Tech in Texas: Drexel Women in Computing Society Reflects on 2016 Grace Hopper Conference

Drexel WiCS at Grace Hopper 2016
Members of the Drexel Women in Computing Society gathered at the 2016 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Houston, Texas (Oct. 19 to 21).

Every year, women technologists and the best minds in computing convene to highlight the contributions of women to computing at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) – the world's largest gathering of women technologists. Produced by the Anita Borg Institute and presented in partnership with the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM), the three-day conference annually produces collaborative proposals, networking opportunities and mentoring experience for the attendees.

The 2016 Grace Hopper Conference (Oct. 19 to 21 in Houston, TX) hosted almost 12,000 attendees, 33 of which were members of the Drexel Women in Computing Society (WiCS) – five from Drexel’s College of Engineering and 27 from the College of Computing & Informatics (CCI).

Thanks to the generosity of College donors, the CCI was able to support the 27 CCI students in covering travel, registration and lodging costs for the conference.

The conference has traveled around the US, including to Baltimore, MD (2012), Minneapolis, MN (2013) and Phoenix, AZ (2014), and then Houston (in 2015 and in 2016). The group’s attendance not only offered students the opportunity to meet the best and brightest in the industry, but also offered them a chance to see the sights and participate in fun activities such as tasting cactus candy in Phoenix, grooving to jazz in Baltimore, and learning about space flights in Houston.

Tamine Mokdissi, a business and engineering major at Drexel who also serves as the secretary of the organization, has been a regular attendee of GHC since arriving at Drexel. She credits the conference as being the reason that she ended up working with Microsoft for her first coop. With an ever-larger number of WiCS’ members attending the conference this year, Mokdissi shared with CCI WiCS’ unique experience at GHC 2016 – from networking with tech heavy hitters, to getting job offers from top tech companies, to exploring the Space City on their day off.

CCI: Tell us a bit about your role in WiCS and how you got involved.

Tamine Mokdissi: I got involved with the WiCS early on in my Drexel career. The president at the time came to my CS 164 class and to tell us about the club and their upcoming events. I was instantly hooked! They even had an opening for secretary, so I actually became an officer of WiCS as a freshman, which is uncommon. During my time at Drexel, I have been president of WiCS for two years in the past, was recently elected president again for this school year because our president stepped down. I’m thrilled to be serving as president again and in my senior year. It’s an honor.

CCI: Has WiCS attended GHC conferences in the past? If yes, what was the 2016 experience like?

TM: Yes - ever since WiCS was founded, we have been attending the GHC which every year is in a different city in the US. During my time at Drexel, I have been to GHC in Baltimore, Minneapolis, Phoenix, and most recently, Houston. Due to the increased number of women in computing fields at Drexel, there has been a growing interest in the conference, so we have consistently expanded our presence at GHC. In the past couple of years, we’ve nearly tripled the number of students we’ve taken to the conference (33 students this year). Additionally, this year Drexel was a Bronze Academic Sponsor, which not only grants us early-access to conference tickets, but also gives us a booth at the exposition fair. The booth and our logo on all of the conference materials is great publicity for the University and show’s Drexel commitment to balancing the gender gap in tech.

CCI: What were some of the highlights of the trip? Did the WiCS members' make some unexpected discoveries?

There were a lot of memorable moments at GHC this year. We got to hear keynotes from women in senior positions at places like Google and IBM. We also got exposure to men in tech who are allies in our mission to close the gender gap. We got to hear Marc Benioff, the CEO and Co-founder of Salesforce discuss how he tries to maintain gender equality at his company. This year there were about 1,000 male attendees, and it's great to see that number growing each year. The size of the conference also surprised many of our members – it's one thing to imagine 16,000 women in tech in the same room and another thing to witness it. As students who sometimes find themselves as the only women in a classroom, being surrounded by so many women in their field is an invaluable experience. It was also great to visit a new city; we got a chance to experience some of Houston's food and attractions.

CCI: Who all did the group meet and network with? How was WiCS’ experience attending the tech talks and the panels at the conference?

TM: There are tons of networking opportunities. Two Drexel students actually met the founder and CEO of Twitter and Square, Jack Dorsey. A few students also met Telle Whitney, founder of Anita Borg Institute which organizes GHC.

Furthermore, GHC always has some amazing keynote speakers! This year the keynotes were the Chief Technology Officer of the US, Megan Smith; the IBM CEO, Ginni Rometty; CEO and co-founder of Salesforce, Marc Benioff. Some of the other speakers were Anna Patterson, vice president of engineering at Google, and Latanya Sweeney, a professor at Harvard. Besides these amazing speakers, there were also some inspiring workshops and tech talks in specific fields. For example, I went to a workshop on robotics that taught us how to program a humanoid, Pepper.

Additionally, GHC has a massive career fair with some of the largest tech companies actively recruiting. It is a great opportunity for getting a co-op or full-time opportunity. In the past, I got my first co-op at Microsoft through GHC. This year, companies such as Google, Intel, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, Dell and Groupon, among countless others, wanted to interview Drexel students. Better yet, companies including Northrop Grumman, Expedia, Groupon, Accenture, Avanade (Microsoft & Accenture’s technical consulting firm) and Prudential Financial extended job offers to WiCS members.

CCI: Did WiCS get to experience Houston beyond the conference? If yes, what was it like?

TM: Yes - it was great! When planning the trip we always give students an extra day to explore the city. So, a few of us and I went to tour the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. It was amazing to see that the control room, which landed a space shuttle on the moon, didn’t even have keyboard or a mouse. The operations were all controlled by machines that are less powerful than our cell phones today. Additionally, during every conference, dedicates one night to a group dinner. This year we went to a Mexican restaurant near the convention center, which was a great experience!

CCI: What are some things that WiCS is looking forward to at the 2017 GHC?

TM: We look forward to hopefully taking even more students next year! GHC 2017 will be held in Orlando, FL, which is very exciting.

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