Thursday, October 10, 2013

GHC 2013 Highlights Reel

Since I wasn't able to blog during the conference, I thought I would write a short (actually not that short) highlights reel! Enjoy!

The opening keynote for GHC was, in a wait. I can't encapsulate this in a word. It needs several. Amazing, Passionate. Thought provoking. Poignant. And every word true. The keynote, by Sheryl Sandberg, and discussion that followed, with Maria Klawe and Telle Whitney, brought a lot of things to the forefront of my mind that I hadn't considered before. And all of them were true. I'd never really thought about why I was one of only four girls (that I knew of) when I started my CS undergrad. In fact, that number soon dropped to 3. 

The speakers really explored deep-rooted biases and stereotypes. There were two things that really stuck with me through this session. The first of these was the analogy of women in the technical field being likened to a race. If a woman and a man were to start a race at the same time, both equally fit, what voices would the hear? Sheryl stated that the man would hear things like, "Good job! You've got this! Great start!". However, the woman would be hearing, "Are you sure this is something you want to do? Should you start a race you won't finish? Is this the kind of example you want to set for your kids?" As the race goes on, these voices get louder on both sides. The man is hearing, "You're doing great! Just a bit farther! You're almost there!". And the woman hears, "Should you be working this much? What about maternity leave? Are you sure this is the field for you?" This lead nicely into the second point that stuck with me--that this bias starts very, very young. Sheryl asked us to think about this scenario: If you go to a park and watch a bunch of children playing, what are the reactions to the children that take the lead? If the child is a boy, a lot of the time the reactions are, "Oh look! How sweet. He's going to be a great leader one day." However, if the child is a girl, the reactions, both from children and adults, is more along the lines of, "You're so bossy!" Why are little boys leaders while little girls are bossy? This story really drove home the point that we need to start fixing these biases, and we need to start doing it early if we want our little girls to grow up and feel like they have a shot at a leadership position. Sheryl told us the next time we saw this happening that we should march right up and go, "That little girl isn't bossy. That little girl has executive leadership skills."

The second keynote speaker, Megan Smith, was just amazing. She focused on the really cool things that she's been doing lately, and that she did in the past. She showed as that being a woman in this field doesn't always need to be a bad thing. It can be taken advantage of to learn new things and have great opportunities. Just hearing about all the projects she has worked on, and all the projects she still wants to work on, was inspiring. It sounded like she had done more in one year of college than I have my entire academic career! It seems I'll need to set my sights higher.

There were three panels in particular that really stuck out to me through the conference. The first panel was a, "Quiet Success" panel, which focused on how introverts can be successful and thrive in the extrovert-centred environment of leadership roles. The entire panel was made up of self-identified introverts who were really pushing themselves forward in typically extrovert-dominated roles. One of the things that was discussed was a key difference between introverts and extroverts that I had heard outlined in a TED talk before: where introverts and extroverts get their energy. Extroverts get their energy by being with people and getting hyped up, being alone too often can be stifling for them. However, introverts get their energy by "recharging" with some alone time. They can spend time with people, it just costs us energy to do so, contrary to an extrovert. The panel also emphasized that this wasn't a hard-and-fast rule as everyone can be any mix of introverted and extroverted tendencies. Each panelist outlined some of their coping mechanisms both for dealing with other introverts, extroverts, and being in stressful situations. The one tip that I really loved was something along the lines of, "Love yourself and project that to the world. You don't need to have mountains of confidence, just project that you are okay with who you are, and it will all be fine." This reminded me very much of another TED talk (are you sensing a theme here?) where a woman was talking about the typical advice of, "Fake it 'til you make it." She stated that, instead of faking it until we make it, we should fake it until we become it. That's always stuck with me.

The second panel that I really loved was the talk by Thad Starner on wearable computing. He walked through a bunch of the wearable computing devices that have been made and research--many of which he has worked on himself, including very early prototypes of a Google Glass like system (spoilers he worked on Glass too). It was amazing hearing the different types of wearable computing that he's been working on both to benefit a typical end user as well as those with special needs. Two of the particularly inspiring projects he detailed were a glove that trained a hand's muscle memory (they used it to teach a hand to play a song on the piano) and the work he's been doing to use wearable computing to help young deaf children, as well as their parents, learn American Sign Language.

