Amy Guy

Raw Blog

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Inspiring and empowering: The Lovelace Colloquium, Nottingham 2013

In 2008 I was in my first year of university, and the second ever Lovelace Colloquium was held in Leeds. I was encouraged to attend by Professor Cornelia Boldyreff and then-PhD student, now-Dr, Beth Massey. Doing so may have changed my life.

At my first Lovelace, I was introduced to the very concepts of conferences, mentors and (importantly) networking. The event was, and has been ever since, a forum for thought-provoking technical talks, inspiring motivational speeches and stimulating discussions about technology-related disciplines, careers, and womens' role within this world. To attend Lovelace is to be surrounded by extraordinary and excited minds; undergraduates at the top of their game, and successful academics and industry professionals to advise and mentor. Having now been along as an attendee, a poster competition entrant and for the past two years as a judge, the conference has provided perfect annual milestones to mark my own academic progression and personal development. I have met so many wonderful people and made so many important connections thanks to this event that I genuinely think I would be in a different place today, perhaps as a different person, had I never been. I can trace back directly or indirectly to one or other Lovelace Colloquium many of the opportunities I have had to develop academically (poster presenting, inspiring conversations), professionally (networked my way to a Google internship) and personally (overcoming low self-confidence, understanding imposter syndrome and conquering public speaking).

This year's, hosted by the School of Computer Science at Nottingham University, has been no different.

For the first time ever I arrived with time to spare before registration, and got to know some of the other helpers and attendees. I was put in charge of organising posters, directed towards a room containing lots of large fuzzy blue boards, divided up the space based on the number expected in each category (First Year, Second Year, Final Year, and taught Masters) and cheerfully handed out drawing pins to entrants as they arrived.

At 10 the crowd who had gathered in a lecture theatre were welcomed by the superhuman Dr Hannah Dee, and the first round of talks began.

Instantly relevant (to me), Natasha Alechina discussed work on logic in ontologies. The use of logic can help with debugging when creating new ontologies by detecting inconsistencies (eg. fallasies, contradictions) or incoherance (eg. empty sets). The method they use is to compute a minimal set from a big graph in which nodes are statements, and they keep track of where all the statements are derived from. It was "surprisingly fast" when tested with 1600 large random ontologies, compared to state of the art methods to compute minimal sets.

Logic is also useful in ontology matching, for example Ordnance Survey vocabularies versus Open Street Map. Logic helps the process by finding what might need to be changed or removed, but human intervention is needed to make the final call.

Next up, Jemma Chambers turned out to be a brilliant speaker and surely inspired everyone in the room by telling us how she'd made the most of a career in technology over the past decade. She was in her last week as a CISCO business development manager, about to move to a similar role at Virgin Media.

She started with some statistics:

  • 51% of gamers are girls, but only 6% of those who make games are female.
  • 21% of jobs in technology overall are held by women.
  • Companies with women in their management report a 34% return on investment over companies with only males.
  • 20% of C-level (CEO, CTO, CIO, etc) leaders worldswide are female.

(Disclaimer: I may have botched the context of those stats slightly, my notes aren't very clear. But you get the idea. Also she didn't say where these stats are from).

Jemma did a year-in-industry during her degree, programming for Oracle. She was bored out of her mind coding (I'm sure some people in the audience sympathised, but probably a minority) and thus learnt what job she didn't want to do when she graduated. Instead, she joined an accounts management graduate program at CISCO, had some doubts but stuck it out, rocked hard in sales and climbed the ladder through hard work and force of will, despite various sexist or ageist behaviour directed her way. A key point here is whatever you end up doing, do it well; being successful wherever you end up opens doors to what you really want to do, if you're not already there. Especially in the big tech companies like CISCO, where moving between jobs internally is facilitated and even encouraged.

On a related note, Jemma talked a bit about the flexibility of CISCO (and other similar companies). Working hours, for example, are yours to choose so long as you get the job done. Similarly she's had no problem negotiating maternity leave, and eighteen months after the birth of her son she's working three days a week (and still feels guilty about dropping him with the babysitter).

Naturally she mentioned a few (legitimate) generalisations about women in the workplace (nothing I haven't heard before, but this is my fifth Lovelace) and followed them up with some solid advice. Women seem to attribute success to outside forces like luck, or kindness of others, where men attribute success to themselves. It's much easier to move forward if you remind yourself that you worked hard for this and deserve it.

