Turning the Tables: Experiences from my first Society of Women Engineers Conference

By Ruth Willenborg, original article here.

I remember when I boarded one of those really big buses at VMworld 2009 in Los Angeles, looked around, and realized I was the only woman on board.  I did a presentation, and after, when I commented to my (male) co-presenter how surprised I was that we had several hundred attendees for what I thought a niche topic; he kiddingly responded, “I think they just came because they wanted to hear a woman pitch.”

If you’re working in IT, man or woman, you can’t help but notice the imbalance.  So, I had to chuckle a little sitting on the buses at my first Society of Women Engineers (SWE) conference, and watching as a few men came into a sea of women.  However, each bus had at least 2 or 3 men.  From this anecdotal data, there may actually be a higher percentage of men at SWE than women at some industry conferences!

Yes, we still have a long way to go, but after spending a few days with both the professional and collegiate women engineers, I must say what we lack in quantity, we more than make up for in quality.  What an exceptional group of women, and how exciting to talk about the future of technology and career opportunities.

And a side perk for me was getting to meet IBM Fellow John Cohn in person.  John is happy to share his passion for technology with all (see photo, you can guess which one is John, and I’m in the blue sweater next to him).image

I did two presentations at the conference.  “Inspire & Innovate: Experiences from CoderDojo Girls”, and “Revamping your skills in the era of Cloud Computing.”  For the Inspire & Innovate presentation, I had the pleasure of co-presenting with Niambh Scullion, founder of CoderDojo Girls.  CoderDojo is an all-volunteer network of programming clubs for kids, with over 750 clubs worldwide. Niambh’s experiences with CoderDojo and the accomplishments of her girls is truly inspiring.  I’m so captivated by the CoderDojo movement that I am in the process of opening my own CoderDojo (Nov 1 in Raleigh, NC)!  For my part of the presentation, I discussed starting kids with Scratch (a no-type language suited for younger kids), and the learning resources available through both the CoderDojo kata, and Code.org Hour of Code.

Another topic discussed was what to do when kids are ready to move beyond Scratch, and how to get them into “real-programming.”  I introduced the audience to the work we’ve done with using platform-as-a-service technologies in IBM Bluemix to get kids building their own (live on the internet) websites, and experience server-side Javascript with Node.js, and the basics of database persistence with Redis.  Node-RED, a visual flow-editor, is another technology kids can adopt quickly and build out some fun integrations with Watson, Twitter, and IOT devices. All these materials are available through the CoderDojo kata.

In my second presentation, I did an overview of Cloud Computing, including IaaS, PaaS, OpenStack, Docker, Cloud Foundry, and polyglot programming.  Then, I jumped in to show the women some exercises they can do themselves.  I firmly believe the best way to learn cloud concepts is to get hands-on, and you will find that with PaaS on IBM Bluemix hands-on can be done in a reasonable timeframe.  Gone are the days of having to spend hours installing just to try something.  In less than 20 minutes, I first brought up and made changes to a Node.js->Cloudant application with an SMS and voice front end and a Javascript graph UI.  Then, I used Node-RED to build a REST service to translate a message using Watson Language Translation. image Both these examples are tremendous hands-on learning experiences, and take a minimal time commitment.  The Node-RED to Watson demo is recreatable from my article Add Language Translation to your apps with IBM Watson, and the Node.js to Cloudant uses the sample code from our Bluemix virtual workshop.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my first SWE conference.  Though the male:female ratio may have been different, the technical presentations, the astute questions and discussions were no different from any of the other major industry conferences.  Just more balanced.

Want to revamp your own skills?  You too can get hands-on with a 30-Day Free Trial of IBM Bluemix, find local (or virtual) events to attend, and try our new free on-line course.

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