The final panel I'm going to talk about really took the cake for me, as I'm sure many other people would agree to as well. It was the panel by Brenda Chapman, the writer and director of the Pixar movie Brave. And who has worked on just about every other awesome movie from my childhood (e.g., Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, etc.). She talked about trying to break into and working in a male-dominated field, and some of the key principles she has learned over the years to really help her succeed. One of these was to make the most of opportunities. She outlined how she had been thrilled to learn she had been hired as a novice story artist by Disney after she had graduated from art school. For about three seconds, after which the guy telling her she'd gotten the job said it was because she was a woman, as they needed to really start filling out that quota. She told us how crushed she was, and then her resolution to make the most of it. I loved when she told us that, "It's okay. I have my foot in the door. I don't *like* how my foot is in the door, but it's in the door. Now I'll just work as hard as I can to prove to these guys that I deserve this job. And to prove to myself that I deserve this job." What an absolutely fantastic way to deal with the situation, and what an inspiration. I'm definitely going to be keeping the things she told me in mind as I move forward in my career.

The final highlight I'll go into detail about was the dancing. I don't know how to explain to coworkers that there was dancing at a conference! And not just one night of it, but two! And it was the most fun I've ever had at a dance in my life. There was just this amazing unself-conscious atmosphere. There was no one there to impress. Everyone was just there to have fun. And boy was it fun! I had a great time dancing with the other girls from the group from Carleton (plus one from Western). We all went in saying we couldn't dance, but I think we had some great moves! I'll have to say one of the most memorable things was watching Telle Whitney not only dancing, but encouraging others to have the time of their lives! And of course, who can forget the dancing dots of the Anita Borg Institute? (I can't really figure out how to explain the dancing dots..perhaps that will be another blog post)

All in all, this conference made me realize a lot of the things that women in technology have to face. These were things I hadn't previously been aware of so, for me at least, the conference was eye-opening. However, these revelations also made me feel incredibly grateful. It made me realize how lucky I've been throughout my life, as I've never personally experienced these things. My parents have always supported my education and career choices. Every job I've had, everyone around me have been incredibly supportive of the roles that I've filled. In high school, I had an absolutely fantastic female role model in my computer science teacher. I've been very lucky. I hope that conferences like GHC will help make this type of thing more prevalent. I would love it to be a common thing that when women discuss being in a technology-based field, they won't have to have been lucky to have gotten opportunities or to receive support, that it will be the norm. I hope that I'll be able to contribute to making this vision a reality.

Sorry for the long-winded post. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

GHC13 Roundup

As usual, I blogged about the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing on my personal blog.  And, as usual, it was a fantastic experience! Here's what I wrote about:
Thanks to everyone involved for a great conference, and thanks especially to the awesome students I travelled with!

GHC and Gender Issues

I remember, as a child, learning the history of the oppression of women in my country and that in some countries far away, women were still not accepted as equals. This made me very uncomfortable and, admittedly a little outraged, but glad that I lived in a time and place where gender equality was prevalent. As a pre-teen, however, I learned (to my dismay) that even in my own country, women were still underrepresented in important fields like politics, science and technology (not to mention, often paid less than men in the same roles).

I believe that increasing the number of women in technology (and other important fields) enriches the field as it introduces new perspectives and talent. In most systems, diversity increases the quality of the output. Gender diversity in the workplace is no exception. An increased number of women in computing also amplifies the voices of women in society, coming one step closer to true gender equality. The relationship is symbiotic in that the field of technology enriches the lives of the women involved as well.

The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing puts these gender issues on the table and actively works to rectify them. It unites women in computing creating a community that celebrates, encourages and inspires thereby helping to keep women in computing in the field and encourage outreach. This conference offers a uniquely welcoming, supportive and fun (ice cream and dancing!) atmosphere, brilliant academic presentations and discussions as well as informative skill development presentations. The success stories of how women have leveraged technology to make an impact are truly inspiring. I would absolutely recommend this conference to other women in technology and will certainly be attending again in the future. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Mobile Technology for Sign-Language Communication and Eyes-Free Texting

I attended the PhD forum for mobile technology on Thursday morning, and found out about some fascinating research for helping people with deafness or blindness communicate using mobile smartphones.

