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Last week was the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC), held in Orlando Florida (it moves around each year). It was created by Telle Whitney and Anita Borg back in 1994. Anita died in 2003 from a brain tumor and Telle runs that conference as CEO of the Anita Borg institute, previously the Institute for Women and Technology, renamed in Anita's memory (although Telle retired at the event and passed the reins to Brenda Wilkerson). The first conference was attended by 500 women. This year, the conference was sold out to its capacity of 18,000 women. There is now also a Grace Hopper Celebration in India.
Who was Grace Hopper? And who was Telle Whitney, come to that?
Grace Hopper was a Rear Admiral in the US Navy. But she is more famous as a computer scientist. She was one of the pioneers of the idea that computers should not be programmed in assembly code but in a higher level language. She is regarded as one of the people who started the work that led to the COBOL programming language, and, to a lesser extent, FORTRAN.
She is also famous for squashing a bug (a moth) that was causing a computer relay to malfunction. The Navy liked to publicize that she originated the term "bug" for an error in a program, but the term bug goes back much further than that, perhaps even to the 19th century. However, the story of crushing the bug is not apocryphal, she taped it into the notebook for the computer. See the picture on the right.
Telle Whitney worked in EDA and semiconductor in the early part of her career, so solidly in Cadence-land. I remember meeting her a couple of times in the early 1980s, once when she visited Edinburgh for the VLSI 81 conference, and once at VLSI Technology a few years later, I think just after she had graduated from Caltech with a PhD (thesis: The Hierarchical Composition of VLSI Circuits, supervisor: Carver Mead of Mead & Conway fame).
I am obviously not a woman in computing. But my boss, Paula Jones is. So she got to go and report for Breakfast Bytes.
The most interesting talk at the Grace Hopper Celebration was the first keynote on the first day by Fei-Fei Li, director of Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, Stanford Associate Professor, and Chief Scientist at Google Cloud (yes, she holds three concurrent important jobs, while being a mom). That shouldn’t be a surprise—she’s done everything from cleaning houses to running a dry cleaning service to get through college—you can see more about her background.
Dr. Li had some very interesting stories about the challenges of developing artificial intelligence that isn’t race or gender biased. Artificial intelligence has a diversity problem—too many of the people creating it share similar backgrounds. That’s why she was so excited to talk at this event and encourage women to get into the field. She should know as her mission is to build smart algorithms that enable computers and robots to see and think. It made me think about the processing capabilities now available with Cadence Tensilica Vision processors, and how they make quick execution of these complex algorithms possible not just in the cloud, but also on local devices.
There were interesting talks by a number of other women from companies like Google, Oracle, and a lot of universities, but my big disappointment was that there wasn’t a keynote about getting into the semiconductor or EDA industries. And, no surprise, the Cadence job fair booth was not the one with long waiting lines—the lines to work at Uber, Ebay, and Google were much longer. That being said, our interview suites were filled to the brim and some very interesting college students came by to ask about internships. And Cadence is very actively working on recruiting for workplace balance.
There is hope. The number of women in engineering studies has increased to about 20 percent in the US, but more women than men leave the field after working in it for a few years. MIT did a very interesting study about the reasons for this. At the conference, there was a lot of discussion about what needs to be done in toys and elementary school to interest women in STEM jobs. Another interesting keynote was by Debbie Sterling of Goldie Blox, a mechanical engineer who founded a company to sell inspiring toys for young girls.
In many ways, GHC is a job fair with some great presentations, especially the keynotes. So it is ideal for women at the start of their careers.
And here is a woman at the start of her career. Yuan Yuan is the daughter of a good friend of mine, and she is a computer science undergraduate at UC Berkeley, graduating in a couple of months. She also went to the Grace Hopper event, so I called her up and got her impressions.
Overall, she said, it was spiritually uplifting, but it was physically exhausting since there was always something going on. She was really glad she made the effort to go. She went with a group from Facebook and got to meet a lot of people from all over the country. Not surprisingly, lots of CS students.
I asked her what was the most memorable thing she attended and she said it was probably Deborah Berebichez's talk. She is a Mexican who grew up in Mexico City. Yuan Yuan did half a year of her CS course in Mexico City, in Spanish of course, so has met more than her share of Mexican "women in computing". When Deborah was growing up, she was really interested in math and physics, but her mother told her to hide it "or you won't find a husband." So she enrolled in philosophy for her first two years of undergraduate studies. But the math and physics pulled her back, and she ended up transferring to graduate with a physics degree, later being the first Mexican woman to graduate with a PhD in physics from Stanford. Her message was the the future is what you do with it. Of course there are lots of factors that are somewhat based on luck, but if you work hard, you create your own luck.
Another particularly interesting talk was Debbie Ferguson. Her talk was titled Being Vulnerable in the Workplace. She is a trans woman and used to be a white man. One thing that she noticed, having walked in both sets of shoes as it were, was how differently men and women are perceived. As a woman she is interrupted all the time in a way she was not as a man. Also, when she was a man he tended to be perceived as more senior than he was, whereas as a woman, she tends to be perceived as more junior than she is.
In one of the breakout sessions, they were divided into groups to discuss an issue, with different issues for different groups. Yuan Yuan's group was on being a woman in a group of men, which of course happens all the time in computing (STEM subjects in general). She felt it was somewhat the wrong question, as if men are the enemy. It is more about how do you deal with being different? The issue is fitting into a somewhat different belief system and/or culture that you don't necessarily identify with.
I mentioned in passing that the impression I get at CDNLive in India is that there is a greater percentage of women in semiconductor/EDA than in the US. She met someone who was from one of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) in India, who said that if you are a female at an IIT, you are still definitely in the minority.
Anyway, the conference clearly has the seal of approval from both ends of the career spectrum.
Talking of India, as I was above, GHC India is fast approaching. It is November 16-17th in Bangalore. Details.
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