Conference Grant Report: Caroline Liu

Caroline Liu was selected to receive a Conference Grant from the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship. With this grant, she traveled to Orlando, FL to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) for Women in Computing. You can read Caroline’s reflection below, read past grantee reflections here, and visit the PCSE website to learn more about all of our grant programs.


Last fall I had the unique opportunity to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) for Women in Computing, an annual conference and gathering of young women in industry, whether aspiring newcomers or professionals with decades of experience. So, I packed my bags for sunny Orlando, FL and left our chilly New England climate behind, if only for a few days in early October.

As the world’s largest gathering of women technologists, GHC 17 boasted a record of over 18,000 attendees across its many sessions and events. For college age students like me, some of the most valuable experiences available at the conference include the speaker and keynote series, workshops and lectures from industry professionals and academics alike, career opportunity labs, career fair, and interview hall. In the spirit of reinventing traditional industry practices that might present gendered barriers for attendees, there are also research competitions, K-12 education workshops, senior women events, and childcare resources available to all.

Because the event filled (and I mean filled) the conference center, there were women and nonbinary folks everywhere. Of course, there were some men attending, but it was not a noticeable (nor silencing) majority the way it usually can be. The career fair boasted over hundreds of booths from companies (some large and extravagant with extensive wait times just to speak with recruiters, others small booths for graduate programs or start up companies). Walk down to the interview hall, and there were hundreds more small booths, each containing a whiteboard and an interviewer ready to talk with applicants at their company, one after another for three days in a row. And of course, all around the conference center were sessions people can attend, whether they were hands-on live workshops, panels, or lectures on anything from trending technologies to industry culture.

As a student researcher myself, I attended many of the Computing Research Association’s events at the conference, where I met so many women with PhD’s in computing who loved their jobs, their research areas, their chosen industry, and the choices they had made to challenge themselves and innovate in tech. I even had dinner with five female Computer Science professors—more than I had ever met or spoken to in my life in total, much less at once. I cannot express how much it meant to me to speak with them, to receive their words of advice and encouragement, to tell them my research interests and curiosities and feel as though I could be where they were standing one day, perhaps even soon.

Another event I loved was the student research competition, where I learned about what sort of research people my age are doing right now. It was the first time I sat in a crowd among people who were both technically experienced and socially engaged, when usually I am accustomed to only one or the other.

At one point, I received an invitation from a Microsoft recruiter to visit the company’s private lounge, a room booked solely for attendees to wind down, speak with one another, play with different technologies, and have coffee or tea between sessions. This is where I got to try the HoloLens technology, a form of augmented reality, and try a simulation in which I was placed in the Milky Way Galaxy and could navigate around it (above, below, side to side), zoom in and out, and find details on anything from Earth to Alpha Centauri to a random asteroid floating around. The best part? When I finished up with my simulation, a software engineer from Microsoft approached me to ask what I thought of the product she had helped develop. To think—that my opinion mattered to her!

Among the workshops I attended, one in particular stood out—a panel on virtual reality and the way it’s being developed and implemented at big companies like Google and Facebook as well as more focused creative communities creating educational experiences. “If you could be anywhere in the world, here would you be?” asked one of the presenters. Attendees responded with a range of answers, from the beach all the way to space. “Now, if you didn’t say a first-person shooter war scenario,” she continued, “we need you working in virtual reality.”

In terms of career strides I was able to make at GHC, I’d say that it is valuable in three ways: career exploration, interviewing, and networking. As a computer science major, attending this conference really grew my understand of what kinds of jobs there were for my skillset. That is perhaps the most crucial takeaway I received, out of all the incredible and priceless experiences I gained there. If I could, I wish I had attended GHC as a freshman or sophomore, when computer science was something I found exciting and intellectually challenging, but not yet something that could open any doors other than “Computer Science Professor” or “Software Engineer.” Grace Hopper changed that for me.

Furthermore, if you are interested in working in industry with a technical role, I think interviewing at Grace Hopper has a particular advantage. I scheduled three interviews during the conference and gained a lot of experience very quickly with solving technical questions verbally, candidly, and efficiently with a “peer” (the interviewer). I also got to explore a variety of functions within technical roles, and how they might differ between a tech company and a non-tech company with a strong technology department and focus. Of course, the interviews at GHC are not at all easier than those conducted at GHC, as someone who had interviewed over 25 times in the fall semester alone. I would say, though, that the atmosphere and culture of GHC dissolves some of the boundaries that are normally there, such as performance anxieties caused by stereotype threat, or the impersonality of a phone or video call versus an in-person one. Plus, many of the interviewers are fellow women in industry, with whom I had the opportunity to ask more candid questions about experiences of bias or other potential barriers within their company cultures.

If you are looking for some industry experience, GHC is a potential fast pass for getting your foot in the door. Not only are there countless professionals, whether employees at any company you can imagine or researchers at some of the best graduate programs in the world; there are also many recruiters who are desperate to boost their diversity numbers in a time when no tech company can say they are doing an objectively “good job” on their work with inclusion. That being said, having gone and knowing the conference is expanding (greatly) each year, I don’t know that I would necessarily need to go year after year. While the conference provides a variety of activities and experiences, it is heavily job-centered, with a strong emphasis on its spectacle (and I mean spectacle) of a career fair.

Thanks to the Patricelli Center Conference Grant, I was able to attend a life-changing convention that made me hopeful and inspired again to pursue the career field I’m interested in, however bleak and discouraging its internal culture has been exposed to be.

Everywhere I looked, there was someone who was doing something I was interested in, but had never seriously considered as a viable option for me. I was overwhelmed by the possibility of my future when I left. I’ve been to other conferences—only the best ones leave you feeling that way. For those who have not yet attended, there is no resource quite like this one. There are plenty of communities that support women and nonbinary folks pursuing education and work in technological disciplines, the Patricelli Center included.