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 Celebration 2018 and what I took away from the conference.
What is the Grace Hopper Celebration?
The Grace Hopper Celebration is the world’s largest gathering of women technologists. It is hosted by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology and the Association for Computing Machinery. The event is named for Grace Hopper, a computer scientist, US Navy rear admiral, and pioneer in the field of computer science. She invented one of the first compiler-related tools and helped 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 Celebration as one of ten winners of the Microsoft Women in Computing Award. The award 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 visually impaired student with an interest in technology and how I created my own website to educate people all around the world about assistive technology. 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 would make a note and try to get in at the door later. Also when registering, I noted that I am vision impaired and would benefit from having a guide.
My flight left for Houston early in the morning and I ended up watching a movie with audio description on my flight. Once I got to Houston, I used ridesharing services as well as hotel shuttle services to go between conference events. Since it was difficult for me to go find food by myself, I ended up getting food delivered so that I didn’t have to leave the hotel.
On my first day at the conference, I didn’t know where to find my guide. As a result, I ended up walking around the convention alone. My favorite session of the day was by PBS Kids. It talked about how children use technology, as well as creating technology that children of varying ability levels can use as they grow. It was fascinating to learn so much about universal design and how it applies to game design. In between sessions, I walked around the exhibit hall. I randomly met another girl who also uses a blindness cane and loves accessibility, which was really exciting for me! Having friends that understand disability is so important.
On Wednesday night, Microsoft hosted a networking party where I got to meet lots of different people. I sat with the girl I had met earlier as well as another girl who uses a blindness cane and loves accessibility. As people came to talk to us, they found it interesting that we all had different research interests in accessibility, and we also have different preferences for assistive technology. 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.
On my second day at the conference, I finally met my human guide that would help me navigate the conference. I also met another blindness cane user as well as a wheelchair user. We met at a session on how to design for accessibility and inclusion, my favorite panel of the day. That’s 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. I was also 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. 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 to speak with different Microsoft employees about our interests. We also learned how we can stand out when searching for employment. The most encouraging advice was to not be afraid of disclosing my disability. This is because many companies are willing to help with accommodations. I also learned which skills of mine helped me stand out, which was great. The skills are 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 went through the last half of the exhibit hall with my guide. I was excited to meet lots of different companies that had an established commitment to accessibility and inclusion. I’m not going to share which companies were my favorite, since I am working on collaborations with many of them. However, I loved taking fun photos all around the conference hall. My favorite is the one with the Target mascot- yes, that’s a real dog!
I left the Grace Hopper Celebration feeling encouraged and positive about the future of women and people with disabilities in the field of computer science. The theme for 2018 was “We Are Here,” and it sums up the attitude of the conference perfectly. There are so many different people and perspectives in this world today and 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 Celebration
My friends and I started talking about how much we would love to see more people with disabilities presenting next year. We already want to be on a panel together next year so we can share our experiences. The Grace Hopper Celebration 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 Celebration 2018 was an amazing experience. 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!