On October 4-6, 2017, 23 years after the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) first began, more than 17,000 women and about 1,000 men from around the world eagerly streamed into the Orlando Convention Center in Orlando, Florida, with thousands of different dreams of making new connections.  Connections with people, with job opportunities, with new ideas and skills—and certainly connections with fresh inspiration, imagination and passion that will carry them into a different kind of future than they ever envisioned before.

What is GHC?

Some of the 18,000 people who attended GHC

The Grace Hopper Celebration is an annual event known as the world’s largest gathering of women in technology.  GHC’s cutting edge content is so diverse and the number of keynoters, panelists, sessions, tracks and evening events is so immense that this blog can mention only a fraction of what goes on there.  Over at least the past decade, NetApp, has grown its partnership with GHC year-over-year, and in 2017 100 NetApp employees were fortunate to experience it for themselves.


GHC is named for Grace Hopper, who earned a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Yale University in the 1940s and whose roles included computer scientist and U.S. Navy admiral in the 1950s and ‘60s—decades when very few women held decision-making roles in computer science.  As a research fellow at Harvard, her team created the precursor for the COBOL computer language.  Anita Borg, founder of the Institute for Women and Technology (now called AnitaB.org), and her institute colleagues created the conference in 1994 for female computer scientists.


The conference has become so vast and complex that NetApp Educational Business Partner Jamie Wasilewski actually created a 30-minute pre-event video, slide deck and a brown bag presentation for employees lucky enough to have tickets.  The hundreds of topics the event covers range from highly technical tracks to advice for career advancement.

The Career Fair of All Career Fairs

Few, if any, career fairs can top the hundreds of booths at GHC.  About one-third of the attendees each year (that is, around 6,000 participants) are students ranging from undergraduate to doctoral candidates, who throng the Career Fair, testing the waters at booths that showcase a who’s who of tech companies.  The 2017 NetApp booth, staffed by employees from University Relations, Staffing and volunteers from other departments throughout the company, collected more than 570 resumes, conducted 31 interviews and made two job offers on the spot, with up to six more potential offers to be made.


The NetApp Career Fair booth

“It was basically like having Silicon Valley in one big room,” says Inside Sales Rep Allison Barnes. “I had endless opportunities to meet people and get a new perspective on what I was thinking about for my career. And the people are definitely the coolest part about the conference.”


Swag from the Career Fair’s hundreds of booths

Why go?

GHC tickets usually sell out months in advance and within hours of going on sale. A Gold Sponsor of GHC, NetApp is granted 100 tickets to distribute throughout the company. Issuing a call for nominations, members of NetApp’s Women in Technology (WIT) business resource group review and select potential attendees. Employees can nominate a peer or themselves to attend. WIT attempts to select a group of the strongest nominees that also represents a cross-section of the company’s business units.


Some of the NetApp delegates

There are many reasons NetApp professionals covet a GHC ticket just as much as students do.  For example, Allison Barnes says she wanted to grow her leadership skills and strengthen her connections with all the industries NetApp touches.  And Project Manager Tymeka Whiteside and Data Analysts Manager LaReine Reilly wanted to network with other women from around the world who are also in tech.


NetApp participants, many of whom work on teams that primarily consist of men, say it was energizing to be at a conference with a female focus, surrounded by more than 90 percent women and less than 10 percent men.


Senior Manager Luis Rolando with R2D2

NetApp men also attended the conference, and the NetApp women who attended believe their presence, understanding and support will be critical for women to become more empowered in the tech community.


“I think that’s really important for NetApp employees to understand that GHC is not for women only,” says LaReine. “It’s important for all people to understand the importance of having diversity—from all walks of life—on a team.”


Software Engineer Dan Howard and IT Senior Manager Luis Rolando were both nominated by others to attend GHC and were excited about participating.  Neither was interested in GHC as a tool to help their career paths; instead, they wanted to learn about new and different ways to fight unconscious bias—and do so as a way to give back.  Both were interested in learning about educational outreach efforts for youth in their communities. Dan, for example, is vocal about his passion to help his children grow up with few or no biases about work roles.  And both men want to either support women and girls in technology or coach others to do so.


