Reflecting on Grace Hopper 2014: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Earlier this October, I had the wonderful opportunity be one of the eight thousand women attending the Grace Hopper Conference and Celebration of Women in Computing. I came back home to a lot of questions about some of the press coverage of what happened there. So, here is my take on the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good. I always come back from Grace Hopper feeling inspired and energized. Four reasons for it this time… (1) I’m getting to have more opportunities to give back and share advice instead of just asking for it. After a long conversation, an undergraduate woman told me “I’m seriously thinking about grad school now and you’re about 90% of the reason.” Wow! (2) Through the CRA-W, I got to give a talk about “How to Get Your Dream Job” with Jaeyeon Jung. It was probably the largest and definitely the most enthusiastic audience I’ve ever had! (3) It was so inspirational to attend talks by women like Shafi Goldwasser and Megan Smith and Maria Klawe! It’s hard not to go fangirl over this! (4) Last but not least, the dancing. The dancing at Grace Hopper is always amazing! It is totally an experience that every woman in computing should have!

Dancing at GHC is always amazing!

Dancing at GHC is always amazing!

The Bad. Certainly, this year’s Grace Hopper came with quite a bit of controversy: a male allies panel went awry; Microsoft’s CEO said that women shouldn’t ask for raises. And yet, even these issues give me hope for the future. First, yes, the male allies panel had problems: the format shut down discussion (e.g., no Q&A) and the panelists made some very naive statements (see: “how to be a bad ally“). However, many overlook that these men took the feedback to heart and organized an ad-hoc panel the following day where women spoke while the men listened. Second, yes, Nadella did not handle the question about raises well on stage. But, he was there, he apologized right afterwards, and he launched a campaign to address the issues involved. I really believe that the net effect from both of these “bads” is positive. It both draws attention to issues of women in the workplace and makes me optimistic about male allies’ abilities to learn from their own mistakes and make positive changes.

The Ugly. However, one topic that was not well addressed at this year’s conference was the ugliness surrounding GamerGate. It was mostly discussed in the hallways over coffee rather than in any sort of formal way. We need to address this head on. We need to stand with Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu and any other women who face threats and harassment online. I am committing to doing what I can to bring a panel on GamerGate (hopefully with all of these women above) to Grace Hopper next year. Honestly, I have no idea what I am doing on the logistics side (I’ll basically be cold emailing them) [Update: all three women have tentatively agreed]. Also, I am a bit scared to become a target, but if these women can live it, I can brave the small risk. This panel needs to happen. If you have any advice, let me know.

Declaring Victory on the First Month!

Goldy Gopher welcomes me to U of M

Goldy Gopher welcomes me to U of M

One thing I learned from my new colleagues at University of Minnesota is that we don’t end meeting, we declare victory on meetings. I started this job on August 25th and I think it’s a great time to declare victory on the first month and reflect a bit.

Here are some things that stand out the most to me from these first few weeks:

  • Student Are the Best: I find that my motivation and energy are benefitting tremendously from contact with students. Guest lecturing to promote my new seminar, editing CHI papers together, running a project meeting, helping with fellowship apps — all of these activities are really fulfilling for me on an emotional level and beneficial to my research on an intellectual level. I can’t wait to teach next semester!
  • First Grant Is Hard: While I’ve written smaller grants before, this was my first time writing an NSF grant. The process felt different and I needed a lot of guidance. Luckily, I had a lot of help: NSF program directors (Kevin and Wendy), U of M staff (Julia and Claudette), professors at U of M (Brent, Loren, Joe, and Amy K.), and old friends from GT who shared their past applications and successful proposals (Amy V. and Erika). Even though this grant could only have one PI, I feel like it took a village and I’m incredibly grateful for all the help.
  • Time is Limited: I’ve heard this a billion times, but this month really drove the point home. There are tons of opportunities but there are only 24 hours in a day. I want to do this while still maintaining my commitment to my own health, sanity, and work/life balance. I did say my first “no” to a major opportunity this month, which I hear is an important skill to learn. One challenge for me over the next few months is in pursuing the right opportunities and learning how to protect time for the activities I find most important: working with students, writing, and hands-on research. From those who have been doing this for awhile: any advice on keeping your time from getting fragmented? any advice on picking opportunities and saying yes or no?
  • Emotional Support is Key: Honestly, just knowing that many of my good friends are going through the same thing is a big help. Some of my friends have started a “Professor Cohort 2014″ group on Facebook (let me know if you want to join) and it helps me remember I’m not the only one facing the anxieties and the challenges. I’ve also connected with some of the new faculty in other departments through the new faculty orientation and a few social outings since then. And of course, old friends are gold — Eugene and Kurt will always be my first line of support (can’t wait for our reunion at the GVU Foley Scholars Dinner at the end of October!).

Will I still have time to blog in this new life? I better! This is one of the things that connects me to students and emotional support. It gives me a new perspective on my research. I also think protecting this time to write will be a good test of how I’m balancing the various priorities of this job — whether I’m being successful at keeping the “urgent” from getting ahead of the “important.” In a way, every post will be a declaration of victory!

What I Do Explained Using 1,000 Most Common Words

I love xkcd and one of my favorites is this comic that tries to explain a complicated concept using only the “10 hundred” most common words in English! Even cooler, somebody built a tool to help others do the same thing! I thought I’d try it out with my own research and see how it goes. Here’s the result:

Some of my work is about helping parents and children talk when they do not live together. Some parents are not married or move around a lot for work, so they use the phone to talk to their kids. But phones are boring for kids, so they don’t want to use them. I love making new computer stuff that’s better than the phone, like games and fun stuff to do without needing to be in the same room.

Some of my other work is about helping kids play with each other even if they’re not in the same room. Instead of making games with fighting or killing where the story is already made up by a grown-up, I like making computer stuff and games where the kids have to make up their own stories. That’s better for kids because it helps them learn to be better friends and more interesting people.

I also like making computer stuff that helps grown-ups make good friends and become better people. One time when this is really important is when a person is trying to stop smoking, drinking, or using bad stuff. If they can’t stop on their own, that’s a type of being sick and they need friends who are going through the same thing who can help them. Sometimes they meet these friends in rooms where they tell each other their stories. Other times they meet these friends on the computer. I make computer stuff to help them make their get-better friends and get better together.

All in all, my work is about helping people be friends and become better together.

I thought that the exercise was quite helpful. I would love to hear your experiences and elevator pitch blurbs if you try it out to explain your own work!