Grace Hopper: Looking Back to Move Forward

In a week, I'll be heading to Orlando for Grace Hopper 2017, my fifth GHC.  The previous gatherings have each resonated differently but have consistently inspired me to action.  Last time I attended, I came home and quit my job! 

My experience of the conferences changes each time, as a function of where I am in my career.  It’s a testament to the breadth of content that the conference can resonate with undergraduates, graduate students, academics, and industry professionals from ICs to executives.  It’s also a testament to how pervasive gender issues can be in tech that women of all ages and positions can find common ground in the shared experience of our gender.

To the person I am today, Grace Hopper is so inspiring because everyone is both supportive and authentic.  At Grace Hopper, questions about my experience come from a place of genuine curiosity instead of poorly-masked disbelief and proof-seeking.  I can state my ambitions without worrying that my next performance review will include the word ‘aggressive’.  Stories of being undermined or overlooked are met with, “Ugh, I know!” instead of, “Are you sure that’s really what happened?” or, “Maybe you should just talk louder next time.” 

I remember being surprised at my first Grace Hopper by the huge range of technical women I saw: old and young, formal and casual, corporate and academic.   I was a student then (I think it was 2004) and I’d never seen professional, technical women beyond the handful of female professors in my department.  I remember seeing a huge range of footwear—sneakers, stilettos, combat boots, flats, sandals, you-name-it—and wondering whether this variety really reflected the wardrobes of these professionals.  Was this normal, or was there a safety to the women-focused conference that led everyone to dress a bit more authentically than they would in their daily professional lives?  I still wonder about this. 

I remember that Google that year sponsored one of their now-famous parties, and that the gift bags on the way out included a copy of Unlocking the Clubhouse by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher, and a Google t-shirt.  This was long enough ago that the women’s cut and the availability of XS sizes was a pleasant and buzz-worthy surprise.  The party was extravagant compared to anything I’d seen before, including lots of good food and an open bar, face painting, massages, caricature drawing, and palm reading. The hotel ballroom contained so many balloons and colored lights that it really did feel like another, more exciting, world.  I thought it was great that Google valued diversity enough to make us all feel so welcome in this world.  I didn’t realize at the time that the sense of belonging wouldn’t translate smoothly from party into the workplace.

At my second GHC, in 2007 (Keystone, CO), my main takeaway was a sense of dawning understanding of the value of community.  I was a few years into graduate school by then.  I’d always had the top grades in my classes, which made it simple to demonstrate to myself—and to others, when necessary—that I was no impostor.  By 2007, however, I was doing full-time research, and research bears no such objective measures.  Impostor syndrome started to creep in.  GHC 2007 gave me female role models, female voices, and a community of women at the time when I first needed them personally.  It gave me the words to articulate what I was experiencing.  It showed me the power of a female community, which I’ve continued to cultivate for myself ever since.

My strongest memory from GHC 2007 is of the 90-minute carpool from the airport to the conference site.  I attended with roughly 10 other women from UW’s CSE department (now the Allen School).  We rented a 12-person van, which one of the women drove.  When I think back on this, the picture of a woman at the wheel is refreshing.  I’ve been in so many professional carpools since, for research retreats, technical conferences, corporate teambuilding events, etc.—and it’s never, ever the women who end up driving.  Never.

At the 2009 conference (Tucson, AZ), I was less than a year away from defending my Ph.D. thesis.  I saw examples of women with doctorates doing satisfying and respected work in non-academic roles, solidifying my desire to leave academia (not an easy choice when the people granting you your Ph.D. have all, by definition, made the opposite decision). 

In 2009 I also participated in GHC’s Ph.D. forum.  This meant giving a technical talk about my thesis work, something which by that point was fairly routine.  In this forum, though, everyone in the audience had a full-page evaluation form which they filled out as I spoke and returned to me afterward, anonymously.  

If you’re one of those people like me who assumes—no, who knows for sure—that everyone is always thinking the worst about you, getting this kind of feedback is transformative.  The audience had no reason to be anything but honest, yet most of the feedback was positive.  I had strong technical content, for example, which was well-structured (not a surprise, in retrospect, for someone who reorganizes her spice cabinet for fun).  The constructive feedback was exactly that:  It strengthened my work in ways I could never have done on my own.  When your advisor tells you that you need to slow down your speech, you try to slow it down.  When 15 of 40 strangers take the time to write in the free-form comments that you’re talking too quickly, you figure out how to slow. it. down.

Last time I attended, in 2015 (Houston, TX), GHC gave me the final nudge and the confidence that I needed to seek a more ambitious job.  I’d been bored and frustrated for nearly a year.  Six months prior, I’d watched two men on my team get the promotion I wanted.  One absolutely deserved it, and the other absolutely didn’t.  That controversial promotion was a factor in the departure of three of the best people on our team, which is a great management lesson and a story for another time. 

That year at Grace Hopper, I listened to hyper-successful technical women, including Sheryl Sandberg and Susan Wojcicki, talk about taking chances and trusting themselves.  I attended practical seminars on career and job transitions.  I watched my resume get snatched up at the career fair.  I revised that resume on the flight home, started interviewing a week later, and landed an awesome new role and gave my notice shortly thereafter.  Two years later, my only regret is not making the transition a year earlier.

This year, I’m looking forward to replenishing my reservoir of inspiration as I start to look for my next professional role.  I’m not sure what form that inspiration will take, but I’ve been to enough of these now to know that GHC will deliver.  See you in a week!