Grace Hopper Celebration 2017 trip report

Observations from a man visiting the biggest Women in Tech conference in the world
2017-10-07

TL;DR: The best technical conference I ever attended, period.

The conference hallways were packed

Before the conference

I had colleagues on my team visit the conference in previous years, who unanimously recommended attending Grace Hopper Celebration conference. I decided that this year was worth giving a shot, as it was located in Orlando for the first time in many years and at my surprise, I was able to get a ticket, which is really hard.

This is the best place to get an eye opening experience and more perspective for technical people, because this conference is all about computer science and engineering. I decided to attend the conference without networking too much in advance and spent a fair amount of time without colleagues. I wanted to simulate, in an inverted way up to the possible extent, the experience as a woman joining a 95% male dominated conference.

Invisibility

As a French Canadian, which is a minority in Canada, market forces makes it harder to surface my culture. A concrete example: it is 2017 and it is still near impossible to legally rent a movie with French audio in Canada, a country where French is an official language!

For the first time ever I got a glimpse of the experience of becoming visibly invisible looking at a small subset of #GHC17 tweets: All women rave, 18000 women, etc. It was very minor in practice but I did notice.

This, I could relate to, and it gave an interesting perspective. I don’t mind at all, as it was the purpose of my GHC17 trip to get perspective and I got what I was looking for! To get the full experience, I corrected one person once: “there were men too *blink* *blink*”, and realized how it can very quickly get tedious, boring and burdening.

The subject of minorities was touched in many different ways during keynotes and sessions. For example how neural networks, by definition, are focusing on finding common patterns at the expense of “uncommon” ones.

As a minority, you occasionally have to explain your uniqueness to the majority and it can be seen as being demanding. People’s perception of you quickly becomes associated with someone who is complaining.

So it really stuck with me how important it is to defend other minorities in your group and be kind. Show that everyone belong and they are welcome. The important skill in software engineering is empathy.

Interactions

First, it was very refreshing to get so many technical people into one place. GHC17 was by an order of magnitude the largest conference I ever attended.

I went out of my way to talk to other attendees, but I was grateful that many attendees went the other way around and reached out to me. It really changed the experience and made the conference feel more welcoming. That’s definitely something I’ll try to do in my next meetups to help make everyone feel that they belong.

When I got the chance to connect with other attendees, I tried to inquire about their experience. While I got the chance to talk to many experienced software engineers (SWEs), most were students in computer science or computer engineering degrees that were excited about being able to work in this domain and were on the lookout for role models and growing their network.

Then I tried to touch many subjects as relevant depending on the attendee’s situation, the most important being: how Canada is awesome for SWEs. :)

I got a few bright eyes and some attendees genuinely thanked me for the insights.

In hindsight, on the other hand I saw that my communication style is too self-centered and I’ll focus on improving this in the near future by asking more open ended questions.

But more than anything else, it helped me grow my own personal network and got the chance to meet amazing women like Kaylyn, Afreen and others I hope to be able to meet again. I met both at the Go meetup at GHC organized by Kaylyn and sponsored by Capital One. Kaylyn wrote a nice article about her personal journey with the language.

Safe place

During the conference, I was asked many times by women attendees if it felt awkward to be a minority at GHC17. It wasn’t: I wasn’t afraid someone would grope me or try to kill me. That may sound funny coming from a man but it’s not, I’m dead serious. I felt psychologically safe, not a single time I felt threatened.

As a practical example, I walked at 11pm to my hotel 5km away, while women attendees had to take an Uber as streets aren’t safe. The mere fact of being a woman cost money even at a safer place like GHC17.

The conference was a safe place, attendees could be themselves without the fear of being judged, at least from what I could see. I saw first hand how it is much easier to be yourself when you are in a safe space. GHC17 felt totally safe as a man, even safer than other male dominated conferences. And on the Friday night party I could experience how it feels like when a large group of women feel safe. The party was quite awesome.

Research inside Google demonstrated this is the main pillar to create effective teams. I’ll work as much as I can to continue to help colleagues to feel safe.

