Thoughts on the Grace Hopper Celebration 2020: Common Themes at the Virtual Conference
I first heard of the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) while I was pursuing my Master’s in Applied Computer Science. A friend attended the conference with a group from our school and came back with wonderful stories. I’ve always enjoyed a good convention or conference — it’s so invigorating to be in a space filled with like-minded people excited to learn or experience new things! So, of course, I dreamed of attending Grace Hopper to meet motivated women in the tech space.
Unfortunately, I never attended GHC while I was in school. I didn’t fully understand the opportunities that awaited at the career fair and networking events hosted by the conference. I assumed it was just like any other conference — great for networking, but more about panels and learning. Don’t get me wrong, GHC is all about learning — that’s what I’m here to talk about today — but they put special effort into creating access for students and new graduates to companies and recruiters. That’s a big selling point for the conference and what makes it a huge event, especially for women entering the tech industry.
Overall, GHC amazes and inspires women and men alike by highlighting issues that women in tech face and also providing solutions! I think that’s the important note — not only does the celebration validate and share our experiences, it offers us options and action! The Grace Hopper Celebration is about empowerment and opportunity. So, if you ever get the chance to attend I would highly recommend taking full advantage!
For all these reasons I was thrilled when I was invited this year to attend for the first time with my employer, T-Mobile, and our Women in Technology group. The company was a Silver Sponsor of the conference and was looking forward to recruiting some amazing talent. I was meant to attend for learning and experience sake, and also to network and encourage attendees to check out our booth. It was exciting — I love the company and am glad to point potential candidates our way. I also always enjoy a panel on tech and women’s issues. Let’s do it, I thought!
All that said, this year turned out a little different — how many times have we heard that in 2020? This year GHC became vGHC: Virtual Grace Hopper Celebration. We all know this was a wrench in the plans, but the GHC team did their best to make it work. Of course, there are perks to a remote conference, right? I can jump between sessions easily and sessions do not have an attendance limit. Sessions are also being recorded and will be available to attendees for 6 months after the conference. This means I can go back and “attend” panels that I wasn’t able to see originally — that’s a big bonus! I can also attend on my work laptop — maybe that one is a pro and a con. I’m able to keep my email and slack notifications in check but I do have to put in extra effort to focus on the panels and remind myself that I’m technically “out of office”, whatever that means these days…
So the big kicker that came out via email from the GHC team pretty late in the game was the update that the career fair would not go forward as planned. Due to performance tests failing to meet the standards necessary to support access for all attendees, the fair was postponed. This must have been a crushing update to share, knowing that the career fair is possibly the most important and attended piece of the conference. AnitaB.org (the main sponsor of the event) announced that they will host a career fair by the end of the year after spending more time preparing the platform. Even so, the news was devastating to a lot of attendees who had been looking forward to making life-changing connections. I was disappointed that I couldn’t share our booth with the awesome people I had already connected with via LinkedIn and #GHC20.
I think we can all agree that 2020 has delivered enough disappointment to us at this point. Let’s all just try to look on the bright side and celebrate the spirit of GHC and put our efforts into reaching out personally to network. Post on LinkedIn that you attended GHC (with #GHC20 or #vGHC20) and see how many people reach out! I got something like 15 new connections before the conference even started, all of whom I personally interacted with via direct messaging. We had great conversations about their careers and expectations for the event. GHC continued to help connect us, even without a platform of its own.
So in the spirit of optimism let’s talk about the things we did get out of the Grace Hopper Celebration. I want to talk about the common themes among the panels and workshops that I attended. Obviously I was only able to view a small percentage of the talks, since there are something like 5–10 hosted every hour, so it’s highly likely that other attendees observed different trends if they were to take a diverging path. I am in the middle of my career, so I was focused on attending panels that related to talks by leadership, idea formation, process discussion — mainly I’m interested in how other people do their jobs, how I can do mine better, and means for furthering my career. I also attended some of the Open Source Day workshops, which was a very fun learning experience.
