Tuesday, October 25, 2016

GHC 2016

The Grace Hopper Celebration 2016

I really wanted to attend this conference, so when I received an email from our HR department confirming the date and time that registration would open I was on it.  The second registration opened I was clicking on the register button, nothing happened, I clicked and reloaded and clicked to no avail. Finally I got a message saying that the conference was sold out. To say I was surprised would be true, but I was also very disappointed. I responded to the HR email bemoaning the fact that I was unable to register. That was a lucky move, because some weeks later I was offered one of our org's places - someone had dropped out and did I want it?  Did I? you bet I did!

As luck would have it, I was booked to fly to Houston early afternoon on the same day that our internal Women in Engineering group were having a STEM (Science, technology, engineering & mathematics) event. We had 40 middle school children, mostly girls but some boys too, coming to the office for a series of presentations and I was on the career panel. Fortunately we arranged the panel for first thing in the morning and immediately following this I was heading to the airport.

The flight from Austin to Houston is only 50 minutes, it seemed no sooner had we reached cruising altitude we were preparing to land at Hobby Airport. Once on the ground I got an airport shuttle to my hotel. Houston is a huge city, the 4th largest city in the US and the largest in Texas with a population of almost 2.5 million within the city and over 6 million in the greater Houston metropolitan area. As a result, getting to anywhere from anywhere is slow going. Mid afternoon on a Tuesday, it took close to two hours to get to the hotel.

The conference had a fleet of coaches running between the official conference hotels, of which there were about 40, and the conference center. From the hotel to the conference center took between 45 minutes to an hour.

Getting our badges
Needless to say, I was at the conference center early the next morning. The keynote address was at 9 a.m. and I needed to get my badge before that. I didn't expect the badge process to be so very streamlined. It was incredible. I joined the end of a long snaking line and within minutes I was at one of the many desks and my badge was issued seconds later. Of course it helped that the organizers had emailed out a QR code which, when scanned, immediately issued the badge with the correct information printed on. I suppose, when you think about it, I should not have been surprised, after all this conference was run by, and for, women in technology.

Waiting in line at the Toyota Center

The Keynote Address was in the Toyota Center across the street. The size of the auditorium was impressive - and it filled up fast. The speakers were Anna Patterson, the winner of the Technical Leadership ABIE Award and Vice President of Engineering, Artificial Intelligence for Google. Latanya Sweeney, probably my favorite presentation, she is professor of government and technology at Harvard University and also Editor in Chief of Technology Science and director and founder of the Data Privacy Lab. Her talk on privacy in general, and in the health care area in particular was extremely interesting.

Starting to fill up
The other two speakers continued to hold my attention, Ginni Rometty, CEO and President of IBM. She continued the theme of Artificial Intelligence and specifically in the Healthcare arena, with a fascinating talk on Watson. The final speaker was Alyssia Jovellanos, the winner of the Woman of Vision ABIE (Anita Borg Institute of Engineering) award for Student of Vision. Alyssia is a Computer Science student at McMaster University but has already made a name for herself in the world of technology. At 17 she founded her own multimedia technology company which was funded by the Government of Ontario and Kevin O'Leary's Future Dragon Fund.

This was a name I recognized
Surprisingly in the presence of such incredible, powerful and successful women, I did not feel at all inadequate, in fact, though I arrived feeling like a worker ant of little significance, by the end of the first morning I was feeling empowered. Yes, I consider that I am not fully appreciated in my field, and I will certainly never be a CEO, or even a major Award winner (I have won minor awards in the various companies with whom I worked), but I am part of a movement, one of the growing number of women who have managed to break out of the traditional mold reserved for women, even more so when I was growing up.

I believe I was one of the older women present and I don't think there were many there who were even born in the same decade as I was. Quite something, when there were actually 15,000 people present, 14,000 of which were women.

 The conference center in Houston is enormous and the number of sessions planned were almost endless. The most difficult thing to do was select sessions, because I had to make a choice, many sessions I would have attended were being held at the same time.

The second problem was trying to figure out if a session was going to be worth attending, based on a very small description, or no description, just the title of the session.

A big challenge was the fact that there were over 83 different countries represented in that mixture of 14,000 women and 1,000 men - and some countries do not have the same respect of even understanding of 'orderly queues'. So while you might have arrived early for a particular session, and joined the growing line waiting, there were others who just ignored the line and joined at the head of the queue.

One particular session, titled 'Should I stay or should I go' was so popular that 30 minutes before it was due to start there was already a long line snaking around the corridors. With no conference staff there to control the enthusiastic line jumpers, it turned into a free for all. Finally one of the staff arrived and for whatever reason decided to split the line into two, the first line to get admission was mainly the late comers / line jumpers. Believe me there was rumblings of dissatisfaction in the second line, where I was crammed in the center. I think more people were turned away than actually got into that session. And there are now a large number still not sure whether they should stay or go. This was probably one of the very few times I saw bad organization.

The exhibition hall was huge and while there were casual sessions at various locations within the hall, mainly at the Anita Borg Stand, because of the noise in the area, these were not great - and one I attended was bottom of my list of favorites. Neither the content nor speaker were up to par. Sadly it was one of the few QA related sessions.

And of course there was an app for that which made selecting sessions and managing your schedule much easier - if only the app didn't keep crashing, somewhat embarrassing for a technology based conference.

Naturally I attended the Expo, and toured the floor a few times, picking up some very nice swag. In my career I have attended countless conferences and I have to say, this one had the best swag. But that was not what I was there for. It didn't take long to figure out that the Expo was a glorified job fair and I was not interested in being recruited so once I picked up my t-shirts, pens, water bottle and assorted USB expansion and extended life charger gadgets I headed for the first of my chosen sessions, after all not only was I not there for a job, I was not there for swag either. Luckily I had selected second and third choices from the long list of sessions available, because on more than one occasion I didn't get into my first choice, or my first choice was not what I expected so I left and headed to my second choice.

Apart from the Keynote, probably the session I enjoyed the most was 'Quiet: How to Harness the Strengths of Introverts to Transform How We Work, Lead and Innovate' - a long title but leaving no doubt as to the content. This was a talk by Susan Cain, the bestselling author of 'Quiet' and the founder of the Quiet Revolution. I didn't need to take this quiz to know that I am an introvert.

Other sessions I attended were:

  • Rock Your Career: Core Skills for increased effectiveness
  • Powerful Body Language: Small Mannerisms with Big Impact
  • A Day in the Life of: Exploring Different Career Paths in Technology
  • Turning your Snakes into Ladders - A Career Exploration Journey
  • DevOps and the future of QA - what you need to know and how you can prepare

 Apart from those sessions, I also attended a number of talks at the Speaker's Corner, this was the noisy Anita Borg stand. The QA talk was 'QA in an Agile world. What's the difference from waterfall?' and as mentioned before, it was not very impressive nor was it useful, but it was QA.

So, what did I take away from the GHC 2016 Conference? Apart from the aforementioned swag, a heap more stickers for my laptop I gained a lot of knowledge.  I also have a sense of gratitude to my employer not just for funding my attendance, but also for supporting GHC and diversity. Most of all I have a renewed sense of pride in myself and my chosen career.

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