WomenETC - What We Learned from Women in Technology

By Jeannine Tondreau and Leigha Wilson.

We recently had the opportunity to attend WomenETC’s fourth annual conference. The focus of the conference this year, similar to the past few years, was to teach technology professionals to learn, network, and collaborate on issues facing women in technology. This year’s format and location of the conference has improved greatly. Instead of having the conference separated into three sections, Education, Career, and Technology, they kept all attendees in the same room. They allowed everyone to hear from the same speakers. Another positive change was the move from the Convention Center to the Science Museum of Virginia,  as it delivered the message that this conference is all about science!

SUMMARY


COURTNEY FERRELL

The morning started with a much-appreciated passion and energy from the speaker introducer, Courtney Ferrell. She was described as having a “drink from a firehose energy” during her introduction, and boy did that describe her well!

She filled the room with laughter on several occasions as she regaled us with personal stories that brought all the speakers information together, while keeping the audience captive.

Courtney is an international speaker and a visiting professor at several colleges, including the University of Richmond. She has also been a business partner of several large companies, such as Capital One, JP Morgan Chase, and American Airlines.

Before the first speaker got up, Courtney challenged everyone in the audience to “notice stuff and be moved to action”. This challenge was met with action from the audience throughout the conference; women yelled out, saying “Brilliant!” when a great idea was shared with us.

She emphasized that “engaging the spirit of women” and “awakening their creative spirit” was what this conference, and she herself, wanted. She did just that every time she got on stage.

LENA TRUDEAU

The first speaker we got to hear from was Lena Trudeau, the Practice Manager for Global Expansion at Amazon, in the Worldwide Public Sector for Amazon Web Services. She had a lot of good advice for women who are in the technology space but also for women in general. She wanted to make sure that women  take risks and do things that are hard and stretch you in your career. Lena also explained that failure is also an important part of taking risks, and is important because through failure you can learn and grow; But avoid making the same mistake twice! She also encouraged the audience to do something meaningful that will make an impact.

Lena discussed career development and hiring practices. She encouraged the audience to always hire someone better than yourself, warning that the average employee will want to hire below themself so they can always be the best; those who feel they are the best want to hire better than themselves so they can constantly be challenged. This resonated with me because I think that is the mark of a great coworker, someone who constantly challenges you and pushes you to be better. The other aspect of career growth is to not only have a mentor, but to pay that mentorship forward and be a mentor to others. If you are ever unsure of something, remember confidence is a choice.

Despite not coming from a technical background, she held her own among experts in the field and spoke with ease on technical points. During the question and answer portion of her talk, she was asked how she was able to do this. Lena said that she was able to understand a lot about technology by always asking her engineers questions. She also read often about new technologies and got training when it was available to her. She made sure to talk to customers about their technologies and specifically how they are using it to better communicate with them.

After giving us plenty of sound advice, Lena went through some of the new things that Amazon Web Services are working on. Amazon Web Service Educate is a service that will solve the problem that there is not a lot of curriculum out there for colleges on cloud technology. AWS Educate seeks to have curriculum available, so that professors can use it to teach their students. Currently, they give free credits to professors and students. Amazon is also working to maintain real data sets for education and collaboration. Amazon now has a geneticist on staff and a large amount of genome data for them to work with, but genome data is incredibly personal, and this dataset is locked down to only a select few. However, there are other datasets available for general use which would allow individuals learning Big Data to work with real data versus using dummy data.

PHAEDRA BOINODIRIS

If post conference chatter was indicative, then Phaedra Boinodiris was perhaps the most memorable speaker. She held the audience’s attention easily when she spoke of Gamification; the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts.

Phaedra is the global lead for gamification at IBM. She spoke about the process of joining IBM and her previous endeavours, including WomenGamers.com, a woman’s gaming portal she started with her sister.

In 2013, the WomenETC conference had a similar talk about Gamification, given by Jane McGongial. Jane’s talk was excellent and featured some fun games to make it interactive. I think where Phaedra improved on the topic was with excellent examples. Phaedra shared not only the awesome things being done in technology with gamification, but also shared where those ideas have been applied and are currently being used! Speakers tend to struggle at conferences with maintaining their audience’s understanding throughout their talk — especially those given at technology conferences. Phaedra’s examples were so well crafted that she handled this problem gracefully.“Games can be a powerful instrument of change.” Phaedra said this to stress the importance of games and how they are changing technology as well as the people who use technology.

She made a point to show all the women and men at WomenETC how IBM is currently using games to explain concept systems. She showed several examples of games created by companies that follow these same complex, problem-solving strategies, including:

  • Fold-It, a game that allows gamers to contribute to scientific discoveries by folding proteins. The more scientists know about how certain proteins fold, the easier it will be to fight disease-related protein and cure diseases. This game was funded by DARPA.
  • Gravitalent, a game that assess the user in many different ways, specifically their problem-solving skills. This game can be used during the hiring process in-lieu of an assessment test, for example.
  • SimCity, a game that allows the user to build and maintain a city by being the Mayor. This allows the user to see the problems involved in city structures; having factories too close to residential areas causing your population to become unhappy, for example.
  • Bracelets and headbands to tracks your heartwaves and brainwaves. This would help track the health of older people or those with disabilities and keep them safe.
  • There were several games using to help the disabled or disease-stricken as well as those with PTSD. One mentioned was Tetris, which was said to increase focus and help concentration.
  • Time manipulation games are used by the government and military as training methods for war tactics. Using past events real data, a soldier can better understand why things happened and how to better be prepared, or better yet avoid the same thing happening again using a game to manipulate time. They can change their choices and see the result based on this new data. They can also use this technology to be aware of the surroundings in an area they have yet to visit.

