(Why I almost missed) Open Source Day at GHC2013

Today was Open Source Day at GHC2013. I helped make the Android app (from scratch) for Crisis Check-in by Microsoft Disaster Relief. I almost didn’t go.

And at any other conference, I probably wouldn’t have gone. There was a waiting list, and my spot was keeping someone else from going.. someone who probably was understanding the emails that were being sent around, and had the relevant experience in order to contribute to the team. But, yesterday I went to a session that was about preparatory privilege and how teachers sometimes confuse experience with competence, thereby only allowing students with exposure to computer science, for example, into such classes – creating a cycle that is hard for the other students – those capable but under-exposed – to break.

“You know what, I’m a fast learner. Maybe I haven’t done this stuff before, but I have the right skill set and I can be an attribute to my team!” That was what I kept telling myself. And it’s not like I needed to chant it to myself over and over again, I only had to say it once, really, when my mind crossed to thoughts contemplating whether someone else could make better use of my spot. Imposter syndrome, piss off. Today I’m taking this spot because I deserve it, and because probably everyone else is going to be in the same boat. And even if they aren’t – I can learn from them, and this will be a safe and ideal environment to do so. So there! I’m going!


Woo! First app! With a list of list items!

And, we spent a few hours getting everything set up – updating our versions of the development suite, syncing our open source repository… but for the two hours-ish that we were able to actually code, you know it went well, of course. We all knew it would go well. The only person who would think that this wouldn’t go well is perhaps still the only person who thinks that it hasn’t gone well: anyone who expected us to do today, instead of learn. And I learnt many things today: design of apps based on the needs of the user (‘what will be the most-frequent use case? that should be the default page.’), setting up git repositories, xml, java and the android environment variables, how events like this are run.. Probably one of my favourite things that I learnt today was right at the end – I was still coding while everyone had just about left, and our impromptu Android team leader was hanging around out of courtesy to me, I think, but I would likely stay for at least another hour until I felt like I had achieved a bit more. Anyway, I told her how originally I wasn’t going to go to the event, because I didn’t feel I had enough skills or whatever. She herself had made a few apps before and replied – the one who was teaching us everything, pretty much – “neither was I.”


Opening open source events?

I sent a brief email around to the group I participated with at Open Source Day at GHC2013 to thank everyone and mention something along the lines of what’s mentioned in this post. I got a few emails back from people at Microsoft and Google asking more about what I had experienced and if I had any thoughts on how the day/similar events could be improved for the future. My reply went a little something like this:

Thanks for asking my opinion. I think that some of the things that might deter people in general from attending such events may happen to deter females more than males, which might lead to the low participation rates that you’ve noticed. In my case, some of the things that made the most impact were the following:

  • Having never been to an event like this or made an app before or whatever, I wasn’t sure that I would know enough to be productive. Even for someone else who did have experience in this area, she (at one point) wondered if she knew ‘enough’.. perhaps there are particular people who are more likely to feel less confident about their skills (first years, females) and are more likely to think that the event is not suitable for them
  • I wasn’t sure that anyone would help me to know enough to be productive, and that I wouldn’t get left behind (the emails which were being sent were a bit intimidating.. not for most people, I’m sure. but for someone for whom the contents of the email goes completely over their head, it can make you feel more of the feelings in the previous point)
  • There was a waitlist. I think that this is the biggest thing that contributed to my uncertainty of attending. The previous two points you can recognise are not necessarily true, and overcome to decide to sign up anyway. But once you start receiving emails about how the positions are full and there are people on the waitlist.. you end up wondering if you are more ‘appropriate’ for or ‘deserving’ of the position than the people on the waitlist. And this can make you second-guess the confidence you had to muster in order to overcome the first two points. I’m not sure how it is best to accomplish the functionality of a waiting list while keeping the pressure off the first-come registrants, but I would definitely argue that it’s necessary.

Perhaps one of the first steps that could be done to understand other people’s opinions would be, if you have their contact details, to ask the people who were registered for events but de-registered.. I mean, we can’t capture information from people who didn’t register, but there might be useful information in the people who registered but at some point decided that they wouldn’t go. And maybe it is just that they couldn’t make it, but perhaps other people found the waitlist put a bit of pressure on.

I had never particularly contemplated attending an event like this before, and so I don’t know which of the feelings that I have experienced are unique to this event. I will tell you though, some of the things that made me eventually attend the Open Source Day at GHC2013 were:

  • The way that it was in the schedule and what-not made it seem like it was the norm to attend, so I registered. In that way it seemed like it was welcoming to all participants.
  • The limit of places available gave me pressure to register quickly to secure my spot, so I did that and stopped thinking about it. I felt liable in that way, and if it were more like ‘whoever wants can come’ but there weren’t registrations, I probably would have felt less committed and would have found an excuse not to go.
  • I had been to a session the day before at GHC about ‘preparatory privilege’ and how schools sometimes mistake students with experience in computer science as the only students with aptitude for it. “Just because I haven’t done it before doesn’t mean I’m not good at it!” I said to myself to get over the ‘not sure I’d be appropriate’ feeling.
  • A lot of the sessions at GHC spoke of imposter syndrome, so I was more aware of what was going on when I was doubting myself, and was able to ignore it. Similarly I recognised that, at GHC, probably I was not the only one (or even close to being the only one) feeling concerned and so that helped me to feel stronger about attending.
  • In the end, only one person in our Android group of 8 had experience making an app! And we had all managed to feel confident to attend. For me, it was easier to feel confident about being welcomed and not left behind (skill-wise) because it was at GHC and I knew it would be a group of girls. Now, I won’t make any generalisations or gender stereotypes here because I am not trying to make any claims about female environments vs males, I just wanted to mention that for me, in my opinion, the significant reason that I felt more comfortable with my less-appropriate skill set was because I knew that I would be in a room of females.