Human-Centered Approach to Evaluating Mobile Sign Language Video Communication
Presenter: Jessica J. Tran, University of Washington, Seattle

Video communication on smartphones require a lot of data and bandwidth, which can be expensive and difficult to get a hold of.  When your source of communication is through video sign language and not through just voice-calling, this doesn't seem very fair or accessible.  People who are deaf should not have to pay more to have enough data to communicate.  Jessica J. Tran's research involves studying how low frame-rates and bandwidth can go before video sign language is no longer intelligible.  Volunteers would look at videos of a man signing sentences to them, ranging from 1 to 12 frames per second and varying kilobytes per second.  They would then rate the video for intelligibility and answer a question about the sentence being signed.  This research could allow companies to use the best combination for intelligibility and price, lowering costs yet still being understandable.

Perkinput: Eyes-Free Text Entry for Mobile Devices
Presenter: Shiri Azentot, University of Washington

On iPhone, non-visual text entry is possible, but very slow.  The user must hover over the screen and have the buttons read out to them, and then tap again to select the button.  This approach is also prone to errors.  Perkinput is an application that allows users who know Braille to type quickly and with less errors. On an iPhone, the user calibrates the app by placing down all four fingers, and then types each column of Braille using their index, middle and ring fingers as required. On an iPad, the user can use both hands, one for the first column of a Braille character, and another for the second column; and go even faster.  The application combines maximum likelihood and tracking to ensure that it is always reading the right fingers.  The application has been successful in testing so far, with faster speeds and fewer errors and a greater rate of improvement over time than voice-over.

How an old, not-so-smart phone can be used for health care in Africa

Throughout the Grace Hopper Celebration, I attended various talks in various realms of study, like new technologies and research, how to make the most of your career, and gender issues.  The below talk is definitely one of the more inspirational ones I went to.  The speakers really showed how such simple, outdated technology here can be changing lives for the better somewhere else.  Below is my summary and impressions

Talk: "Software and Not So Smart Phones Providing Health Services in Africa BoF"
Facilitators: Charlene Tshitoka and Liandra Bassiane (Thoughtworks)

Not everyone can afford a smartphone.  Most people can't, and in Africa, it isn't really a priority when you can use and reuse a simple phone until the battery completely gives out.  Those who want to use mobile technology to improve health care must use simple phone technologies... and it's making a big difference.

Not-so-smart phones have speech and text; internet and data is expensive.  The basic phone is shared in a community, passed down and reused until the phone is completely dead.  So how can we use simple SMS messages to improve health care?

30% of the medication is fake, and thousands of people die each year from counterfeit drugs.  How can a consumer pick up medication and be completely sure that this medicine will help them get better? mPedigree ( allows users to check the authenticity of their medicine by scratching a one-time-use code on the bottle, texting the code in, and receiving a text back with whether the drug is genuine or not.  Pharmaceutical companies pay for this service since they don't want counterfeiters selling drugs under their names.

Motech ( is like an open-source mobile midwife service.  Pregnant women can sign up with the service, and receive reminders about their appointments, as well as information about their pregnancy.  There is a strong culture and women tend to trust in what their elders tell them.  Sometimes what they pass down are little things like, "if you eat too much fruit during your pregnancy, then your child will grow up to be a thief." When the women receive texts and calls from health professionals, they can learn what helps their pregnancies and what hinders it.  The service keeps in touch after the child is born, calling and asking after the health of the woman and child.

In India, millions of women wish to avoid getting pregnant, but they do not have access to effective and affordable methods.  CycleTel ( a simple service provided by ThoughtWorks which sends texts to women informing them about their menstrual cycle using the Standard Days Method.  Women can make their own choices about whether or not they want to have children and when.

There are some problems that arise when considering mobile health options:
Confidentiality. If a phone is being shared, how can we send confidential information?  Most services send a unique password during registration, and only the person with the password can access their information
Standardization.  There are multiple phone companies, and the application has to be available with every one.
User experience.  People need to want to use your application, or they won't.
User adoption.  Most people are used to face-to-face communication, but that's not always possible.  Usually a trusted health-care workers recommends the application and helps the person register.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Grace Hopper Highlights

While the entire experience of Grace Hopper was fantastic, I wanted to take some time to point out some of the talks from the conference that really stuck out in my mind.

