At the end of September, I had the incredible opportunity to attend the Grace Hopper Conference in Houston, Texas as part of Microsoft's Women in Computing Award. I was able to learn a lot about computer science, technology, accessibility, and the importance of diversity in the STEM field. Without further ado, here is my experience at the Grace Hopper Conference 2018 and what I took away from the conference.
What is the Grace Hopper Conference?
The Grace Hopper Conference is the world's largest gathering of women technologists and is hosted by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology and the Association for Computing Machinery. The event is named for Grace Hopper, who was a computer scientist, US Navy rear admiral, and pioneer in the field of computer science, inventing one of the first compiler related tools and helping to popularize the idea of machine-independent programming languages. Over 20,000 people go to the conference each year to attend presentations and panels, visit the exhibit hall, network with other people in the field, and more.
What is the Microsoft Women in Computing Award?
I attended the Grace Hopper Conference as one of ten winners of the Microsoft Women in Computing Award, which highlights ten female college students at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels that are doing great things with computer science. I shared my experiences about being a vision impaired student with an interest in technology and how I created my own website to educate people all around the world about assistive technology and how it can make a difference in their lives. One of the other winners was also interested in accessibility, so it was really exciting to get to talk to everyone and learn from their research and experiences.
A week or two before the conference, I registered for several different sessions on accessibility, human-computer interaction, and similar topics. If a session was full, I wrote down the name of it so I could try and get in at the door later. Also when registering, I noted that I am vision impaired and would benefit from having a guide to help me navigate the gigantic convention center. Read more about navigating conferences with vision impairment here.
My flight left for Houston early in the morning and I ended up watching a movie with audio description on my flight- read more about watching audio described movies here. Once I got to Houston, I used ridesharing services as well as hotel shuttle services to go between conference events and found this to be relatively easy. Since it was difficult for me to go find food by myself, I used DoorDash to order food from local restaurants- read more about DoorDash here.
On my first day at the conference, I didn't know where to find my guide so I ended up walking around the convention alone. My favorite session of the day was done by PBS Kids and talked about how children use technology, as well as creating technology that children can use as they grow. I was fascinated to learn so much about universal design and how games and activities can be designed from the start to include as many people as possible. In between sessions, I walked around the exhibit hall and randomly met another girl who also used a blindness cane and was interested in accessibility, which was really exciting! Having friends that understand disability is so important- read more about why I love having friends with similar conditions here.
On Wednesday night, Microsoft hosted a networking party where I got to meet lots of different people. I ended up spending a lot of time with the girl I had met earlier as well as another girl who also used a cane and was interested in accessibility. As people came to talk to us, they were interested to learn that we all had different interests in the field of accessibility and how we all used different assistive technologies to navigate our world. I had the opportunity to talk to many different Microsoft employees, many of which asked me how I use their products and why I love assistive technology so much- read more about why I study assistive technology here.
On my second day at the conference, I finally met my human guide that would help me navigate the conference and figure out where I was going. I also met another blindness cane user as well as a wheelchair user at a session that focused on how to design for accessibility and inclusion, which was my favorite panel of the day because it focused on eliminating accessibility barriers with simple solutions. With the help of my guide, I went through almost half of the exhibit hall and was able to talk to several different companies about my interest in accessibility and future employment. Almost all of the companies reacted positively and said they had opportunities for people studying accessibility and assistive technology because they want to ensure people with disabilities have equal access to their products and services, which was incredible to hear. Other companies admitted to not knowing much or having nonexistent accessibility resources, and I appreciated their honesty.
As part of the Women in Computing Award, recipients had the opportunity to attend an event where they spoke with different Microsoft employees about their interests and how they can stand out when searching for employment. The most encouraging advice I received was to not be afraid of disclosing my disability, since many companies are willing to help with accommodations and that there are many blind and low vision people that are involved in STEM jobs. I also was told which skills of mine helped me stand out, and that was writing, effective communication, and being able to give constructive feedback- stay tuned for posts in the future that talk about developing these skills further.
On the last day of the conference, I spent most of the day going through the last half of the exhibit hall with the help of my guide. I was excited to meet lots of different companies that had an established commitment to accessibility and inclusion, which was very exciting to me. I'm not going to share which companies were my favorite, since I am working on collaborations with many of them so that I can better share what I learned from each individual group. However, I did enjoy getting to take fun photos all around the conference hall, especially one with the Target mascot- yes, it is a real dog in the photo.
I left the Grace Hopper Conference feeling encouraged and positive about the future of not only women in the field of computer science, but the future of people with disabilities in the field of computer science. The theme for 2018 was "We Are Here," and I think it sums up the attitude and lessons I learned from the conference perfectly. There are so many different people and perspectives in this world today, and by allowing people to share what they have learned, the future of technology will be made more diverse, more accessible, and more exciting by expanding opportunities for minority populations.
What I hope to see at the next Grace Hopper Conference
My friends and I started talking about how much we would love to see more people with disabilities presenting at the conference next year, and we all already want to be on a panel together. The Grace Hopper Conference is amazing at including and amplifying diverse voices, and we would love to see more people talking about accessibility and disability next year and including disabled voices in the conversation.
Grace Hopper Conference 2018 was an amazing experience, and I'm so thankful that I had an opportunity to attend. Thank you again to Microsoft and all of the fantastic people that I met that made this trip possible!