If you are a computer scientist, you have either attended or heard of the Grace Hopper conference. Every year, tens of thousands of attendees come to “the world's largest gathering of women technologists” to celebrate the best female minds in computing and their contributions to the field.
This year, the conference was held in Houston. For three days, 15,000 students, computer scientists, practitioners, and executives flocked to Houston’s George Brown Convention Center to hear thought leaders, exchange ideas and, above all, celebrate diversity and the many faces of computing. The conference, increasingly larger over the years, where women shape and deliver a narrative about women, is truly one of a kind.
Grace Hopper was a woman ahead of her time in the 1940s. She was a Word War II naval officer, among the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer, and created COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language), the first computer language to use words instead of numbers. (Take a look at this 10-minute clip of Grace Hopper on the David Letterman show back in 1986!)
I attended the very first Grace Hopper conference in 1993. A wide-eyed first-year graduate student, I saw talks by the country’s premier computer scientists: Mary Jane Erwin from Penn State, Ruzena Bajcsy from UPenn, and Fran Allen from IBM, just to name a few. The conference was much smaller back then (about 500 attendees), but no less exciting.
I met the late Anita Borg at that conference and saw her get down on the disco floor after the conference banquet. She was truly an inspiring woman who “had a unique capacity to mix technical expertise and fearless vision that inspired, motivated and moved women to embrace technology instead of fearing or ignoring it… She is responsible for including women in the technological revolution – not as bystanders, but as active participants and leaders.” I remember coming back from the conference inspired, determined, and ready to work.
For me, no matter how many years it has been since I left school, how many jobs I have had, the Grace Hopper conference still holds that sense of wonderment. On opening day the huge crowd of attendees sat on the edge of our seats, staring into the bright lights of the keynote stage, holding on to each and every word of our idols. And there was no shortage of idols: Ginni Rometty, Anna Patterson, Marc Benioff, Megan Smith, and many more.
This year, I returned as the Program Co-Chair for the security and privacy track, honored to be asked to help structure the program. The 2016 conference was held in the middle of one of the most contentious election seasons in U.S. history, and outside the conference the disparaging rhetoric was playing everywhere. But at Grace Hopper, the atmosphere was one of hope, harmony, and camaraderie.
Within the security program, we ran a “Capture the Flag (CTF)” session at the conference in which more than 500 attendees showed up. For many, it was their first CTF experience, and they were hungry for more, but due to bandwidth reasons, we had to settle for a combination of demo and paper exercises. That did not dim the enthusiasm; many came up to me throughout the conference and expressed interest for a hands-on lab next year.
Everywhere, strangers were striking up conversations, eagerly exchanging information and tips. For three days, people from all walks of life — a student from Canada, an engineer from Dubai, a computer artist from San Francisco — shared meals and laughs while learning from some of the best in the field.
The Anita Borg Institute released new statistics at the conference: Women now make up 21.7% of the technology workforce, with 11% in executive positions. But, according to (ISC)2 data, only 10% of the cybersecurity workforce are women. The entire high-tech industry has a lot of work to do when it comes to gender (and other diversity) representation, but the security industry has a long way to go.
That’s why I’ve partnered with ITSPmagazine to create the Equal Respect column — because by now most of us know these statistics very well. Our passion and our mission is to “take a direct and more solution-oriented approach by providing a platform for this cause [of the lack of diversity in tech], and to give a voice to the thoughts, actions, ongoing efforts and, of course, victories.”
My graduate school advisor, Bill Wulf, the former president of engineering, wrote this wonderful piece on “The Importance of Diversity in Engineering” in 1998. He writes, “The quality of engineering is affected by diversity (or the lack of it).” He goes on to say: “Engineering is a profoundly creative profession… It is the result of making unexpected connections between things we already know – life experiences. Without diversity, the life experiences we bring to an engineering problem are limited. As a consequence, we may not find the best engineering solution.”
This is never more true than in the security field. The game of attack and defense is by nature a creative one, which comes down to a human problem. And as such, we need different voices and different experiences to uncover unseen patterns and help us find the most robust, creative, and elegant security solution.
As I reflect on this year’s Grace Hopper conference, and once again realize just how much of a trail blazer admiral Hopper was, I hope that we are all blazing new trails for those who come after us.
About Dr. Chenxi Wang
Dr. Chenxi Wang is Chief Strategy Officer of Twistlock and co-founder of the Equal Respect column on ITSPmagazine. She is responsible for corporate strategy and marketing. Chenxi built an illustrious career at Forrester Research, Intel Security, and CipherCloud.