Saturday, 25 October 2014

Grace Hopper Conference 2014

Standing waiting for the shuttle bus to terminal 3 on a clear autumnal morning, with planes coming into land quite literally over my head, was when it finally hit me...we were going to GHC. It was real, it was here and it was now.

Our trip started with a meet up and breakfast Heathrow. The other girls who had been selected to come on the trip were are amazing, and I am so proud to have shared this experience with them. After what ended up as an 18 hour journey encompassing everything from hysterical giggles to naps to really-not-thumbs-up's, we made it to our hotel and allowed the jetlag to take over.

The next morning was the first we got to see Phoenix in the flesh. After
breakfast, we boarded the coach to the Phoenix Convention Centre where we would finally experience the scale of the Grace Hopper Conference. After registering and getting our badges (I got way over excited...!), we headed to the key note speech from Shafi Goldwasser. During her talk I was fascinated by the technical concepts and equations she was referring too, and although I was following the maths side and engaging physicist really made me want to research and find out more, so I could fully understand.

Stemettes gone Stateside
The first panel I attended was 'From the CIO's office: Technology roles in consumer facing companies'. The careers side of this talk interested me greatly, as someone who currently has no idea what to do in the future, and the advice given by the CIO's of four major companies was very useful. 'We learn the most from when we fail' was the best thing I heard on that panel, as I know from my own experience even just this far in my STEM journey. You can find the storify, bringing together all of our tweets live from the sessions on day 1 here thanks to Stemettes. I've been following Lady Paragons on Twitter for a while, and noticed that they too were at GHC, and indeed in the same room! So we arranged to meet after the panel which was great as we talked STEM, our experiences so far and headed over to the next panel together.

'Anita Borg's vision: A global community of women leaders' was my favourite panel of the entire conference. Moderated by Jody Mahoney, the panellists gave incredibly insightful inputs to the session, hearing about their work in various charities and communities was very powerful and truly inspiring. The Q&A afterwards invited the women in the room to share their own stories and experiences.

What happens before the careers fair

If you want to feel the full force of 8000 women in STEM, ask them to wait outside of a careers fair and then watch them go when the doors finally open. This is what happened on the afternoon of the first day. I have never seen so many women in one place at one time ! On entering I was blown away by the scale of the exhibitors stands, and it was great to walk around and talk to different companies, finding out what they do and of course collecting all of the necessary swag!

In the run up to the conference, women on twitter hit out against the proposed 'men as allies' panel...however, it did go ahead. I was in two minds about how this could turn out, but I
believe going ahead was the correct decision as; if what we are striving for is diversity and equality in the industry, surely we can't be discriminatory and do the same thing back. I do feel it was very safe, not having a Q&A at the end of the session, however, as again the power of twitter alerted the men on the panel to the views of the audience, another session was agreed. 'You talk we listen' is the session that happened the next day...and the stories that came from there were powerful, and I have huge respect for the women who spoke out and shared their experiences.

Day 2 started with a 'half' waffle the size of our heads, before we boarded the coach once more to the convention centre. We had an early start to catch the key note speech, and before that the presentation of the Technical Leadership Award to Anne Condon who said 'I wish all women all over the world happy opportunities' . The key note was a conversation between Maria Klawe and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, which took an unexpected turn and made almost global news when he made a comment on women not asking for pay rises that many did not agree with. However, one thing he said that struck me and I did agree with was 'success starts by being comfortable in your own skin' which I think is a very important lesson to learn. Nadella did commit to attending Grace Hopper next year.

Barbara Gee!
The next panel I attended was another new experience for me 'Integrating gaming and fitness'. As someone who enjoys the gym and wishes there was a more interesting way to do it, this was the perfect way to find out more about what's out there game wise from the people who write them. I liked how they talked about the story coming first, to make it a challenge and the fitness element secondary to this.

I spent the rest of the day networking at the careers fair, handing out my CV to different companies and finding out that actually there is room for the skills a physicist learns in the tech world. Getting a high five from the lady on the Twitter stand when she found out I was a physicist and a tweetaholic plus a notebook from them with #doodles on the front was definitely a highlight of the day. This was topped only by bumping into Barbara Gee on my Starbucks run, who is one of the most inspirational ladies I  have ever had the fortune to hear speak, and talking to her about the men as allies panel on the previous day before getting a selfie and her asking for a hug (!).

Pinterest Partay
The evening saw us take to the streets of Phoenix and head to the Pinterest was awesome. They had a craft table, photobooth (which we enjoyed very much!) and I met an astrophysicist who worked at NASA turned engineer for Pinterest. It was fantastic to hear the directions that can be taken from the degree I am currently undertaking...and inspiring to see just how much she had achieved. After this we headed back over to the conference centre to the official party and take part in the electric slide...a very new experience! The day 2 storify from Stemettes is here.

It was the warmest day we had woken up to so far, completely blue skies stretching as far as the eye could see and Phoenix at its most beautiful. Day 3 brought with it a sinking heart, as I realised that this experience had passed so quickly and been such a whirlwind...but there was still another full day to go and it was time to make the most of it. First stop was the careers fair, for a last CV dash and swag pick up before meeting Dr Jenine Beekhuyzen aka Tech Girls Superheroes who you need to follow on twitter because she makes super cool books specifically to get more girls into STEM.

We headed out onto the balcony at the top of the convention centre to shoot some video diaries and record our best bits of the conference, before splitting up for our penultimate sessions. I chose to attend the 'Data science in social media analytics' talk, which was composed of three different speakers in a completely new area for me. Learning all about big data and the science of celebrity tweeting was fascinating and many of the problem solving concepts and methods spoken about were relevent to my current studies. 

Sunset in Phoenix, Az
Finally it was time for the last session...and truly, GHC went out with a bang. The presentation we attended was made up of three speakers, the first Anne-Marie Horcher spoke about using the nose to authenticate smart phones and had us all giggling with her research. The next from Cate Huston, who spoke about distraction and hedgehogs...and finally Ramya Sethuraman on accessibility on the web. You can find our tweets from the day here.

That was the was over. It's a strange thing to see all of the signs being taken down and everyone leaving the place where you have felt so at home for the past few days. I learnt so much from this experience...the main things being don't give up, you and only you have control of your future...and there are opportunities everywhere, you just have to look.

Thank you to everyone who made it possible for us to go to Grace Hopper - the Student to Stemette scheme, Deutsche Bank Born to Be programme, my mentor Alexandra and of course to Anne-Marie and Andrew who accompanied us and made it such an amazing trip. Truly a life changing experience - thank you.

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