Women In Tech - A Recap of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing

Tuesday 11/15/16 10:00am
Posted By Christine Jorgensen
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About 150 employees from Qualcomm® Technologies, Inc. – engineers, program and product managers, IT administrators, programmers, a few VPs and our CIO – attended The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) in Houston last month. That’s up from 80 of us last year and 12 of us the year before that.

Large group of Qualcomm's female employees at GHC 2016

Have you heard about GHC? Managers and engineers in the Qualcomm Developer Network attend many events and conferences every year to build out our community and involve different audiences. GHC is gaining momentum big-time (a record-setting 15,000 attendees from 83 countries this year), so I want to recap five main takeaways from the conference for you.

5. GHC is a Conference Deep on Technology, Whether You’re a Man or a Woman.

Sure, many sessions at GHC cover issues for women in the tech workplace, but a lot more of them explore technology issues that have nothing to do with gender. Here’s just a sample of session titles:

  • Using Machine Learning to Build a Semantic Understanding of Mobile Apps
  • Neuromorphic Computing: Introduction, Motivation and Research Challenges
  • Security Logs Aren't Enough: Event Logging for User Privacy
  • Multilevel Stress Classification from ECG Signals
  • A ‘Pre-chopped-onions’ Approach to Building Progressive Web Apps

It turns out that technology problems like, say, IoT security and privacy, are gender-agnostic. Whether you’re a male engineer or a female engineer, those problems don’t solve themselves; you have to study the space, come up with an idea and design and implement a solution. I can attend sessions on IoT issues at Sensors Expo or at an IEEE workshop, but at GHC I can attend those sessions plus others on mentorship or developing advocacy in the organization as well.

I’m not a fan of attending women’s events just because they’re for women. At GHC, I get to learn, think and talk about both the technology and the workplace. It’s a very compelling combination for me.

4. It’s About Sending the Elevator Back Down.

GHC attracts a mix of women of all ages at different points in their career. In the spirit of sending the elevator back down, it caters to college students as well, since education is the starting point, getting young women interested in pursuing tech fields and keeping them in there when the curriculum gets tough.

There’s plenty of room in that elevator. When I graduated with a BSCS in the mid-1980s, about 37% of undergrad students in computer science was a woman; nowadays, that figure is around 18%. GHC is one way those of us in tech - both men and women - are spending time with female computer science grads, post-grads and interns to push that 18% back up. I spoke to an audience of about 50 students, several of whom had been Qualcomm interns. Then we hosted a coding challenge with nine teams working on the DragonBoard™ 410c development platform.

Mostly, students wanted to know what it takes to build a satisfying career in technology and what they can do besides write code. For that matter, some students are burned out already. One told me, “I’ve been writing code for five years already. If I apply to Qualcomm, do I have to be a programmer forever?”

At the other end of the timeline, I met a programmer who has been working on mainframes in COBOL for 25 years. She knows that tech is changing under her, so she’s been taking classes in Java programming on her own time. She attended GHC to get ideas about where trends are leading and what to do next.

3. We Talk About Other Things Besides Wanting More Women in Tech.

We’re too busy talking and thinking about how we can apply what we’ve learned when we get back to the office: the code, the frameworks, the SDKs, the workflows, the approaches . . .

Mind you, it is pretty cool in the middle of a session like “Building Software-Defined Distributed Systems with Ovid” to look around and realize the room is full of women. But that’s only because it happens so rarely in our work-lives. GHC is a novelty to us, and for some people – including us women – wrapping their head around a technology conference designed for women is still pretty difficult.

How difficult? Here’s an example: Several of us were seated in a restaurant near the convention center the first night, and the waiters were struggling to keep up with influx of attendees. When ours finally came for our order, I mentioned what a busy night they were having.

“That’s for sure,” he said. “It’s unusual for them to book two conferences at the same time. All of the restaurants around here are slammed.”

“There are two conferences running now?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “There’s a computer engineering conference and then there’s also a women’s conference.”

It didn’t occur to him that they could be the same conference. It doesn’t occur to a lot of people. Yet.

2. Thirty of Our 150 Attendees Were from IT Services.

I was glad to see that so many of our female co-workers in IT Services attended GHC. Having a female CIO at Qualcomm helps.

1. We Don’t Think, “I’m a Woman in Tech.” We Think, “I’m an Engineer, Doing my Job.”

As I mentioned, a tech problem doesn’t care whether you’re a male or female engineer. One way or the other, people need to sit down and solve it, and my experience has always been that diverse teams produce better outcomes.

Qualcomm feels the same way. The company is taking steps to close the gender gap through Qualcomm Wireless Reach™ and other programs that encourage greater participation by women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). Qualcomm was also a sponsor of GHC this year.

For me, a big part of the conference is spending time around other women and listening to the way we all talk about technology. We don’t usually get that on a daily basis, even with groups like Qualcomm Women in IT (QWIT) and Qualcomm Women in Science and Engineering (QWISE).

Plus, GHC offers plenty of material on career, community, negotiation, transition and promotion that’s useful whether you’re a man or a woman. The importance of GHC is in making sure that women are exposed to that material, because it can be harder for us to come by.

More About GHC

The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is a conference presented by the Anita Borg Institute (ABI) for Women in Technology and the Association for Computing Machinery.

Keep an eye out for upcoming ABI events aimed at bringing women technologists together. We’ll be back at GHC next year in even greater numbers. Meanwhile, contact me in the comments below to find out more.