she++ conference at Stanford

April 22, 2013

On Saturday, I attended the second annual she++ conference at Stanford, a conference on women in technology for Stanford/high school students and Bay Area technologists that is organized by Stanford students.

The conference was free for high school and college students and $20 for general admission, which I thought was well worth it. The day started with some opening remarks from the student directors of the she++ and an opening address from Mike Schroepfer, the CTO of Facebook. This was followed by an excellent panel of female tech entrepreneurs, including Sandy Jen of Meebo (acquired last year by Google) and Debbie Sterling of GoldieBlox. I've been reading a bit about start-ups recently and that whole world seems a bit like an impenetrable alien planet to me but impossible to avoid while out here in San Francisco; I've heard that NYC and Boston, both cities I'm more familiar with, have quite a tech start-up scene as well but it wasn't until I've been out here for awhile that I started to realize that Silicon Valley is really a thing.

After the panel, they screened the she++ documentary, which was about 15 minutes long:

It's very well-produced and a nice, quick summary of the whole gender imbalance in tech thing, so I think I will try to get my high school to do a screening of it after I give a talk at their alumni day in a couple weeks (my talk is shaping up to be a bit like trying to get the students the join the cult of getting in tech...).

After the screening, we transitioned to the workshop portion of the day. I had been given the opportunity to sign up for a workshop ahead of time as an early ticket holder, though I didn't realize that there would only be one workshop session and not a whole afternoon of rotating amongst multiple sessions. Fortunately, I got my top choice, the puzzles and brainteasers workshop co-led by Keith Schwarz, a CS professor at Stanford, and Sophia, a CS major.

The setup for the workshop was quite interesting, they talked through some general principles of puzzle-solving a little bit first (connect the game to a different game you know how to solve, force opponents' decisions, try out smaller examples, draw pictures) and then gave us packets of two-player games for us to pair up with other attendees on to talk through collaboratively on what a winning strategy would be. I had a lot of fun with this and the time flew by. When they gathered us up at the end and started to talk through the answers, I stepped aside when they got to talking about the ones my partner and I hadn't gotten to solving yet so that I could keep working on them later. Afterwards, I got to talking to Keith a bit about Hackbright and coming to CS only recently and he was super nice and supportive about it. He reminded me quite a bit of one of my favorite professors at Boston College, an intro physics instructor who was really engaging.

Lunch was intended to be a mentoring lunch but the table I had chosen (with Sandy Jen) was already full somehow by the time I got there, so I ended up at another table with a few engineers from Box, LinkedIn, and Square. What was really cool was that when I told them I was from Hackbright, they had already heard about it! We had some interesting discussion as well about the challenges of the Groupon business since the engineer from Square had done his own start-up in that same space.

The final two events of the day were a student panel of female CS majors from Stanford and a discussion/Q&A between Ruchi Sanghvi and Marc Andreessen. I had considered skipping the student panel because I thought it wouldn't be too relevant for me, given that I will never be a CS major at Stanford, unlike the high school students or other Stanford students in the audience, nor am I entrusted with changing a workplace to better attract female CS grads. But it's not like I really had anywhere better to go and I figured I might as well check it out since it was evidently a huge hit last year and I might learn something from the questions that industry people asked of the students. The student panelists were all extremely well-spoken and self-possessed, so mainly I was left feeling envious of them, though of course I wish them well regardless.

The Q&A with Marc Andreessen was pretty great, though. He repeated what many of the entrepreneurs at the career panel had discussed, which was essentially that you should not start a company unless it's something that you can't stop thinking about and can't make yourself do anything else. Kelley asked him for his opinion on alternative methods of breaking into the tech industry like Hackbright and he had a very thoughtful answer, which was that it's unclear how much college is necessary for it anyway since people can get started in CS many years before they even go to college, so the greater challenge is how to get people to that level of 10,000 hours of practice to reach expertise. Also, he said that nothing truly innovative can be built during the short timeframe of hackathons, so I felt a bit validated that perhaps the main benefit that hackathons can offer is bringing people together who might not meet otherwise.

Finally, the two conference co-chairs closed of the day with an adorable "wrapping up rap" to further contribute towards breaking stereotypes.

Key takeaways:
  • Only start a company for an idea you can't stop thinking about. Startups all go through the same traumatic experiences of just being told no all the time, so it's an irrational act that people do because they can't help themselves. 
  • Innovation is hard to recognize when it's happening (see this essay on "Why There Aren't More Googles" from Paul Graham that has the Howard Aiken quote "Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats").
  • Share ideas, don’t hoard them--if you’ve thought of it, someone else is probably already doing it.
  • Practice rapid prototyping, get started with the cheapest materials available to you and then go out to get feedback on your idea (Debbie Sterling did extensive research with the young female children of her friends to see what they liked to play with).
  • Sandy Jen's story getting inspired by her "stupid friends" that failed the same difficult theoretical tests that she did going out and succeeding at being entrepreneurs ("if they can do it, so can I").
  • When pitching to VCs, you can draw confidence from being an expert in the product since you built it and therefore the pitch is just an opportunity to teach the VCs about it.
  • Be the person that brings the tools, be the goose that lays the golden egg.
  • Failure is a part of learning, you are not failure yourself because you’ve failed at something.
  • Interviewing advice: always keep going, don’t ever give up even if you feel you can’t get from pseudocode to real code.

Feedback for the conference organizers:
  • It seems that the conference is targeted at both industry people as well as high school and college students, which are fairly different audiences, plus additional groups like us Hackbright students. I think it would be vastly helpful to set expectations on which sessions are targeted at which audiences while still allowing for mixing of groups, just so people can decide whether they'll attend a session because they think they can benefit from it directly themselves or if they're attending as more of an observational exercise. In general, I'd like to see a clearer and more specific mission statement for the conference.
  • For the student organizers that had prepared intros and such, they should practice their public speaking skills a bit more so that they don’t have to read off of a prepared text. It was obvious that they'd put a lot of time and energy into putting on this conference and it really was very well-done, which couldn't come about without enthusiasm behind it, but that gets a bit lost when you can tell that someone's reading off of a pre-written statement about how excited they are for whatever's coming up next.
  • When doing intros, it would be more effective to keep the personal stories of why they decided to get involved in the conference fairly short to keep the focus more on whatever it is that they're introducing. It's interesting and touching to know where people are coming from, but be concise unless you've been specifically asked to talk about why you care about this issue, like the keynote speakers.