The Grace Hopper Celebration is growing
The twelfth conference was eight times the size of the 1994 inaugural event
"The bigger it gets, the more confident our students feel," says the ABI CEO
The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing was launched in 1994 with 450 attendees. There were five Grace Hopper Celebrations between 1994 and 2004, and the conference has been held every year since 2006. This year's event in Baltimore, MD was the biggest ever, drawing 3,600 mostly female professionals, students and academics from across the spectrum of computer-centered technology.
Grace Hopper is the signature event of the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology (ABI, www.anitaborg.org). ABI was named for its co-founder, the late Dr Anita Borg, a computer scientist with a worldwide reputation who devoted much of her career to bringing more women into computer work and supporting them throughout their careers. Borg was also the founder of Systers, established in 1987 as the first online community for women computer scientists. Systers now operates under the wing of ABI.
The celebration itself is named for Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, a PhD mathematician and early computer scientist who joined the Navy during World War II to develop programming routines for the Mark I. This was an early computer designed to calculate complex weapons trajectories. One of her best-known contributions is the compiler, now a basic building block of computing. She also had a large hand in the development of subroutines, formula translation, relative addressing, the linking loader, code optimization, symbolic manipulation and other fundamental elements of modern computer science.
The Grace Hopper Celebration has grown rapidly; the last two Grace Hoppers have filled large urban conference centers. Corporate supporters have been a big part of the growth, and some now use the conference to boost opportunities for networking among their own technical women.
Microsoft, for example, brought 165 technical women, the biggest group from a single company. Rane Johnson-Stempson of Microsoft Research noted that the group was from all levels of the company, from scholarship winners and interns still in college to very senior technology executives. "We use the conference to build our pipeline. We brought male and female executives, people who have a lot of influence," she explained. They'll take their conference experiences back to their own teams, and extend the reach of the Grace Hopper Celebration well beyond the event in Baltimore.
Are we there yet?
The 2012 conference theme, "Are we there yet?" provided a jumping-off point for dozens of panels and workshops. Topics ran the gamut from how to cope with office politics to the state of cybersecurity efforts. Separate tracks for undergrads, grad students, experienced tech pros, researchers and academics included topics from the highly technical to the highly personal.
A panel on cybersecurity brought together top technical women from Raytheon, Cisco, Symantec, CA Technologies and Lockheed Martin. They agreed that whether it's called "cybersecurity," "information assurance," or just "security," the challenges of protecting information from misuse or corruption are escalating fast. "In research, you plan years ahead," said Perri Nejib, a Lockheed Martin Fellow and cybersecurity expert, "but in the cybersecurity world, it's hard to think ahead even one year." And security is "not just a DoD concern any more. Security now applies everywhere."
Nejib and the rest of the panel went on to provide a first-hand look at how professionals working in the security world view their challenges and their mission. Michele D. Guel, an IT engineer and senior security systems architect at Cisco Systems, commented that "anybody with hands on a keyboard" is part of the security structure.
"You have an adversary you have to beat, and that can be a lot of fun," observed Carrie Gates, a researcher and security expert at CA Labs.
Government technology: meeting major challenges
A panel on government technology also drew a big crowd. "Computer technology underpins progress in all areas. Investment in science and engineering is a national imperative," declared Farnam Jahanian of the National Science Foundation. Along with panelists from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense and the National Security Agency, Jahanian explored some of the latest initiatives in the government technology world.
One of the biggest challenges is the size of the organizations the technology serves. "This is technology at scale," commented panel moderator Dr Francine Berman, a CS professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and former head of the San Diego Supercomputer Center.
Technology as a window on the world
Another ABI program is "Women of Vision," which honors three outstanding women technologists each May. Many return to the Grace Hopper Celebration in the fall as presenters.
One of the 2012 Women of Vision was Chieko Asakawa of IBM Japan, a pioneer in computer accessibility for users who are blind or have other disabilities. Asakawa, who has been blind since she was a teenager, developed the Home Page Reader, one of the first software tools that allowed blind readers to interpret the HTML pages of the web via voice technology.
Asakawa has developed many other adaptive technologies, and continues to embrace technical advances like the smartphone and its touch screen. "I enjoy each new technology," she told Diversity/Careers in a one-on-one interview during the conference. "Instead of frustration, I feel optimism."
The innovations she and her IBM Japan team have developed will also be useful to the increasing elderly population worldwide, she notes. Some of the lab's prototypes have been turned over to the open source community for development, like a navigation tool that can offer information about a user's surroundings in real time.
Students are central
Students have always been a central part of the conference. A poster session had close to 200 participants, with awards going to best graduate and undergraduate presentations. At the career fair, 110 exhibitors staffed booths, and most were looking for interns as well as fulltime employees. Student attendees had plenty of opportunity to chat with recruiters and corporate technical women, to test the waters as they prepare to hunt for their first jobs out of college.
Of the 3,600 attendees at the conference, about 1,500 were undergrads or grad students, according to Telle Whitney, president and CEO of ABI. More attendees meant more opportunities for networking with other technical women, she points out. "The bigger it gets, the more confident the students feel," she observed.
The 2013 Grace Hopper Celebration is scheduled October 2-5 in Minneapolis, MN. For more information, see www.gracehopper.com.
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