At the end of June, Mozilla’s amazing D&I program manager (and one of my fav people ever), Lizz Noonan, came to London for the Women of Silicon Roundabout conference. The best way for me to describe it would be “a more enjoyable Grace Hopper.”
Foxy was the most popular Mozillian at our booth
Then she visited Yorkshire and we went sightseeing!
Why I like “Women in Tech” conferences
I attend both academic and industry conferences—sometimes speaking, sometimes at a Mozilla booth, always with time to wander around. My favorite pastime is to look around the room I’m in and count the number of women and/or PoC1 there—usually this requires only one hand, sometimes two…never more. I’ve looked around a room and wondered why I’m even there.
It’s refreshing to look around and see people who aren’t men (I love you, but sometimes I want to spend time with other genders too!). Sometimes, non-men even have different perspectives and ways to approach problems that are really interesting!
There’s a talk I attended at GHC in 2014 from Jo Miller that has stuck with me. It was about office politics. At the time, I’d just left an internship with some… weird dynamics that I hadn’t been equipped to handle. Since then, I’ve managed to work in even more toxic environments, but I’ve been able to understand and work within them more effectively (while also making my way out of there because shitty work environments suck). The talk focused on identifying your strengths and relationship structures within the environment, then positioning yourself for success given that. Sitting around a table with others who have experienced the same problems is empowering! Trading strategies for getting your ideas heard or managing conflict is helpful!
ALL THE STICKERS
That said, I have some pet peeves. Yes, I want to hear origin stories, but honestly, not every talk needs to be about “My career as a woman in tech.” My favorite talks are usually the ones where someone talks about cool technology and they just happen to be a woman in tech. Also, no, I don’t want nail polish swag. Portable wine glass swag? Yes. Nail polish? No. Finally, if I am the only woman there, yes I care about diversity. No I don’t have any clue how to get more women involved aside from this2:
Don’t be an asshole.
My strong opinions about Grace Hopper
I’ve been to Grace Hopper twice (2014 and 2017), both as a student and with Mozilla. For comparison, let’s look at the attendee numbers:
- GHC 2014: 7830
- GHC 2017: 18000+
- WSR 2018: 4000+
The first time I attended, I had a great time. The second…well, let’s just say the swag was good. There’s a huge difference between 8000 people and over 18000—I understand that there’s a huge demand, but (IMO) it’s just too big now. It’s…not manageable. There are definitely things that GHC gets right—scholarships, childcare, nursing mothers’ room to name a few. However, the quality of my experience as an attendee plummeted from 2014 to 2017.
The Recruiting Booth One of the great things about GHC is the students. However, that also means that the career fair is more geared towards internships and entry-level positions. There are mid-career talks, but it’s really not a focus of the career fair.
This corresponds with something I hear about a lot—how can we get more women in tech. In my experience (and others), we need to work on how we can get women to stay in tech.
From a recruiting booth point-of-view, I enjoy having fewer, but more productive, conversations, rather than feeling swamped by a line of people trying to trade resumes for swag.
But also, there’s great swag there.
The Talks It’s…really hard to get into talks at GHC now. You have to queue and wait for people to leave the room for more to be allowed in… and if people don’t leave between talks, then you’re out of luck (on the flip side, you also run the risk of losing your seat if you need to pop out of the room briefly).
Once I got into a talk…I was not impressed. That said, the problem could have been the subset of talks I made it into. It’s great that there are so (so, so, so) many talks, but pretty useless for my professional development if I can’t get into them.
The People Obviously, there are thousands of brilliant women (and others) at GHC. However, when you have an event of this size, it’s just a mob. I didn’t find myself organically running into people and having spontaneous interesting discussions. Honestly, it was so overwhelming, that by the end of the day I just wanted to hide out with my coworkers, not socialize and meet new people.
Women of Silicon Roundabout
Ok, back to the reason I’m writing this. Attending WSR reminded me a lot more of the 2014 GHC that I loved attending. I was able to attend talks—even just poke my head into sessions and listen for a few minutes.
In particular, I enjoyed being able to run into people from sessions I’d attended, booths I’d visited, or even finding people from meetups I’ve been to. It was easy to find a quiet space to grab coffee and chat about projects, common experiences in the workplace (nearly every woman I speak to has a workplace harassment story—not necessarily sexual, but always demoralizing), cats, etc.