We all stayed in different hotels and took buses to the Orlando Convention Center each day. On Day 1, I got on a bus that was completely filled with women.  I was the only guy, it was my first taste of GHC—and the driver called me out to everyone.  I expected these women to be asking, ‘What’s this guy doing here?  Men created this mess we’re in!’  Instead, I received a round of applause and thanks for being supportive. – Luis Rolando

Keynotes and Panelists and Sessions…Oh My!

Known for its stellar main stage keynoters each year, GHC did not disappoint in 2017 and delegates lined up hours in advance for good seats.  Consider these two speakers, each of whom was popular with NetApp delegates:

  • Melinda Gates, of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who opened the event and described the challenges she found as a female in tech and the urgent need for change in the industry.
  • Anyanna Howard, Professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, who explored the human connection with robots and how to involve more of humanity in robot creation.

Unconscious bias was also a hot topic at GHC 2017. Take keynoter Dr. Fei Fei Li, professor and director of Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Lab and chief scientist for Google Cloud AI/ML, who not only spoke about her career journey from humble beginnings in a small Chinese village to the heart of Silicon Valley, but also addressed the challenges of unconscious bias in AI.


Data Analysts Manager LaReine Reilly channels Grace Hopper

The subject hit home with LaReine Reilly.


“People talked a lot about AI at GHC—who’s creating the artificial intelligence, who’s programming it, what language do AI programmers speak. If AI is coming from only one perspective, for example, ‘white male,’ that’s what the artificial intelligence will know,” she says. “So the importance of having absolutely complete diversity in the makeup of our contributors to artificial intelligence will make it—well—more intelligent.”


Beyond the keynotes, hundreds of panel sessions awaited GHC-goers.  Three of them had a significant impact on Allison Barnes, ranging from how to create a multi-dimensional career by bringing in skills from outside activities, to how introverts can be successful leaders and finally how minimalist practices on the job can bring success. (An example of the latter might be that for 90 minutes of each working day for 90 days, a person focuses on one project—and gets it done.)


“It was just cool to see how many different backgrounds everybody had, and the different flavors they bring as a leader and as a contributor in a company,” Allison says. “You can bring different parts of your life and your personality and make them relevant to your career. I’ve learned there are many people out there who have been able take a non-traditional path and achieve some really cool things.”


Among the panel discussions, NetApp women’s voices and ideas could be also heard.  Playing off the movie Hidden Figures, Senior Engineering Program Manager Tamara Nichols Helms and QA Engineer and co-author Liz Haring hosted a panel discussion called “Learn How to Highlight & Recognize Your Organization’s ‘Hidden Figures.’” The panel included Senior IT Program Manager Mona Hudak from Intel, Senior Software Engineer Rachel Shanava from Pure Storage, Senior Director Product Development Larry Colagiovanni from eBay and Chief Diversity Officer Yolanda Lee Conyers from Lenovo, all of whom explored how to recognize, reward, and promote the often-overlooked hidden talent among women and minorities in organizations.


Senior Engineering Program Manager and moderator Tamara Nichols Helms (left) with panel

“The discussion made me ask myself who the hidden figures are on my own team,” says LaReine. “It is easy to see the most obvious person who’s great, but who’s the quiet person whose talents I might be overlooking? I thought that was a great message because, as NetApp managers, we have a lot of strong people on our teams, but they don’t always self-promote.”


Systems Engineer Niki Willoughby gave a presentation followed by Q&A on “Hidden Talent: Veterans Transitioning to Civilian Life,” that explored both the challenges veterans face in finding employment and the value of hiring them. Niki shared her own job search story after serving in the Air Force and highlighted programs and resources (think NetApp’s Academic Alliances) that help vets train for and obtain jobs in the tech industry.


Project Manager Tymeka Whiteside asks a question in a session

There are hundreds of sessions attendees can choose from. To understand the breadth of content at GHC, four participants from NANE said they attended 21 tracks in these 14 sessions (one can attend as many as five sessions a day): Internet of Things; Open Source; Organization Transformation; Products A-Z; Security/Privacy; Software Engineering; Facebook; Career; Data Science; Artificial Intelligence; Human Computer Interaction; Computer Systems Engineering and Interactive Media/Wearable Tech.


Senior Manager Cloud Marketing EMEA Sandrine Rollin, who flew in from Paris, mainly attended leadership sessions and a technical session on SEO (Search Engine Optimization), which is relevant to her marketing role.


