Miranda Adkins, a student in the Align MS in Computer Science degree program, describes her experience and observations at last week’s Grace Hopper Celebration, an annual event named after computer scientist and programming pioneer Grace Hopper. Adkins has an undergraduate degree in Linguistics and Asian Cultures and Languages from The University of Texas at Austin, and she began her studies at Khoury College of Computer Sciences in January 2019.
Miranda Adkins, Align MS in Computer Science student, attends GHC 2019
When I received an email last March from my academic advisor letting me know that Khoury College would be sponsoring students to attend this year’s Grace Hopper Celebration in Orlando, I was barely two weeks into my first semester of the Align program. My days were spent as a project manager at a small local translation company, and my nights in lectures learning the basics of discrete math and writing simple conditional statements and loops. I didn’t know yet what recursion was, or an interface, or Assembly language.
This journey into the world of computer science had barely begun, and yet I was already so excited about the future I knew I would be able to build with these new skills. I didn’t consider myself a “woman in tech” yet, but that was exactly what I wanted to be. So when I received that email inviting me to apply for sponsorship to attend the world’s largest gathering of women technologists, I jumped at the chance.
In the six months since the invitation, I continued taking CS courses in the Align program, started a few programming projects, and began exploring internship and networking opportunities. By the time the conference rolled around on October 2, I felt much stronger in my identity as a woman in tech and thrilled to be heading to Florida to meet 25,000 other women working in the field I had come to love. There were many firsts still to come: my first tech career fair, first technical interview, and first conference of any kind. I had no idea what to expect from GHC19, but even if I had expectations, my experience at GHC19 would have blown them all out of the water.
Here is my first-person, four-day account of a transformative experience.
Day One: Arrival and Career Fair
GHC19 was a four-day conference that began on the afternoon of October 2. That morning, I woke up early to catch my flight to Orlando — I could hardly sleep the night before! One of my Align cohort members was also attending the conference, and we were taking the same flight as well as sharing a hotel room. Having a familiar face and ally along made me feel confident.
After our flight and a shuttle bus ride, we arrived at the Orange County Convention Center.The venue was a beautiful space, and so big that I surpassed my step count goals every day of the conference. Not only was the space exciting, but so was the experience of being surrounded on all sides by women working in tech. There were young undergraduates, grad students like me, and career women of all ages and stages. Being in that women-dominated space felt comfortable to me, and so different from real-world tech spaces that are almost always dominated by men.
We attended the First Timers’ Orientation and headed over to the Career Fair, which was held in a massive room that would remain open for the remainder of the conference. There were hundreds of booths representing tech giants like Google, Apple, and Facebook, mid-sized and small startups, and academic programs — including Khoury College. Companies had gone all-out with their decorations, erecting huge signs, interactive displays, and colorful, eye-catching banners. I visited six booths that first evening to speak with recruiters about co-op opportunities, and I made a mental list of all the booths I wanted to visit before the end of the conference!
For me, the most exciting part of the Career Fair on my first day was a visit to the Apple booth, where I was offered a technical interview slot for the next day. I was stunned! I had one other interview scheduled for the next day as well, but I had never done a coding interview before in my life. That night I went home, feet sore, and stayed up as late as I could practicing for my interviews.
Day Two: Technical Interviews with Apple and Facebook
We had an early start this day because Travelers Insurance had invited all students from Northeastern and Georgia Tech who were attending the conference to a special networking breakfast. I’d never given much thought to working for an insurance company, as my interest lies mainly in Natural Language Processing. However, at the breakfast I met a Travelers employee named Cathy who told me about her work in sentiment analysis and building a multi-domain chatbot to improve customer service. It turns out you can find NLP in the most unexpected places! I made a mental note to attend Cathy’s Thursday presentation about the process of building the Travelers chatbot system.
After breakfast, we attended the opening keynote in a huge space along with the rest of the 25,000 GCH19 attendees. The energy in the room was thrilling and the speakers so inspiring. Especially touching was the presentation given by this year’s Student of Vision Abie Award recipient, Jhillika Kumar. Jhillika is an undergraduate student from Georgia Tech who was inspired by her brother, who is autistic, to find ways to use technology to improve quality of life for people with autism and other disabilities.
After the keynote, I headed to my technical interview with Apple. My stomach was in knots and I was quizzing myself in my head as I waited in line. Once I was in the interview booth, I found my confidence. I’m not sure of my performance — I discovered quickly how difficult coding on a whiteboard is! But I left feeling proud and comforted by the fact that I had one coding interview under my belt. I made it through an interview with a big company like Apple!
That afternoon, I had the unique experience of attending a “speed mentoring” session. About 30 tables in a large ballroom were staffed by career women ready to share their expertise on various topics with younger women just starting out in tech. I attended three mini-sessions and really enjoyed the one on optimizing your resume. I got a couple of new tips that I have already incorporated into my newly-updated resume!