Here’s what I learned:
How to Build for Users
I do not do any UI/UX work in my professional life, but I do have some full-stack apps in the works personally, so I was very interested in attending the sessions on user experience and understanding how users interact with a product. For me these included (in case anyone reading has a membership and wants to watch these):
- Developing Live View for Google Maps: A Lesson in Working With Emerging Technologies with Rachel Inman (Staff UX Design Lead, Google) and Wenli Zhao (Software Engineer, Google)
- You’re Asking Users the Wrong Questions! with Marieke McCloskey (UX Research Lead, Humu)
- Your New Product: What to Build and When to Build it with Ciara McDaniel (Senior Product Manager, Workday)
- Finding the Human Behind Tech: Building Products for Emerging Markets with Ginger Baker (Head of Open Finance, Plaid)
The common theme between all of these panels was summed up well in Marieke’s talk. She stated that simply asking a user about what kind of product they want or what would be useful to them, is not effective. A product designer needs to observe the user while they interact to get a full understanding of the need. Observing a customer interacting, either with the app or the problem the app seeks to solve, gives deeper insight into user’s natural behavior. For example, a user often speaks in generalizations or may subconsciously seek to affirm notions. Therefore, asking “How do you normally do x?” will lead the user to explain a typical scenario, or more often, how they would ideally do x. Marieke suggests, that you instead try asking something along the lines of, “Tell me about the last time you did x…” This encourages the user to be more specific and realistic about the situation.
We heard some amazing stories from the women on these panels, as well, about scenarios where users surprised the designers. During the presentation about Google Live View, an augmented reality version of Google Maps that helps users navigating on foot, the designers discussed a surprising issues with their initial design. While testing with users the team was surprised to discover that when displaying the route as a blue line on the ground in the AR view, users were likely to strictly follow the path, even if it led to a dangerous location, like into the street. One would expect that a user would know to use the crosswalk, even if the blue line does not, but it turns out that humans interact with AR differently than we predicted. It doesn’t feel as real as we would expect, especially since the view is limited in peripheral vision. Therefore, obviously, the blue line was scrapped and the designers opted ultimately for more abstract directional queues, like floating arrows.
My favorite example of the theme, though, was from the Finding the Human Behind the Tech talk with Ginger Baker, a leader at Plaid. Her presentation focused on developing technology to serve emerging markets, like Rwanda and the Philippines. Ms. Baker explained that she was developing a banking app to serve communities that did not have a bank in their area. Local citizens had to travel to the nearest city to manage any banking transactions — that seemed like a problem that needed to be solved. She moved to Rwanda to work on this product and test with local communities — also a great idea! She noted that a friend she made there was a perfect user — he regularly travelled to the city to go to the bank, but oddly he never got around to using the app. When asked why he never used the app he told her that he actually enjoyed going to the city for these transactions because the bank had air conditioning!
Stories like these illustrate well the misconceptions that we may hold about our users. It’s possible to design a useful application that solves a clear problem, but until it’s in the hands of users, there are going to be factors that you don’t expect. Users may interact with the UI in an unexpected way. They may not see the issue that you are solving as a problem in the first place. You won’t know until you interact with them directly and observe their needs first hand.
Learning from failure
This theme applies to a broad range of topics in the industry and appeared in almost every presentation I watched. The first time it came up was early in the conference during the talk with Jen Fitzpatrick and Aparna Pappu, both leaders in the Google organization. Their talk was titled Beyond the Code and they discussed their paths to leadership and discussed advice for up-and-coming technologists. It was a great presentation with a very conversational feel. At one point they discussed their own failures and what they learned in the process.
Both had experienced what, at the time, felt like failure in their careers. Both also had the same perspective that those experiences were some of their most defining moments. Aparna discussed an experience in grad school when she brought down Georgia Tech’s entire network with a program she wrote to study video streaming before it was well understood — what a story! But she learned fundamental concepts about networking and this enforced the key concept that code does not exist in a vacuum. These were foundational ideas for her moving forward in the tech space.
Jen on the other hand spoke to her experience as an intern at Google working on an initial version of local search, a project to allow Google to return results that were relevant to the user’s location. We all know and love this feature these days, but originally when she worked on it the local content did not exist. Testing in Silicon Valley worked well but in smaller, less tech-forward locations the tests failed and the project was scrapped! Imagine if that project had stayed down — what would the world be like? But Jen learned about planning and the importance of looking at a project from a broader view. These are obviously traits that helped her get where she is today.
This is one of many examples that drove this point home for me. The overall message was to dream big, expect failure, and learn from it! Accept the risk and try your best to succeed, but don’t be afraid of failing because that will hold you back. The only thing that can be gained from failure is a deeper understanding and that’s what we all seek in this industry — so go for it! This was a consistent theme from leadership at the conference, so I take it as solid advice!