There were a lot of non-US attendees (I mean, it was in London), which was refreshing. It made me think—what if instead of one ridiculously massive conference, there were a few smaller ones geographically distributed?
Negatives: I didn’t love the location. It’s not the easiest to get to (although I stayed in a hotel attached to the ExCeL, so I shouldn’t complain), and there’s just not a lot of food options outside the conference center. Realistically though, there’s only so many places in London that can fit that many people.
While I liked the layout of having session spaces ring the booth area (it was easy to wander around and listen to interesting topics without having to trek across the conference center), it was very loud. Very. Loud.
The tech scene in London is way more finance focused. Like. Way more. And they dress up a lot more (although that’s common in my experience as an American expat in the UK—we are insanely casual in comparison). I can’t even imagine coding in jeans all day, let alone a pencil skirt. I’m firmly in team yoga pants—my coworkers can confirm that I always end up sitting on the floor doing weird yoga things while coding.
Also, there was a massage booth across from the Mozilla booth. Highly recommend.
Overall: I’d go back next year
I did not get to take Foxy home
Talks I enjoyed
The talks I attended were all in the emerging tech track which had a diverse set of topics and was conveniently located.
Making Pain Fun Using Virtual & Augmented Reality I’m still a bit dubious that pain is fun, but I’m excited to see more applications of MR than gaming. The premise is that pain medication addiction is rampant and we need alternative pain therapies. And it works.
How Tech Companies can not just do Good but Stay Good
People (both workers and users) aren’t just motivated by money, but also mission. Every company starts out with some sort of purpose, and these are often related to a social mission; however, as the company grows, mission can get lost. Google founders famously wrote “Don’t be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served…by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains.” As the company grows, how can you ensure that your company doesn’t become a corporate behemoth that cares only about profit? The speaker argued that you can have both profit and purpose, and it comes down to having that be integral to your business model and culture. It seems obvious, but when companies do it wrong, they end up looking artificial.
AI For Good: Fact of Fiction
I really enjoyed this talk–so often you hear people talking about replacing humans with AI, when the real strength lies in combining human intelligence with machine computation. Machine learning shouldn’t be a complete black box to the people acting on its results. Machines are great at running algorithms and large scale computations. Humans are great at synthesizing results and making informed, educated decisions. By combining these strengths, you can make users more efficient and help them recognize their cognitive biases–computers aren’t a substitute for people. Takeaways:
- Display the criteria that generated the results. What features led the algorithm to this conclusion?
- Identify data sources involved in the making a decision (highlight both included and excluded sources)
- Instead of using AI to filter out results, use it to suggest more. Discourage confirmation bias from top hits.
Full disclosure: I didn’t attend any (because I didn’t want to). I’m fairly uninterested in blockchain (partially because I’m sick of people saying they’re interested in “crypto” and then talking about blockchain). Apparently blockchain is going to Solve Every Problem Ever.
- How Blockchain Technology can Create the Evolution of Industries
- Making Blockchain Work for Women
- Abstract: “..the vast majority of crypto holders are men, but because of how the technology actually works, women are in a unique position to leverage blockchain to launch businesses, build rich reputations, and gain access to capital and power”
- Ok, so I’m pretty sure blockchain works the same for men and women…and also that women have been systemically denied access to capital and power for centuries so…
- Theory-time: Satoshi is a woman and published under a pseudonym so people would actually take her work seriously
- Ending Workplace Harassment with Blockchain Technology
- Abstract: “The role that blockchain tech can play in providing employees and employers innovative solutions to mitigate the problem. Blockchain technology presents a unique opportunity for both employees to record and report harassment like never before.”
- Can’t see any way this could go wrong…
- New Kid on the Block-chain
- How Lending and Borrowing Provide New Opportunities for the Cryptoasset Market
- Using blockchain to solve the two-state problem
- Crypto for non-binary people
- Blockchains for determining if P = NP
- Proof of work: encouraging managers to leverage blockchain for remote workers
- Universal healthcare with blockchains
- Climbing the blockchain ladder to success
- Blockchain: recruit 10 friends and you can make millions running GPUs in your home
- Suing people who steal your talk ideas with the blockchain in the cloud
1: These are almost always disjoint sets 2: I still don’t know why I went into CS and sometimes question how long I’ll stay 3: Not crypto. Crypto is short for cryptography. End of story. 4: I’m not. I will never.