While maybe a bit obvious, seeing Cheryl Sandberg speak was a really inspirational way to start the conference.  Her convictions on the topic are so strong it's impossible not to be motivated in her presence.  Especially during the panel with Maria Klawe and Telle Whitney; what a wonderful mix of backgrounds and personalities.

Similarly, while seeing Megan Smith was unexpected, I am grateful I had the opportunity to hear her speak.  The work she does with Google is a pretty good definition of "Thinking Big".  She covered so many topics in her talk with such enthusiasm and still left me with the feeling she had a hundred more worthy projects she would have loved to talk about.

If I had to choose just one session that really impressed me, it would have to be the tech speaker Sheila Nirenberg.  She presented some work on creating a prosthetic eye for people with degenerative blindness.  The technology is amazing, but easy to follow and will improve the lives of millions of people around the world in a tangible way.  She has a TED talk about the project which I highly recommend.

Thad Starner did a talk on wearable computing, where we were able to see Google Glass in action.  Clearly this is a hot topic and very cool.  He also went into some of his other projects, such as teaching and learning ASL through wearable computers which was very interesting.

The ABIE awards offered me the great experience of being exposed to truly inspirational women of our time.  I was especially impressed with the ABIE Change Agent Awards Winners (Violette UwamutaraShikoh GitauUnoma Okorafor).

One of the most popular talks I went to was Brenda Chapman, the writer and director of the Pixar movie Brave.  She had the room mesmerized with clips from iconic movies that she was responsible for, including the Lion King, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.  She definitely had the crowd pegged :)

One of the smaller talks that left a real impression with me was the lightning talks on career on Friday.  While I enjoyed all of the talks, two really stood out for me. Google's Sabrina Williams did a frank talk on Nailing your Technical Interview, which gave great real advice for those stressful situations.  Not to be outdone, Microsoft's Matt Wallaert gave a presentation based on, a project he is involved with.  Besides his exceptional public speaking skills, Matt offered great realistic advice on how to close the gender based pay gap.

Finally, I have to mention the 30 minute Remembering Anita Borg Documentary which was shown on Thursday evening.  While the movie itself offered insight into Anita's life, we were lucky enough to have several of the people interviewed for the movie have a conversation afterwards.  This turned into an open mic for people to share the experiences they had with Anita.  It was a wonderful celebration of her life, of which the Grace Hopper Celebration is a product.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Grace Hopper Celebration 2013 Swag Inventory

Disclaimer: I did not acquire all available swag, this list comprises the items I was able to grab before my (free) bag started busting at the seams.

T-shirts (7) - Stripe, Square, Palantir, Athena Health, Bloomberg, FireEye
Water Bottle (3) - Juniper, IBM, Palantir
Sunglasses - Google
Android Puzzlebot - Google
NHL 2014 for PS3 - EA
Make-up bag (2) - NetApp, DropBox
Laundry Bag (2) - eBay, Juniper
Compact Mirror - IBM
Pens (6) - USC Viterbi, BNY Mellon, Two Sigma, Mastercard, Google, Juniper
Sharpie - ThoughtWorks
Pen Screwdriver - Building America
Car Charger to USB converter - Redhat
Ear buds - TeraData
NailFile (2) - JMU, FireEye
Nail Polish - Aruba Networks
Playing Cards - Yelp
First Aid Kit - ACM DL
Screen Cleaners (2) EA, gemalto
Chap stick (2) - NetApp, Yelp
Bottle Opener Key Chain - Airbnb
Outlet to USB converter - Thomson Reuters
Card Holder - Adobe
USB multicharger - Raytheon
Notepads (4) - Thoughtworks, Microsoft, UCIrvine, Bloomberg
Hand Sanitizer - Northrop Grumman
Stickers (many)

Best: NHL 2014 (EA)
Worst: Un-branded Post-Its (Microsoft)

Grace Hopper Celebration 2013

So great to finally be here at Grace Hopper! I found the talks I attended Tuesday to be very informative personally, while they also raised points that I did not foresee. In particular, the "Preparing for promotion" talk was interesting to me being since I am at the early stages in my career, and I wanted to get more perspectives on the career planning process.