Open Source Day
Women make up approximately 24% of the technology industry, but only 6% of open source contributions. I am a woman in technology who is interested in open source, but that statistic was not shocking to me. It seems like it should be, but even in my current career, I do not see myself as someone who can contribute to, and certainly not maintain, an open source project.
Open Source Day at the Grace Hopper Celebration has changed my mindset and attitude on this topic. These workshops demystified open source and the process necessary to contribute. I already understood Git and I can code — you don’t need much more. In fact, contrary to my feelings prior to this event, you don’t even need to be a code expert! Many projects are looking for help with documentation and these kinds of issues can be a great entry point for someone who is not as confident in their coding ability. Documentation requires understanding a project, so this will give the contributor the chance to dive in, read the code, and try to understand the project before contributing for the first time.
Unfortunately, the events I attended related to Open Source Day were workshops, and therefore are not available afterward, to my knowledge. However, I have written more about the technical aspects of this series here. Check it out if you’re interested in making your first contribution!
Equity of Experience
As is appropriate for a conference targeting women and minorities in tech, many panels touched on the idea of equity of experience and designing your application in a way that is inclusive. A few of the talks that I enjoyed on this topic include:
- Serena Williams’ and Megan Rapinoe’s Keynote Speeches
- Decoding Bias: A Conversation with Joy Buolamwini
- Making Smart Spaces Human: Ambient Technologies that Enhance Life and Work with Kristi Woolsey (Associate Director (Boston Consulting Group) and Ashley Arhart (Principal, DigitalBCG)
- Applying Accessibility and Gender Sensitive Design Strategy to API Design with Anwesha Bhattacharjee (Product Manager, Hopper)
I think the highlight of this category was the discussion with Joy Buolamwini, founder of Algorithmic Justice League and focus of the documentary Coded Bias. Joy is an outstanding researcher and software engineer in the AI space — I learned something new, though — she’s also a poet! And an amazing poet at that. She introduced herself as “a storyteller, a poet of code, who tells stories that make the daughters of diaspora dream and sons of privilege pause.” What a sentiment for the Grace Hopper Celebration!
The interesting story here, though, was the clear contrast between Joy’s Decoding Bias talk and the Making Smart Spaces Human discussion from Ashley Arhart and Kristi Woolsey. Ashley and Kristi’s talk was fascinating and a little scary at times — their discussion centered around making spaces intelligent with ambient technologies that could observe human behavior and deliver metrics or aid when necessary. One example of this might be observing a classroom to inform the teacher when a student needs help based on body language or even helping the teacher to understand and correct his or her own biases based on metrics collected. The topic was interesting and the optimistic possibilities striking, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit of dread at the kind of surveillance state that these ideas implied. It seemed to me that the speakers were being extremely optimistic about the likely applications of these AI-based technologies.
Ashley and Kristi touched on the idea of equity of experience and consent from people in the space — these are the kinds of topics that need more discussion in the world of AI, so I was glad to hear their thoughts. However, I watched Joy’s discussion afterward and was struck when she spoke directly to the discomfort that I felt while watching the talk on ambient technology. When Joy was asked about our responsibility as technologists, her response was that we must acknowledge both the optimistic possibilities and the realistic limitations of our technology as we develop and share it. If our software has limitations we must recognize and share those for the safety of our community. For example, facial recognition software should not be shared with law enforcement while it continues to struggle with proven race and gender limitations. What is the experience of a black student in a classroom with ambient technology that does not recognize him or her? These cannot be secondary concerns.
The basis of Joy’s research and the documentary based on it is that AI exhibits bias of its own based on its creators. The broader implications of this fact have led to a drop-off in public trust of AI-based software. In order to make these types of technologies equitable and safe the people behind the software need to be more diverse. In addition there has to be an effort put into training the models on an inclusive data set.
This takes us back to the point that Aparna Pappu made in her talk. Code exists in an environment, not a vacuum. As technologists we must always remember that not only does our code exist within a network environment, it exists within a human world. We are far more complex than the most intricate system infrastructure. As we develop technology for the public’s consumption we must always have their best interests in mind — as this tech becomes more integrated we’re taking their lives and safety into our hands. Always remember your responsibility to them.
Overall, the Virtual Grace Hopper Celebration inspired me and forced me to think outside the box about technology, inclusion, and career growth. I came out of the conference with new understanding and ideas about the future of technology and my role in that future. I am excited to move forward in my career and continue to learn more about topics like open source and UI/UX design.
Finally, I will leave you with a touching rendition of Joy Buolamwini’s AI, Ain’t I A Woman? Enjoy!