As for the event itself, everything went well in my opinion. The first person I spoke to was in the same position as me experience-wise, which immediately made me feel better (I’m not sure what difference in terms of feeling welcoming that having a mentor that is experienced would have, vs having a friend who is as inexperienced as you! They are both comforting in different ways perhaps). On the Android team for our project, we didn’t have much experience but one of us had made two apps before and became the leader. It was perhaps frustrating before to have to bring us all up to a functional knowledge level while the other teams (smaller and more experienced) were wanting to discuss details that the team leaders had to agree on, but were so far from the point that we were up to. Anyway, she did a great job, and we all learnt a lot.

Although, I felt like the day was geared a bit too much towards producing output (which is a good goal, of course). For our group, we had worked very hard but didn’t have much to show because most of the gains in our group were less tangible.. I mean, I had learnt enough that I was able to go home and finish the content that we were working on, and when we had to present about what we had done, I felt that ‘we learnt a lot’ was an acceptable answer. But, all of the other OS groups were presenting what they had accomplished (in a tangible way) etc, and it became a bit pressuring for us to make it seem like we had done a lot not just learnt a lot.. perhaps our speaker recognised this and it sounded like we were pretending like we had done a bit more than we really had, to impress the rest of the room etc. So, maybe in the future there is a way to make the show-and-tell side of things less show-offy, somehow.. so that people who have just learnt a lot can feel proud and not embarrassed. (Maybe, taking a leaf out of the Harvey Mudd CS5 class‘ book that we heard about at GHC, there could be two different streams for those who had experience before and those who didn’t, so that intimidation and pressure/embarrassment didn’t feel so present in the room).

So, perhaps somewhere in this email of thoughts/experiences there are things that can be taken and developed into suggestions for events in the future. Happy to clarify anything that anything hasn’t quite come across clearly in email! Perhaps you have some more thoughts?

The best part of GHC (is not what I expected)

What was my favourite part about the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing event? I’d be interested in what other people would reply to this, and if my answer would be similar to theirs. What it seems like we (/Google in my case) paid for is to hear from dozens of talented, successful, inspirational women; to hear of successful programs in supporting, engaging, and promoting women in STEM; to develop skills such as publishing papers and leading teams. It’s almost as if there in the fine print is ‘you will have tea breaks with cool people’.. and not even in the fine print is ‘you will have an opportunity to meet with kick-ass school girls’. Indeed, just the day before the conference was to start, I came across an out-dated post on the linkedin group mentioning the final call for local volunteers for the GenConnext mentoring program. I contacted them anyway.

And so, as you might be beginning to expect, my favourite moment at GHC2013 wasn’t when I heard from Sheryl Sandberg, or when Google told me I was a good fit for their [x] division. It was when I had chats with high school students. Well, maybe more precisely it was when they came up to me at the end to say goodbye, when they could have easily just left. To make that effort, they either had parents who were particularly pushy about etiquette, or maybe I had made some sort of impact and we had become friends-ish. I wasn’t officially assigned to them or anything – in fact I had two groups of girls that I had met at different meal times. I just ate with them and whatever: learned about their interests, told them my story, and I highlighted how my story is replicable to any field, and shouldn’t be taken on purely face value. I’m not wishing for anyone to become an electrical engineer, unless that is what they want. I just hope that they can recognise that a degree/career is merely a tool for implementing change, and a mechanical engineering degree is as good as a computer science degree is as good as a nursing degree in order to do that.

Anyway, it turns out this isn’t any news to some of them. “My school had an inventors fair when I was in year 4 and since then I’ve known I wanted to be an engineer,” said Elle, grade 12. Well, that’s certainly different to my story, isn’t it..! Probably one of the greatest things I heard that day (and at Grace Hopper, that’s tough!). So, these girls were doing some pretty kick-ass things. They’re in different teams of the Lego League, they’re developing technology-based tools for their siblings with autism, too (and extending it to other children!). We really had great conversations, I think. And maybe that’s the key thing, they were conversations. It wasn’t a talk – they weren’t one of 50 it was directed at. It was lunch, and we were five, and we were joking around, and it was totally ideal, in my mind. They didn’t raise their hands, they didn’t even really “ask questions” they just participated in a dialogue about what I’m doing, what they’re doing, like friends, like normal people having a conversation..

And so now I wonder, how can the typical classroom careers talk be turned into something else. How can it be turned into a lunchtime chat session? Would that ever even be legal..? Could an opt-in lunchtime in-school group-based mentoring program ever work???

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