“The SEO session, beyond its purely technical content, also highlighted how much digital is really offering a huge opportunity for women to embrace careers in the IT workplace,” she says.

Networking, Networking, Networking!

Allison Barnes believes the best piece of advice she can give anyone attending GHC is to make connections with people and constantly seek out someone new to chat with.  NetApp participants were frequently surprised at who they found simply sitting next to them in a session or waiting behind them in a line. Keynoters and panelists often made themselves approachable to chat with those attending. Evening events and parties offered even more ways to form connections.


I was amazed at the openness of every attendee to start up a conversation no matter where I was. I spoke with students who were interested in interviewing at NetApp who had data science and computer science backgrounds. I spoke to hardware developers at ARM, an IT manager at the U.S. Federal Reserve, and hiring managers at the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). I had lunch with a software designer and IT manager from Disney. I met with multiple engineers from our customers, SpaceX and Planet Labs. I saw a presentation on the physics of Big Data from Twitter and spoke to data scientists at Thompson Reuters who researched Twitter posts to better understand sentiments towards criminal justice in the U.K..  It was awesome to talk to so many potential future employees, customers and business partners. – Mercedes Adams

Mercedes Adams chats with Christina Wolfskill, SpaceX software engineer, about SpaceX culture

“One of the things that I really enjoyed was the networking component; at a conference of this magnitude, you still have opportunities to have true interactions with leadership from various companies around the globe,” says Tymeka Whiteside.


Most importantly, NetApp delegates say that the GHC experience has pushed their confidence and passions to a new level.  In many cases the experience has inspired them to take new risks and set new goals. “My goal is that I will be presenting at GHC next year,” said Business Process Architect Deepti Arora.


Sandrine’s planned next step is to become more involved earlier next year and to build a larger group of delegates from the EMEA region. This month, she is working with her WIT group to host a WIT lunch at Insight Berlin.


Previously debating whether to accept the offer of becoming WIT global program co-manager, LaReine now feels inspired and ready to take on this responsibility.


In her recent LinkedIn blog, Product Manager, Cloud Business Unit Namratha Manjunath describes in detail how her GHC experience has inspired her to set some goals in her work life and in her volunteerism.  They include getting an AWS Solution Architect Associate certification this year, making Cloud Control for Office 365 wildly successful, beginning to help young girls develop STEM skills and aiding victims of domestic violence.


NetApp’s male delegates probably go through the most profound changes of anyone from the company attending.  After experiencing a small taste of what it feels likes to be a minority and being exposed to stories of the suffering and challenges women have faced in their tech careers, some of the men interviewed say their appreciation for what women experience in the workplace has changed forever.


Four days of being surrounded by women in technology and engineers and some of the best and brightest in the field was a very powerful thing for me. There’s no telling who you might bump into in line for coffee or on the airplane. Some of these women were the age of my mother, who was a preschool teacher and homemaker or my grandmother, who was a nurse. By the end of these four days, I’d see a woman who was the age of my mother or grandmother, and I’d be wondering what company she owned. GHC has been responsible for a huge shift in my own thinking.  Being excited about that shift taking place in my children, I think, is what gave me goosebumps the most. –Dan Howard

NetApp Cares

On the first night of each GHC, NetApp also sponsors an elegant dinner to honor its delegates—a gesture that NetApp attendees appreciate and frequently comment about.  Not only do they get to meet and network with peers from other business units, sites and regions they would never have met otherwise, but they also believe this gesture shows how much they are valued.


NetApp delegates at the GHC Dance Party

Sandrine Rollin was simply impressed by the ever-growing number of NetApp delegates year-over year, which she felt showed how much attention the company gives to the roles of women.


And Allison Barnes had some simple last words of advice for students, employees from any company and of any gender.


“If you have a chance to go to GHC, fight to go,” she says.

Related Links

Anita Borg News Blog discussing “Highlight and Recognize Your Organization’s Hidden Figures” panel

Betsey Flood

Betsey Flood’s specialties are strategies, programs and content that enhance company culture. An MBA with a wide-ranging background including consumer and business advertising and both executive and employee communications, she helps companies create and manage programs that boost employee understanding, engagement and sentiment. An author of hundreds of blogs and online articles about all things culture, she is currently working on recognition, philanthropy and communications projects with NetApp, Inc.