Some suggestions Phaedra gave when thinking of a design for this type of game was to “know what motivates your audience before you design it.” If you try to design for a game without first gaining knowledge of what the user wants, your product will most likely not succeed.

She referenced the game Fold-It. The company attempted to include logos on their site in order to get sponsors. With the addition of these logos, their users greatly declined. People were playing the game solely for the fun of helping cure diseases. Once companies were involved, they stopped playing.

POORNIMA VIJAYASHANKER

Having made the Mint.com app a big part of my financial stability, Poornima Vijayashanker was one of the speakers I was most excited to hear from, and she definitely did not disappoint. She gave excellent advice on a wide range of topics, walking us through a few steps for public speaking given in one of her soon-to-be-released books: Present! A Techie’s Guide to Engaging an Audience.

Poornima is a co-founder of Mint.com as well as the founder of Femgineer, a business that helps technical professionals and entrepreneurs level up their careers, with a focus on women professionals. She teaches people how to transform their ideas in products.

Poornima began her talk with something she calls the “Pitch Formula”. She says this formula will help you communicate your ideas clearly to customers, investors, and employees. The formula itself is rather simple: who is it for + problem + solution + benefit. Pitching your idea is what makes everyone else see the lightbulb above your head. Get it right early, and you will be that much closer to seeing your idea become a real thing.

As someone with a lot of ideas, one suggestion that was hard to hear was “don’t build it”. Poornima said to “have a conversation first”. This will let you know what the users wants. Without this knowledge you are building blindly. You may think your idea is awesome and lots of people will love it, but maybe they will love it more if it actually includes something they are looking for.

Poornima’s example in this case was HipCamp, a site created for travelers to use and easily find somewhere to camp. It started because some campers were frustrated with reservation sites for campgrounds. All that’s needed with an idea is some need for a group of people.

When developing something, gain some first hand experience. Poornima shared a story about her developers and how they build an app called BizeeBee. This is a member user management site. It was built for a Yoga studio originally. In order to have her developers better understand the needs for this app, she had her developers go to the gym and sit through some Yoga sessions. All they did was sit and watch and listen. Their eyes were opened! They came back (hours later) with ideas and stories from their time spent listening and watching, and the app is that much better for it.

MEG WHITMAN

The final part of the day was a question and answer session with Meg Whitman the CEO of HP; an incredible, fascinating person and one of the 25 most influential executives. That list only included 1 other women, so she has reached a height that many women have not been able to reach yet. She gave us a quick overview of what was going on at HP, and how it was breaking into two different companies, and then dove into her leadership style. She believes in structural leadership and making sure the people and processes are correct. This means hiring and finding the right people for the right job at the right time who have the right attitude. She also mentioned that as a leader one of the worst things you can do is to not make a decision. When you do not make a decision people do not trust you, or if you are indecisive it can be easy for someone to undo that decision and then cause confusion.

We also discussed innovation in companies. Meg defined two types of innovation: evolutionary innovation and disruption/revolutionary innovation. Companies like HP are very good at evolutionary innovation where they build on something that already exists. For example, HP does evolutionary innovation by changing a technology from generation 4 to generation 5 in iterations. Disruptive technologies are entirely new to a market and generally these innovators don’t work for large companies like HP. That is why so many large companies acquire other companies to obtain their disruptive technology, as well as  employ people who are innovators.

Meg explained that, in a large company, communication is important. To affect change in a company you need to tell stories of the cultural change that you want to happen. Meg does this by telling stories at meetings of three projects that succeeded expectations and three projects that did not meet expectations. She also mentioned that engineers are creative people and should be treated that way, but that creatives do need some boundaries. If you give a creative some structure on what to create they can do amazing things for a company.

Someone asked a question about what a person should do in their 30’s to set themselves up to one day lead companies themselves. Meg’s advice was the get different experiences by doing different jobs; this will give you the variety of experience needed to run a company. She also said to build a portfolio of your work and make contacts with as many people as you can. Her final piece of advice was to look at what kind of skills will be needed for the next job and work on those skills.

On leadership skills, Meg explained you need to be able to motivate people and be confident in both your attitude and in your body language. A successful leader and team will also focus and enjoy winning. The main way to win is to define what winning is ahead of time so it is known when a win is met. Lastly, you should have fun with the people on your team and laugh because work is better when everyone enjoys what they do.

The final question was from a new hire who had recently graduated from college about what the best advice Meg had for someone in that position. Her advice was to make sure to learn the direction of the company and the strategic plan, and to continue to learn from your failures. She said that whatever job you are doing as your first job to do it to the best of your abilities, and that the best employees will do this job to the best of their abilities regardless of their motivation to do the job.


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