Thoughts on my first Canadian Celebration of Women in Computing 2016

New friends at CAN-CWiC.
New friends at CAN-CWiC! Amazing view of Ottawa skyline.

Last night I returned by school bus (haven’t been on one of those for a while…) from the first national CAN-CWIC, or Canadian Celebration of Women in Computing conference, at the Delta Hotel in Ottawa. I first heard about the opportunity from Dr. Wendy Powley, who taught the CISC 121 course I took this past summer.

The major reason I attended this conference instead of, say, the Canadian Undergraduate Software Engineering Conference just last weekend?

This one was $50.

You heard me right! Thanks to extremely generous sponsors like Microsoft, TD, RBC, IBM, Palantir (I am wearing their t-shirt right now), and others, I and many other computing students were able to attend this great conference for practically peanuts. The cost also included travel to and from Ottawa, accommodations, and meals. Amazing! Affordability is a huge issue for me right now, so I’m so thankful that this opportunity exists. I would never have been able to attend otherwise.

We bused out of Kingston on Friday afternoon and arrived that evening for a banquet and keynote speeches. Out of three possible session tracks called Technical, Skills Development, and Outreach, I picked Outreach. I was worried my knowledge wouldn’t be advanced enough to make the most out of the Technical track at this point, and the Skills Development track focused on soft skills like personal branding and public speaking, which I’m pretty confident in — and that just left Outreach. Fortunately, encouraging underrepresented folks to pursue computer science and mathematics is one of my passions these days, so I was really glad this was such a focus in the conference!

The Outreach track had some great sessions. The University of Ottawa led a hands-on makerspace workshop where we designed 3D objects on Tinkercad and then printed them on some nifty 3D printers (unfortunately my group was a little slow so we never got to pick up our objects). We also heard from the CEO and some outreach coordinators at Actua, a Canadian non-profit that brings computer science and other fun STEM workshops to youth across Canada, including indigenous outreach with cultural and knowledge input from local community Elders. I was pleasantly surprised to see overlap between my current role and the Actua coordinators — their training for instructors felt very “Student Affairs-y,” with icebreakers, sensitivity training and group photos aplenty. The least helpful session to me was a panel called “Strategies for IT Success”; the room wasn’t well set up for a panel, and the session didn’t have much practical career advice.

My favourite session had to be Susan Ibach’s “Get Kids Excited About Coding” session early in the morning. Not only is Susan a fun and high-energy speaker, it was great to get a behind-the-scenes look at her role as a Tech Evangelist at Microsoft and hear her practical advice and anecdotes on teaching this material to kids. I had no idea what a Tech Evangelist was before yesterday! I especially liked how Susan broke down the elements of a great computer science workshop (elements that echoed across all the Outreach sessions, but I think Susan articulated these most clearly):

  • Flexible hardware requirements (e.g. browser-based)
  • Follow-up materials for further learning
  • Appropriate for the audience (e.g. touch tutorial for young kids)
  • Pair programming or other opportunities for role modelling

One thing that was missing across the Outreach track was more about outreach to older people, post-secondary and above. Right now, talk of computer science for elementary and secondary students is pretty hot (see British Columbia’s recent decision to add coding to their curricula), but I think it’s equally important to reach adults. When so much important information about our lives is stored digitally, it benefits everyone to know a little more about how that information gets stored, who uses it, and what can be done with it. I’m not saying everybody has to design the next Facebook! But in the same way that we try to teach critical thinking and literacy about reading the news, for example, I think we could try to accomplish similar goals about technology. More and more of what goes on with our information seems to get whisked away behind a magical black box that only really skilled, knowledgeable people have access to — and that seems irresponsible to me.

Alice, our frosh group and I out in the sunshine during Orientation 2007.
Orientation 2007 — yep, Alice and I are both in this photo…

The conference was full of nice little surprises, too. The food was great, and I heard the socials were really fun even though my roommate and I opted to just hang out in our hotel room and chat about the speakers. I didn’t know my roommate before arriving at the hotel; she turned out to be a lovely 3rd-year Computer Science student at Queen’s, and it was cool to talk to her about her experiences in the program. I also got to chat with a Simon Fraser University graduate student about life in Vancouver (she came in second place at the Grad Forum! Go Merhnoosh!). I even ran into one of my frosh, Alice, from when I was a Gael at Queen’s my first time around back in 2007 — she works at CISCO now. How cool is that?! Everyone I met at the conference, from first-years to seasoned presenters, was generous with their time and happy to answer all my questions.

My only major complaint was that some speakers used gender stereotypes. It wasn’t uncommon to hear on stage that “Women are better at multi-tasking” or “If those competition groups were all guys, I can 100% guarantee you that they would not have cooperated.” If I’m being charitable, perhaps I’d argue that those statements were made in order to boost the confidence of all the less experienced women in the room — but truthfully, I left those speeches with a little bitter taste in my mouth. Isn’t stereotyping — of anyone — what we’re trying to get away from here? Let’s not make sweeping generalizations about men or women, regardless of whether the generalization is complimentary. Maybe this is a generational issue of 2nd- versus 3rd-wave feminism.

I also wish that the conference talked more about addressing racism in the field. It would have been cool to have a session on anti-oppression or on how to break down systemic barriers to technology education. Maybe next year they should invite MathBabe (I would be there in a heartbeat). I heard from a couple undergraduate women that at CUSEC the weekend before, they were swarmed by groups of young men at the socials trying to hit on them — why didn’t we talk more explicitly about handling sexual harassment in the workplace? It came up a little bit during the final panel on “A Day in the Life of Women in Computing,” but I think we could have talked a lot more about this issue with Gamergate only a year or two behind us.

Overall, I had a fabulous time at the conference and I’d recommend it to any woman-identified student, mature or otherwise. I’d like to do the Technical track next time around, and maybe be a little braver at the Career Fair (I only stopped by Susan’s booth at Microsoft to ask her about resources for mature learners). I learned a lot, met a lot of nice people, and came home last night feeling tired but jazzed about all the exciting opportunities and changes out there for underrepresented people in the field. After working in publishing (doom and damnation!) and then Student Affairs (higher education in crisis! students can’t handle adversity!), it was refreshing to be at a conference where everyone was so darn optimistic about the future.

Maybe the best thing of all is that I left the conference without feeling self-conscious about my age. There was a great mix of graduate and undergraduate students, nobody really seemed to care when or how people were graduating, and everyone was excited to hear I was returning to school for this field.

CAN-CWiC was a wonderful way to spend the weekend. If I’m nearby next year, I’ll definitely return!