Chandrika Vasudevan, Rahaf Rahal & Konstantina Vezirtzoglou @ GHC 2016
Chandrika Vasudevan, Rahaf Rahal & Konstantina Vezirtzoglou @ GHC 2016

The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is something more than just a technical conference. It is the loud confirmation that women are active in the field of computing, that they create, excel and contribute to the scientific dialogue and that of course they are not alone! Specifically, it is the largest technology gathering for women, organised annually at the USA by the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology and the Association for Computing Machinery. Named after the distinguished Grace Murray Hopper, Navy Rear Admiral and one of the first programmers (it is speculated that we owe her the term “bug”), the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) honors and highlights women in technology. It is this event, where women transform from the minority to the majority in a celebration of technology and innovation, that two #teamCLG members, Konstantina Vezirtzoglou and Chara Podimata, managed to attend this year and explained to me in order to better realise its significance.

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The application

Thousands of women related to technology either academically (as students, researchers, professors) or professionally participate each year in the Grace Hopper Celebration. The conference strives to attract women from all the sectors worldwide, this why the GHC itself as well as plenty of universities and companies (e.g. Google, Twitter, Facebook) offer scholarships that cover the participation costs to prominent women of the field. Of course, it is also possible to participate in the conference as a speaker by expressing interest upon the opening of the Call For Participation, based on which the conference sessions will later be formed.

This is how, after rigorous competitive processes, Konstantina and Chara achieved to be selected and travel on a scholarship to Houston, Texas, where the conference took place! Being already aware of the fact that the Grace Hopper Celebration is one of the fundamental forums for women related to Computer Science, they saw in this event the absolute reflection of their enthusiasm for technology. After completing the relevant applications, Konstantina received a scholarship from the Anita Borg Institute, while Chara from Harvard University!

The vibe

The Grace Hopper Celebration is for many people a life experience, especially when it serves as the reason to visit USA for the first time, like in the case of Konstantina: “It was a unique opportunity for me to meet many notable women and talk with them about their studies or work/research on various topics. Everybody was really excited about attending the conference and wanted to make the most out of it by meeting new people, attending talks & workshops and, last but not least, by visiting the conference’s career fair which was huge and accommodated some of the biggest tech companies, including Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter and many (seriously many!) more.”

The career fair in GHC is widely known for its participating companies and quite a few attendees leave each year the conference with job proposals. Apart from the career part though, the GHC infuses its attendees with the sense of belonging to a community that understands them and is more than eager to share advice and life lessons. As Chara describes: “The mood in the conference was celebratory, triumphal. One of the confence’s motto was “celebrating women in computing”. Women from all over the world and very different backgrounds shared their experiences from their field and their personal stories. What surprised me really positively was the male participation in the conference: many speakers and corporate representatives shared their own “inspirational stories” and along with all the attendees they celebrated the diversity we wish to see in technology.”

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The schedule

The Grace Hopper Celebration offers multiple tracks, which give the pulse for the most critical topics about women in technology.

“During the conference we were able to attend as many talks or workshops as we wanted. The schedule was full of them and it covered a wide range of topics. I really wish I could be present at more than one places simultaneously, so that I could attend all of them! My favourite day was the second one, since I had the chance to attend quite a few talks about health computing and mobile application development. I even participated in a workshop about app extensions, organised by some of Apple’s Software Engineers.

Each talk I attended taught me something new or even gave me a new perspective about the topic which was being discussed.  I learned a lot about advancements in computer science and about new products that have been released. It was a great opportunity to keep me up to date and to be inspired for ways in which I could also contribute into further technological developments.” Konstantina declares.

Each talk I attended taught me something new or even gave me a new perspective about the topic which was being discussed.  I learned a lot about advancements in computer science and about new products that have been released. It was a great opportunity to keep me up to date and to be inspired for ways in which I could also contribute into further technological developments.

 

Chara, on her part, describes the two talks that  mostly stimulated her interest: “Astro Teller (Captain of the Moonshots) inspired me because he shared numerous stories on how they decide which will be the following project at X. He also explained the importance of “killing” a project as soon as you understand that there is no way towards the solution you were seeking for. The phrase he used to show us how they decide on which project will follow was that they search for problems that can be solved with the help of technology and will make humans’ life significantly better. Afterward, he talked to us about world issues that they could indeed solve with their current projects: for instance, one such immense problem is the absence of internet access in the world. So, they try to address this with the Project Loon by releasing in the air large balloons, which communicate with “terrestrial” providers in order to provide internet data (!). On the other hand, the speech of Megan Smith (CTO of the USA) illustrated the way on how decision-making in political and governmental centres should be combined with technology, how policy making depends on data received through technology and how governments should invest more on the technological education of children from an early age. The power of data today is anything else but negligible. Therefore, we have the ability instead of solving world problems based on our “viewpoint”, to do it based on real facts, which are based on the notorious data we collect.

