It was my first ever Grace Hopper India Conference for women in tech and having a reputation as a top conference for tech, I had high expectations from it. And more so because it was organized by women – who were, from my experience in corporate life, organized, efficient, empathetic and warm. And this year there was even a Design in Tech track. Naturally I was curious and interested.
This year the event was very large with nearly 5000 attendees, 440 companies, and about 300-400 odd attendees from Microsoft itself. There was also 1% men in attendance, the largest ever in GHCI, as we heard in the keynote.
A celebration of women in tech
Beyond the usual welcome and introductions, the first keynote speaker was Lori Beer (Global CIO, JP Morgan Chase). She shared her journey of moving from technology to finance. The key takeaway from her keynote was her message to Pay it forward – what kind of impact can you make in your own way, how you can support other women in the field and what can you give back to the women in tech community.
All the first day talks, including the keynotes, were almost calls to action to the women attendees – about owning their career and believing in themselves. It might seem redundant for some, but for most of the audience, these messages really resonated because we work in a primarily male-dominated profession, even now.
I’ve always been a designer in tech and for most of my career I have been the only woman in the room and had never seen women at the India leadership level until recently. Younger colleagues have asked me why that matters, but it does.
It takes a lot of grit to speak up when you’re the only woman in the room when you might be the only one with a different point of view. It takes a lot of determination to overrule interruptions and still make your point. It takes a lot of perseverance to imagine your own career path when you don’t identify with any of the role models in front of you because they didn’t have to make the same choices of pregnancy, motherhood and parenting. It takes a lot of courage to come back to work and prove yourself again and again because you made different choices than the people in power.
For many, this set the tone for the rousing and motivating experience for the next 3 days.
However what could have been done better was to include the male attendees into the conversation, but there was no acknowledgement of the men and how the genders can collaborate/support each other better. After the first initial mention of the 1% men stat they were forgotten in most of the sessions I attended. Like SheroesSummit, this could have been a great platform to not repeat the biases of the past and start on a more inclusive note, and possibly including different gender identities.
Design and tech
The conference content was significantly tech-intense and of good quality from what I heard and experienced. There were at least 5 parallel tracks running so it was quite easy to miss out.
Though the organizers had tried to address multiple themes within Design in tech, like de-mystifying Design, Design Thinking, the journeys of a few well-known women Design leaders, and how to transition to a UX career if one is so inclined, there was a fundamental lack of interest in the evolution of Design in Tech or in trying to understand the relationship between Design and UX – the terms were used pretty interchangeably. For a number of attendees, this was an intro to Design so there was a risk of miscommunicating the concept of design and its role in technology.
These were the talks that stood out for me:
Inclusive Design and Accessibility: Swami Manohar from Microsoft Research
Dr Manohar began by talking about recognizing your privilege and exclusion, before addressing inclusive design, and why diverse perspectives matter. His point of view, which is Microsoft’s point of view about Inclusive Design is that if we make it better for the usually excluded group of users, we make it better for everyone.
From How to Design, Innovate, and Create Designs that People will Love: A panel with women design leaders.
“Wait for the right moment of insight – a non-obvious, disruptive insight.”Sonia Manchanda
Among the panel there was Sonia Manchanda and Anuradha Madhusudan who really stood out for me.
“Ask yourself, does this idea fit into the narrative of the company?”Anuradha Madhusudan
It was interesting for me to see how much curiosity there was around design. It shows that not only is there a lack of designers in the field, but also not enough designers who can demystify and evangelize their process and work to their tech partners in meaningful ways. There was a whole session on developers who want to become designers.
A case study about how these developers, Sampada and Aslesha, used design thinking to solve a real problem. I was quite impressed by their level of empathy and how they learnt and applied the design process while solving this problem.
This talk Design for Conversational Interactions by Vidhya Duthaluru and Vandana Abraham was really good, crisp and useful. From a project they had done for Uber, Vidhya succinctly identified all the steps one needs to think about while moving an interaction to a conversational experience.
This was a set of useful conditions to know while Designing for Emerging Markets by Muzayun Mukhtar.
The gender conversation
As I mentioned above, this was a celebration of women in tech. But the idea of “women in tech” itself was a bit fuzzy to some. In almost every talk I attended, by women and men presenters both, there were some sweeping statements about why women would be good at design or women would be good at accessibility or women would be good at storytelling – it’s not about gender, it’s about the person and the skills! This not only reinforced gender stereotypes but also diminished the content of their talk for me.
Despite this and some other logistical challenges, #ghci18 was a great experience and I also managed to catch up with friends from elsewhere at the conference. I met a number of really nice women and found that spending time in the company of women can be very supportive and affirmatory. If nothing else, that’s one good reason to go to women in tech conferences every year!