Talks

I attended 11 talks out of hundreds. There were around 20 to 24 concurrent tracks so it was a difficult choice to select which to attend. Some overflowed, which meant having to select a fallback, albeit the latter could be in a different building, requiring a 10 minute walk. The talks were of great quality. The ones I attended were not recorded. I attended mostly the career development (CRnnn) ones as I wanted to get more perspective from women that have been successful in the industry.

I particularly liked:

I especially appreciated the keynotes even if the first one was a bit on the long side, running 40 minutes over the schedule. Speeches by Dr. Sue Black OBE, Maria Spio and Dr. Ayanna Howard are worth watching.

Swag

The amount and quality of swag was quite incredible. The one I liked the most was a personalized drawing made during the party. Prepare a lot of free space in your luggage for the flight back.

Corporate Sponsorship

I wonder if attendees have noticed how much Google is invested into the conference. The company has been a major supporter since 2004. I personally attribute at least partially this to Alan Eustace’s legacy, who was deeply involved during his time at Google as an SVP. This year, there were 3 separate evening events organised, more than any other sponsors. There was more than 800 Googlers, 4.5% of attendees. Half of the attendees coming from my team were men. When I glanced at the keynote attendees, I’d say that less than 5% of the attendees were men, which was a stark contrast: from what I can deduce male Googlers were overly represented at the conference but I don’t have exact data to confirm. :/

I’m not stating the above as “OMG Google is awesome” but as a potential interesting data point, that you can make your own judgement from. While I cannot talk much about what is happening internally at Google, I can state without a doubt that there’s a large number of people willing to change the status quo, most of the leadership genuinely cares and are willing to take a hard stance against toxic people, much more than a few years ago.

I was glad to see the breadth of the corporate sponsors, with many companies I didn’t expect. Some companies have a rule about employees not advertizing their employer, and it did affect my experience a bit. I wanted to get feedback about their view but failed to contact one as I was having a hard time finding them.

Personal Sponsorship and Networking

While corporate swag is fun and all, one thing I truly realized is how personal sponsorship is so important. Many times during the conference speakers called out that sponsors are more important than mentors. If the difference between both is unclear to you, take the time to understand what a sponsor is.

That’s a shame that many men are scared of their own lack of control. The same can be said of 20 years old self so I know what feeling they live even if recalling my old self brings me shame of my own behavior. Yet the negative impact is on women, not on these man-child, reinforcing the effect of boys club as women are defacto left out. The net result is that women are less likely to find sponsors than men.

The solution lies on men being able to grow and become adults.

Other conferences

The closest in diversity it felt to me was Gophercon 2017, which thank to the hard work from many volunteers in Women Who Go, and in particular Sarah Adams, made it possible to give a large number of grants to underrepresented people from all around the world. I personally felt it refreshing to have the conference more representative of the real world than when I last attended in 2015. I saw recommendations for other welcoming conferences on Twitter so I’m glad there is a real trend here.

Should a man go to GHC18?

I think I can summarize that it is worth visiting as a male if you can meet professionally without needing a shepherd or if you can’t, train accordingly, are actively looking to get challenged, stay on the lookout for subtle signals and get more self-awareness and really, just become a better human behing. If this describes you, then I wholeheartedly encourage you to immerse yourself and you’ll truly appreciate the experience.

If you are up for the experience and are looking to prepare yourself, besides increasing your own self-awareness, the best preparation is to prepare like if you were going to do an half-marathon in the coming month, which by chance happened to be the case for me. The conference is so huge with 18000 attendees, 24 concurrent tracks over 2 buildings that you’ll walk more than you’ll do even at Disney World. This is in part why so many attendees feel so tired after the conference.

Conclusion

I wrote this on my flight back home and as the belt sign on lit up as I am approaching the end of this trip, I’m seriously considering attending again next year, even if it means to skip other technical conferences or reduce work trips to reduce the pressure on my family.

While it is fun to learn new technical tricks in a male dominated conference, growing your network in a meaningful way with people who have different backgrounds than you is way more beneficial long term in all possible metrics, and really, just to help become a better human being.


Thanks to Afreen, Mike and Yves for corrections.