Later, I had my second technical interview, this time with Facebook. This one had been scheduled by email before the conference. Again, I was still pretty new to the coding interview format, and I was definitely a little nervous. But after that morning’s interview, I felt much more confident and performed more strongly. I was starting to learn where my strengths and weaknesses lie when it comes to interviews, and I’ve now got a much better idea of how to prepare for these types of situations in the future.
Day Three: Dean Brodley’s Panel
For my third day at GHC19, I decided to focus less on networking and more on attending some of the interesting conference sessions.One was a panel on career paths for women with PhDs, which is something I may want to pursue in the future. At another session, I learned about the myths surrounding hackathons, and advice for how to make the most of them. I also attended an interactive session hosted by Mathworks, in which we used Raspberry Pi devices to run simple facial-recognition and age-guessing software on photographs. When I say simple, I mean it — I tested the program on a picture of me at age 19, but the computer confidently reported that I was actually… 35.
One of the coolest sessions I attended was in the afternoon on Day Three. It was called “How Universities Are Creating New Pathways to Diversify Tech,” featuring Khoury College’s Dean Carla Brodley as a panel member. Brodley and two other academics discussed the ways they are pushing for more diversity and inclusion in computer science programs at their respective institutions. It was very exciting to hear Dean Brodley speak about the success of the Align program and plans to expand the program to more campuses. She also introduced the Align Consortium, a program in which Northeastern works with other universities — including Columbia University, Georgia Tech, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign — to establish similar programs that give more students, and more diverse ones, access to a computer science education.
“We need to provide pathways for people who didn’t know at 17 years old that they wanted to study computer science,” Brodley said. She explained to the audience that she believes a Master’s in Computer Science should be like an MBA — available to students with any undergraduate background. It was inspiring to hear our dean speaking so passionately about a program she believes in so strongly, a program which also happens to have transformed my life in so many ways.
Day Four: Career Sessions and Final Night
By the last day of GHC19, I was exhausted and my feet sore from walking back and forth across the convention center in my nice shoes. By the end of the conference, according to my fitness tracker, I would have put in close to 70,000 steps! I was socially drained from having my “networking mode” turned on all day. And I’d been waking up early for events and panels and going to bed late after working on homework for my classes back in Boston that were ongoing. Still, I felt satisfied and accomplished for talking to so many companies, learning new things, and pushing myself to make the most of the event. Honestly, I was a little sad that it was almost time to return home.
We woke up early and headed to the convention center to take a group picture with all of the Khoury College attendees. It was great seeing everyone from Northeastern in one place and talking to them about their experiences at the conference so far. That morning, I also attended two sessions. The first, “How to Intern: 6 Golden Nuggets to a More Rewarding Internship Experience,” was hosted by an undergraduate student from my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin. The second,“How to Pass Your Programming Interview,” was hosted by two Google employees and included a performance of a mock phone coding interview. This was probably the most useful session I attended during the conference — I now have an even clearer idea of what to expect in future interviews and how to practice for them.
Later in the day, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and learn about something completely new at an IBM-hosted session called “Near-Term Applications of Quantum Computers.” Though there was a lot about that presentation that was conceptually challenging to me, it was exciting to learn about a subfield of computer science that I’ve never heard much about before.
The conference wrapped up with a closing keynote, including an incredibly inspiring speech by Dr. Vivienne Ming that I plan on showing to anyone who will watch. Dr. Ming is a theoretical neuroscientist and AI expert, and she spoke to us about fear, courage, and purpose. I was close to tears at several points in her speech; I highly recommend watching it on the GHC19 highlights webcast.
It was our last night in Orlando — now what? The conference was hosting a party later in the evening, but my Align friend and I decided to grab dinner in Disney Springs first to make the most of our time in the city. Then, it was back to the conference center for a huge party that surpassed our expectations with glow sticks, acrobats on stilts, cotton candy, rock climbing, a mechanical bull and — my favorite part — a silent disco. Attendees could enter the disco space with special headphones and choose between three stations, each one featuring a different DJ. From the outside, it sounded like a joyful cacophony of female voices singing to three different songs at once. Once I was inside, wearing the headphones, it was a crazy, immersive, interactive experience I definitely want to try again!
Epilogue: Journey Begins
While I can list all the great experiences I had at GHC19, it’s difficult to put into words the effect it had on me as a woman in tech. The conference is truly greater than the sum of its parts. I returned home to Boston, already a more confident interviewer with a wider professional network and even brighter passion for my work and future. I’ve achieved a new level of courage that I know will propel me in my pursuit of knowledge and success for the rest of my life. As Grace Hopper herself once said, “A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” This is just the start of my journey, and I plan to keep sailing towards that shining horizon.