Computing Profession

Grace Hopper Highlights


I just returned from the 2009 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Sold out with over 1600 attendees (nearly half students), Grace Hopper is becoming the conference to attend for women in CS.

Just as with other conferences, the more years you attend, the more people you know and the more enjoyable the conference becomes. This year I was happy to spend time catching up with friends from CRA-W (and many others who have volunteered at CRA-W events), students I have mentored (past and present), and old friends from grad school!

Some notable highlights:

  • The keynote by Google’s Megan Smith illuminated several ways in which Google is innovating for social good (e.g., increasing internet availability in Africa, or tracking health trends based on people searching for flu symptoms). I am impressed at how Google leverages its core strength (search) to deliver insights and innovations in previously unrelated markets. Who would have imagined that you could predict epidemics by looking at users’ search behavior? Yet like many good ideas, this one only seems obvious in hindsight.
  • Ruzena Bajcsy, during her acceptance speech for the Anita Borg Technical Leadership Award, commented on how education is suffering in California due to the shortsightedness of the “me generation”. She received a standing ovation for closing with advice to the younger generation: go home and tell your parents not to be so selfish.
  • Fran Allen hosted an award luncheon in honor of the recipient of the Fran Allen PhD Fellowship (Aruna Balakrishnan, who is interning at Almaden this summer!). Reflecting how the Grace Hopper conference sold out this year, she pointed out that conferences that focus on building a community are growing despite the economic downturn, while more “traditional” conferences are seeing their participation fall off.
  • The conference swag at GHC is always interesting. The clear winners this year: small backpacking-sized tube of sunscreen from Yahoo!, fold-up grocery bag from Intuit, multicolored USB hub from some company I can’t remember. Things I gave back: bright red nail polish from State Farm, a tabletop purse hook from NetApp, multiple tins of breath mints.
  • I’ve seen the level of Twitter usage vary widely across different conferences. As usual, women lead the way in social media. Twitterers liveblogged most of the high points of the conference: check out the #ghc09 hashtag.
  • The discussion during the ResearcHers lunch for women in industry/government labs raised several interesting issues specific to women in research labs. Getting travel support to attend the conference for women in these labs can be extremely challenging. One point was made that the conference needs to be very careful about how it describes itself: the emphasis on networking and career development may give the impression that women are attending primarily to “network” with other institutions and find a better job elsewhere. The benefit to the students of having more representatives from industry/government research labs is obvious: they get role models of women who have succeeded in these labs. But in tough economic times, labs cut back on travel funding, and the government grants that fund student travel can’t typically be used to support professional women. How can we help more research lab women join the community of women in CS and attend future Hopper conferences?

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