Thursday, October 4, 2012

Keynote: Nora Denzel

The day got off to an early start with a keynote by Nora Denzel.  Nora started at IBM and later worked for HP.  She was recently named one of the top 25 most powerful engineer by Business Insider, and spoke about this year's conference theme, "Are We There Yet?".

Nora told us how she decided to pursue computer science at 16, spurred on by her neighbour's purchase of the TRS80, one of the first computers.  It had a tape drive instead of a hard drive and had only 4 MB of storage.  It only had three upper case messages: "WHAT" (syntax error), "HOW" (arithmetic error) and "SORRY" (neither syntax or arithmetic), so it seemed like the computer was constantly yelling when it ran their programs.

This work with such early, limited machines must have made an impression on Nora, because she fell in love with computer storage and went on to work on it for about 15 years.  Nora's experience in technical management and business intelligence led her to work on 'Big Data' and find ways to answer business questions to provide customer insight and profound business insights.

Nora says when it comes to women in computing, we aren't there yet.  Women hold 25% of the jobs in computing, but in general in society the ratio is the other way - women generally hold more than 50% of jobs, make more than 50% of consumer purchases, and make up around 50% of the population.  Not only are we not there, we are going into reverse because of the pipeline problem - we aren't graduating enough women with CS degrees, so the population working in industry does not increase either.

So what should we do about it?  Nora says we should think about why should think about how we can stay in it ourselves as well as how to recruit more.  Something I've heard from friends and colleagues is, why not just let people major in whatever they want?  Nora has an answer: more diverse teams make better business decisions.  Perhaps not surprisingly, men and women think differently.  I would say that people from different backgrounds in general think differently, and so diversity of all kinds makes for better teams.

Nora gave some more examples of why gender diversity is important: voice recognition systems designed only for men, so women's voices weren't recognized, took off once fixed to recognize voices from a more diverse group.  Car air bags were only designed for male drivers, and killed women and children until calibrated differently.  Unreliable access to water was a big problem in third world countries.  When women were included in the teams making decisions about implementing solutions, they were more successful.  Why?  In most countries it's women who collect water and bring it back to their villages, and so it's the women who have the wealth of knowledge needed to make the right decisions.  Including women in these decisions actually improves both a company's competitiveness and society's competitiveness.

Nora asks that we simply commit to recruiting one woman per year into CS.  If we do so, we can change the direction from reverse to drive.  Here are her five tips for staying in the field:

  1. It all starts with your attitude: the number one thing people attribute to their success over everything else (grad school, luck, etc) was their attitude.  Your career is like an obstacle course, not a linear progression, and things happen for you, rather than to you, and you need to learn from them and how to use those experiences to your advantage as you move through it.
  2. For longevity you have to feel very comfortable with being uncomfortable: it isn't what you know in most of your jobs, it's how fast you can learn.
  3. Act as if: Act as if you're confident, act as if you're a good speaker.  Don't overthink things, stay out of your head.  It will get you through those situations where you think you don't have the confidence to do what you need to do.
  4. You are your own PR agent for your career: be careful and deliberate.  Shorten your press release, and learn to accept praise without adding comments regarding your lack of confidence, insecurities, etc.
  5. It takes a village: don't be in your career alone.  Maintain a group of people both inside and outside your company all the time, your 'board of directors'.  It's not what you know or who you know, it's who knows what you know.
Here's Nora's list of great things about being a woman engineer:
  • You can wear anything to work.
  • They feed you all the time.  
  • You get awesome swag!
  • The money is good: on average it pays 30% more than other industries.  The wage gap between men and women is smaller.
  • You have the chance to change the world!  (That's the number one reason)
I thought Nora's closing remarks were pretty cool: "Live in the land of what's possible, not in the land of what you're afraid of.".  Words to live by!

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