Successful men are more likely to be percieved as likeable than successful women, who are often construed as bitches. Ignore what other people think, and don't let yourself get walked on to try and make friends. At the same time, don't let this stereotype go to your head; remember to support other women in the workplace rather than being competitive.

Women and men have different leadership styles (generally) as well as other strengths and weaknesses of their own, and it's a combination of the two that really make a successful team, not more of one than the other.

Jemma recommends reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.

She also discussed the various merits of networking (of which I am happy to attest there are many!) and how to source mentors in the tech community.

This talk was a fantastic one to start the day with, especially to prompt any in the audience who might otherwise have not done so, to talk to everybody. Jemma's enthusiastic speaking style will have kept everyone engaged, too, even those still waking up.

Dr Julie Greensmith filled us in on her journey from a pharmacy undergraduate through to her current work on artificial immune systems. These are algorithms inspired by human immune systems; robust, decentralized, adaptive and tolerant. They work by knowing what is normal instead of what isn't, which is particularly useful if you don't know what attack is going to come next. Their early work, though excellent, was based on a rudimentary computer scientist understanding of how immune systems work; these days they have a more interdisciplinary team with biologists to improve things even further.

Gillian Arnold, who is exceptionally well known and officially recognised as An Inspiring Woman, was filling in for a speaker who couldn't make it. She talked through the best career moments of various people she knew, which ranged from getting software into the hands of the public to promotions and financial incentives. She also talked through a few of the stereotypical problems women have in the a male-dominated workplace, but most of what she could have said had been covered by Jemma. A pro tip for getting attention at meetings if you're being talked over is to bang the table.

Dr Hannah Dee gave us a technical talk about her current research, as well as a little background on how she got where she is. She is much happier as a lecturer as opposed to a post doc, as she gets to direct her own research areas, and isn't constrained within fields she's not totally comfortable (like surveillance). So now she's interested in time and change in nature, doing things like laser scanning and time lapsing plants to find out new things that are particularly hard to find out. Some really interesting stuff about camera hacking with the Canon development kit, which lets you write programs in Lua or BASIC, and provides the sorts of menu options you'd usually only find on a really expensive camera.

Milena Nikolic is an engineer at Google London who has worked on Google's mobile sites, integrating results from mobile app stores into search results and the Android Market / Play Store. She says she has undergone a "journey of scale", and loves shipping projects that make a real difference and are used by real people. She answered lots of questions about working at Google. As with Jemma's experience at CISCO, hours are flexible at Google, and there are no strict iterative phases for development, but projects have their own cycles. She doesn't spend as much time coding as she'd like, but this varies depending on the stage a project is in, too.

Then someone asked "why are girls scared of coding?" and a lively discussion ensued. For some reason I didn't take notes, but things I can remember that were suggested include:

  • Girls are more hesitant about diving in, or scared of breaking things. To progress with programming, you've gotta just keep trying and failing.
  • Girls are more emotionally affected if their code does fail. Guys just shrug it off and try something out. (I personally have never felt like this).
  • Girls are less likely to be exposed to programming or programming-like activities at an early age, so by the time they come across computer science they may see it as boring, too mathsy or not creative. I suspect that had I not got interested in making websites aged ten, it might have passed me by during high school, and I would have ended up doing chemistry or French at university.

There were more; I'll add them if I remember.

In between these fantastic talks were coffee, lunch and networking breaks and of course, poster judging. I teamed up with Milena Radenkovic to assess the second years, and after three quarters of an hour of lunch, plus a 'last minute' extra half-hour before the decision had to be made (thus I missed the panel discussion), we had narrowed it down to five... It was hard. Seriously. We discussed the poster content, presentation, practicality of the ideas, whether the student was showing a project they were personally involved with or intending to do (this holds weight with me) and how well the student explained their ideas in person. They were all brilliant on all counts. We negotiated splitting the second place prize in two, but still had to choose three out of our final five.

Eventually we settled on Carys Williams (quantum cryptography; University of Bath) for the first prize, and Heidi Howard (routers that pay their way; University of Cambridge) and Jo Dowdall (smart tickets; University of Dundee) for joint second place.

I only wish I'd had time to look at the rest of the posters!

I finished off the day by joining other attendees for dinner, which was all round brilliant, and resulted in a late night.

See other fantastic blog posts...

At 7:51 pm Cornelia said...

Amy, wonderful blog! I was just discussing how well you've done with Duncan Rowland whom I bumped into last week in Lincoln.