Junior Smiti Kaul, a double major in computer science and mathematics, recieved the Grace Hopper Conference scholarship and attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in early October.
This conference is the largest gathering of women technologists, with over 18,000 attendees from over 85 countries and across all disciplines and careers.
When did you get interested in computer science?
I first realized the fun and creativity of science and technology while creating a basic robot prototype during the summer after my sophomore year in high school. Although my partner and I did write a few lines of code for the project, I didn’t consider computer science until about two years later. During my last semester in high school, I came to understand how computing determines a large portion of the things and ideas we engage with daily. I realized that products of computer science, both concrete and abstract, influence humanity to often staggering degrees — whether in regard to our social structure, our health, or our patterns of thinking.
What do you like about computer science?
I like computer science because it’s an interesting mix of theory and concrete implementation. I like how you can begin “doing” computer science nearly as soon as you can understand a few lines of code. I also appreciate how approachable and transparent the computer science community is. So much material is available online, from course content to the underlying code for hundreds of applications to advice on tech careers to forums on niche technology topics. It can be both reassuring and unpleasant to know that the only reason I don’t know something yet is that I haven’t spent enough time learning it for free online.
Can you describe what the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing was like?
It was a surprising combination of things: a typical conference with presentations and posters by student and researchers; a huge career fair; panel discussions about diversity; inclusion, and careers, opportunities to have lunch with faculty and industry professionals; company-hosted talks and workshops specific to different engineering techniques and products and a couple of extravagant evening socials that allowed us to talk to company representatives, professors and each other.
Were there any key takeaways from the keynote speeches?
In different ways, the keynote speeches by Melinda Gates and Dr. Fei-Fei Li both emphasized the importance of diversity in all dimensions. Gates talked about the importance of creating a diverse tech community that is up to the challenge of capturing and catering to the immeasurable subtleties of human cognition. Li reminded us about the deep humanity of technology and artificial intelligence. Li reminded us that computers and robots draw from our humanity and that our goal should be to create them as we want to be.
At the Grace Hopper Celebration, they have a career fair. What was that like?
The career fair was held in a large room full of booths with representatives from a couple hundred companies, as well as from research labs and universities. While most companies weren’t as busy, Microsoft had a long line that wrapped around their booth. I would approach a booth and talk to a recruiter, who would then guide me to an employee that could answer questions about the work I am interested in. The career fair was interesting because I hadn’t envisioned it to be such a prominent and engaging aspect of GHC. Beyond just looking for internships, it was nice to simply talk to actual engineers and researchers in industry and academia and understand what they might do in a typical day. GHC did a really good job of making us feel like a part of this community rather than as if we need to try harder to join it.
What else did you do while there?
I attended talks and workshops. I especially liked one where a Ph.D. student talked about her research about the inner workings of deep neural networks. I attended a couple of meals hosted by different tech companies, in addition to a reception by my scholarship sponsor, D. E. Shaw Research. Another great event was titled “Demystifying Data Careers,” where representatives from Apple and Intuit talked about possibilities in data science. During and between events, it was really cool to talk to people and learn about what they do in school, in their labs or in industry. One night, Google organized a Women Techmakers afterhours event at Disney’s Epcot where they also demoed their new messaging app, Google Allo.
What were the people like who you met there and what did you learn from them?
I felt equally as comfortable approaching an undergraduate student as I did approaching a much more accomplished person older in age. One undergraduate student from Uganda was telling me how she regularly helps the students in her graduate-level classes with their programming assignments. Another woman mentioned that she realized that research was not for her only after completing a Ph.D. in astrophysics, at which point she joined Intuit as a senior data scientist. A professor who sat next to me during a keynote speech explained how she recently shifted her focus from research in computer science and underwater devices to research on how to educate more effectively in STEM. I was able to talk to college representatives at college booths and get graduate school application advice. I was able to talk to students in my age group more personally about school, about life and college experiences in general.
Computer science is not a field dominated by women. As a woman, do you find that environment to be welcoming or hostile?
In my experience, this realm of computer science, math and technology has been welcoming and very supportive. The faculty and staff members I’ve been lucky to know, especially in the computer science department, are intentional about encouraging and supporting their students.
There are times when experiences in this field have been disconcerting. Speaking in the binary, men in tech seem to more naturally form a sense of community among each other and are quicker to reach a point of comfort with the tools and problems they’re dealing with. They often toss around ideas uninhibitedly — the way one should while brainstorming — in a way I have observed neither myself nor my women peers do as often. To bring this sense of freedom and comfort to more of us, I think we have to continue weakening the implicit belief that any field is more suitable for men than women.
How will you use your experience from the Grace Hopper Celebration in the remainder of your experience as an undergrad and then in your career?
I hope I can share the knowledge and resources I learned about during GHC and through the larger GHC community. Just knowing that there are people in this community willing to share their knowledge and advice with you can be very reassuring. Personally, I want to more intentionally ask questions of people whose work I find interesting, many of whom I met through GHC.