conference impacted them. The majority commented on how amazing it was to be around people like them. They could talk to anyone and no one questioned why they were there or their abilities. The instructors commented on how they realized their role needed to change. They wanted to know how they could help their students more. They all said they had previously heard great things, but it was so much more valuable to actually experience it.

I personally brought back a renewed feeling of self-worth, confidence, and excitement. I’m really happy I went to the conference, and I hope I can attend again. And maybe by writing about my experiences at the GHC, I’ve convinced a few more people to attend (do it). If you’d like to know more, reach out to me. I’d be happy to chat about my experiences as a female nerd and would love to hear yours.

Read more on women in tech

Here’s all the GHC 2014-related info I could find – if you have others, add them in the comments!