Additionally, I gained insights from many companies on how they support the representation of women and generally minorities in their workplace: what kind of amenities they provide for example to young mothers, what policies they establish concerning the smooth coexistence of all their employees regardless of religion, gender, sexual orientation as well as about hubs they create in order to help everyone preserve their identity in the globalised society we live.”

Chara Podimata @ GHC 2016
Chara Podimata @ GHC 2016

The impressions

All the Grace Hopper Celebration attendees instantly feel the positive energy originating from such an intense experience, as Konstantina says: “I left the conference being (once again) amazed by the ways computer science can contribute to the advancement of other sciences and of course by the impact it can have to society. I felt even more excited about being an active part of the IT sector and, having all these in mind, I believe that I will always be motivated to invest myself in it.”

Chara, from her side, is leaving with a refreshed mindset but also with an extended professional network: “What I keep from this conference is the experiences of the women I met, women either working on big companies, or being in universities around the world. I keep the research and interdisciplinary discussions I had with various participants, I keep the friends I made. But mainly I keep the shared understanding by men and women that we all have failures in our lives, in work, in research. The important thing though is to have the courage to “kill” these failures and keep dreaming and building a new world. Because even our failures will sometime contribute to the scientific progress.”

But mainly I keep the shared understanding by men and women that we all have failures in our lives, in work, in research. The important thing though is to have the courage to “kill” these failures and keep dreaming and building a new world. Because even our failures will sometime contribute to the scientific progress.

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Advice and next steps

Konstantina: “To every woman thinking of applying to the Grace Hopper Celebration, I would say she should definitely do it! Be ready to meet a lot of new people and prepare a good plan on how you want to spend your time each day, meaning how much time you want to dedicate to the career fair and which talks, workshops and events you want to attend. Do not miss last day’s “Night Celebration” and don’t forget to keep a lot of space in your luggage, since you are definitely going back home with a lot of cool swag that you can find at the career fair!”

Chara: “Any woman interested in actively joining the women in technology community around the world can follow the activities organised by the Anita Borg Institute and other relevant organizations. If they wish to contribute more, they can search in schools, universities and companies for communities aiming at integrating girls in technology from an early age. We need, especially in countries like Greece, people who will take charge of actions in order to strengthen the representation of women and minorities in technology.”

Considering all those positive impressions, as you can easily understand, the Grace Hopper Celebration is an event guaranteed to benefit you both personally and career-wise. If you eventually decide to go, pack some recent business cards for endless networking, prepare an elevator pitch for yourself or your startup and upon return, do not forget to send follow up mails to those you wish to maintain relations with. However, the most substantial thing is to go with an attitude to hear, even if this means smashing your current beliefs, but also to be heard, because female voices are of primary significance to this conference.

Grace Hopper said that “Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. ” and it seems to me that there is no better antidote to this “allergy” than gatherings such as the Grace Hopper Celebration, that disrupt not only technological evolution but also the perception about women’s position in it. Code it Like a Girl renews its encounter with GHC for 2017 and in the meantime, many miles away from Houston, we will keep doing whatever possible in order to reinforce women in technology and offer the tools needed so that they keep innovating.

About Konstantina and Chara:

Konstantina Vezirtzoglou has a Diploma in Business Administration from the University of Macedonia and is currently doing her MSc in Mobile and Web Computing at the International Hellenic University. She is a Code it Like a Girl member since November 2015 and as a coder she has helped in the pro bono website development on behalf of the organization for socially sensitive organizations. Being a computer enthusiast, she enjoys reading about the latest news in tech, attending conferences and learning new things through online courses.

Chara Podimata studied Electrical and Computer Engineering (Computer Science direction) at the National Technical University of Athens. During her studies there, she was mainly involved in the field of Algorithms and her dissertation was on the subject of Algorithmic Game Theory. Since May 2015 she is a member of Code it Like a Girl Athens and specifically of the Coding Education Team. Since August 2016 she is doing her PhD at the CS Department of Harvard University with Yiling Chen as her adviser while she is also member of the EconCS research group.

Written and translated by Anastasia Siapka