Miche started off with an industry view and went spot on to confirming my hunches, mainly regarding the process and hurdles,  while also providing valuable comments from her own personal experience. Her talk was very inspiring, yet practical.

Main takeaways being that you have to figure out what you really want and then start moving towards the goal right away. The path will be riddles with obstacles, be it gaining sufficient and relevant experience for the position/level wanted, and then making a compelling case.
The interesting thing I found was that although companies such Google may have a policy of promoting based on hard proven qualifications, one can ask for the promotion as soon as one feels entitled in order to show willingness to move in that area and to receive feedback.
Another interesting fact was that women sometimes simply do not bring up this topic with their managers, and they would rather move up by moving around, whether in the same company or other.

Julia, the second speaker on this topic, focused more on the research/academia path. I find that as a relatively freshly graduated undergrad, the fact that professors' tenure is not very impacted by their teaching abilities a bit disappointing, although I assumed that for a long time (rant alert). This unfortunately makes professors feel good about being average in teaching, while decreasing the value of an education that students pay for.

Moreover, I had a class, and I am sure I am not alone in this one, where the professor simply uses some slides from the publisher while presenting on a monotone voice, about a topic that he/she has no passion about, thus losing 95% of class participation because people fall asleep. The astonishing fact is that some good students will still do well...and maybe even do research with this professor, of which the research experience is independent of the teaching one. However, for the purpose of higher education, how many potentially good researchers were lost? Seems to me like the educational system performs a bit of self-sabotage. Extrapolating this to the lower grades, the keynote this morning clearly showed that increased interest in even basic courses has a great effect on retention, as her university was able to retain 48% female students in the CS program by making the courses more fun.

Coming back to Julia, she spelled quite nicely the requirements for tenure: high quality papers, strong letters of recommendation, and grants. She also mentions several other pitfalls except the teaching above, such as balancing masters and PhD students, building good relationships and collaborating with others. Her piece of advice for researchers outside of academia was to continue publishing even if the culture at work may not promote it in order to keep options open add far as academia is concerned.

In terms of collaborations and visibility she mentioned that as far as tenure its concerned being the first name on the paper will matter, so publishing individually may be more appropriate in order to make a name for oneself. She also referred to the importance of being timely when submitting papers and grants, as well as collaborating with such researchers. In terms of students, she recommends asking for references from fellow professors about students and to avoid bad students in a graceful manner.

Julia also mentioned a new trend that some people have adopted to ask for early promotions, which reminds me of Miche's comment about reaching out and asking for a promotion when one its due. Communication of caterer objectives is important.

Miche and Julia had both very insightful talks on the topic on promotions and I greatly enjoyed them. As far as the industry goes, one needs to track their progress and broaden their scope as per the "ladder" specifications in the organization while maintaining visibility and incorporating feedback, and as far as academia/research goes high quality papers backed by good collaborations, and strong reference letters backed by good relationships, are very important for a tenured track.

If you want to see my notes from the session, check out the conference notes wiki:

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

GHC 2013 Day 1

Today I spent the entire day with females. I don't think this rare phenomenon has occurred since I was a pre-teen. Certainly not since university. Not to say that I'm not extremely appreciative of my wonderful male friends, but it was so refreshing to hang out with only women for once. And fantastic, brilliant women at that. As a woman in Computer Science, it's easy to get used to always being around men. I can honestly say that I'm usually even more comfortable with men because that's simply my typical environment. It was definitely a treat to be reminded today of how nice it can be to be surrounded by women.

Aside from the pleasant "culture shock", as I will call it, so many other great things went on at the convention centre today. I was extremely impressed by variety of topics covered. From gender equality and women empowerment to leadership/research/publishing skills to straight up academic content, especially in the poster session. The poster session was actually a great academic networking opportunity. It was easy to find people that were interested in and working on things similar to myself, and I did make some awesome connections during the session. 

The career fair was amazing. I learned about so many interesting companies that I didn't know existed, and visited big name companies that everyone knows exists (Google, Facebook...). And let's be honest, the swag was pretty fantastic (see for yourself in Bridgette's post which she will be posting later tonight).

Looking forward to another exciting day tomorrow!