The 2011 Grace Hopper Celebration asks, "What if… ?"
The conference raises questions to help its attendees find solutions, one of the organizers declares
By Dan Margherita
Senior Contributing Editor
What if there was a conference celebrating the achievements of women in technology and almost 3,000 people flocked in to enjoy it?
That's exactly what will be happening this November 9-12, as the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology (ABI, Palo Alto, CA) sponsors its eleventh Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, OR.
This year's conference theme, "What if…?" arises from the question, "What if a culture of technology that encourages participation and inquiry from a diverse workforce leads to greater levels of innovation?" Clearly, conference sponsors expect firm and affirmative answers.
2,800 women and men
"We're expecting about 2,800 women and men to attend from thirty countries," says Jerri Barrett, marketing VP for ABI. This will be a 30 percent increase over last year's sellout conference in Atlanta, GA.
"Men make up 5 to 7 percent of our attendees," Barrett notes. "For many of them, it's kind of an 'aha!' moment, when they realize they are a very definite minority. It gives them a different perspective that can be incredibly valuable."
Just what does this huge conference consist of? "We always have technical tracks that focus on key aspects of new technology," Barrett says. "Several years ago it was robotics and then we had cloud computing. GHC is a great place to see the intersection of technologies.
"We'll also ask questions at a personal level: What if you become a mentor or find a mentor? What if you expand your network or collaborate with someone at another company?"
The conference is continuously evolving. "We have a dozen committees of technical women, all of them charged with building this conference and making it really, really useful."
Reconnect and expand
Lots of people come to every conference planning to reconnect with folks in their network and also expand that network. It can be "a tremendous help to career development, literally making you part of a much larger community," Barrett says. "Being part of our community gives you greater exposure and visibility, and it gives exposure and visibility to the projects you're working on."
For senior women, mid-level women, new entrants and women still in school, "What you gain will be connected with what you're hoping to achieve by coming, because it's always about solutions," Barrett declares. GHC, she thinks, "is a real opportunity to meet industry leaders and learn about new tracks in the technology industry. It will help you gauge your next career step and get exposure to a lot of cool things that help you decide what you want to do with your life."
Keynoters at the conference
Keynoter Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook (Palo Alto, CA), was chief of staff for the U.S. Treasury Department during the Clinton administration. She was recently named one of the fifty most powerful women in business by Fortune magazine.
Also keynoting is physicist Shirley Ann Jackson, PhD, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, New York). Calling her a "national treasure," the National Science Board selected her as its 2007 Vannevar Bush Award recipient for "a lifetime of achievements in scientific research, education and senior-statesman-like contributions to public policy."
Expanding open source day
This year's celebration expands last year's Grace Hopper open source day, known to its aficionados as a "code-a-thon for humanity" and a "hack-a-thon for good." Attendees will have the chance to collaborate in writing code that helps projects like Google Person Finder, Kids on Computers, Open Street Map, Systers, and the Sahana Software Foundation.
Plenty of awardees
A Friday night awards dinner will recognize recipients of the prestigious Anita Borg social impact, technical leadership and change agent awards, and the Denice Denton emerging leader award, which goes to a young faculty member considered a front runner as a future leader on the academic side. This is the inaugural year of the A. Richard Newton educator award, given to an organization offering computer science education programs that successfully engage women.
"The award winners tend to be around for the entire conference, sitting on panels, presenting their work, interacting with attendees and providing inspiration," Barrett adds.
Career fair and more
Another valuable GHC highlight is a career fair, with some seventy high-tech companies, government labs and universities participating this year. At the 2010 GHC, the first year a formal career fair was scheduled, traffic was heavy. This year potential employers will be set up in spacious display booths, and the interview booths are also expanded.
"Last year many companies made job offers on the spot," Barrett says proudly. "One company last year said they collected 500 resumes and they all looked great!"
Career mentoring workshops for undergraduate, graduate and early career professional women researchers will be run by the Computer Research Association's Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research (CRA-W, www.cra.org).
There's also a professional development workshop for women in technical industries and the third annual K-12 computing teachers workshop, presented by a partnership between the Anita Borg Institute and the Computer Science Teachers Association of the Association for Computing Machinery (csta.acm.org).
Supplying the need for "human capital"
According to Barrett, there's a real need for "human capital" in this technical economy: people who can program and understand computer science and engineering. In other words, GHC attendees. "All the forecasts from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that the need for people with computer skills is going to far outweigh the number of grads with those capabilities," Barrett says.
But, "Companies are being much more careful about hiring," she adds. That's why "The Grace Hopper Celebration is the perfect place to find highly qualified candidates and also to show companies the value of hiring a diverse workforce. Having people with different backgrounds helps create greater innovation!"
A Who's Who of GHC sponsors includes several organizations new this year: Pixar, Twitter, Credit Suisse, the Hasso Plattner Institut and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. Like moths to a flame, "high-level sponsors come to GHC because of the high level of the attendees," Barrett concludes with a twinkle in her eye.
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