Panels & presentations

_large conference room, stage lit up at the front with one of the grace hopper conference speakers_

One more about the Grace Hopper conference! This one's a critical look at presentations, since I attended a bunch of panels and some speakers were better than others.

The right way

One of the keynote speakers, Duy-Loan T. Le, was a brilliant orator. She held the audience captive. She had no powerpoint, no slides, nothing but a microphone. Her speech reminded me that far too often, presentations of one's work or ideas are focused on the text and images lit up on the screen. The right way to do it: focus on you, explaining and selling your work. A display is great for diagrams and supporting pictures. It's a bonus for clarifying points. But that's all it should be: support. Not the focus.

The wrong way: what not to do & how to fix it

The general approach to presentations these days assumes that the focus is on the slides, not the person talking. Personally, I watch the speaker. I'll glance over at the screen now and then. If I can't understand the talk because I'm not reading along on the slides, there's a serious problem.

  1. Never, ever read sentences directly off the slides. If you do, it means you have too much text on your slides. You can read directly from your notes. Your notes should not be posted on your slides.

  2. Talk slower than you think you should. Everyone in the audience appreciates an intelligible speaker.

  3. Make clean slides, both in terms of amount of content on any one slide and the content's format. This topic could fill a book; I've touched on it before. Use a font large enough for people to read from the back row. Use easy-to-read colors. Don't cram text and graphics into every empty space. If you're just going to gloss over a topic, you don't need paragraphs about it on your slides - particularly when you flip through your slides more quickly than people can read your paragraphs. What's the point of having so many words if no one is going to read them?

  4. Don't have paragraphs on your slides, period. If I want the novel, I'll email you for it, thanks. A presentation involves you and it involves you, presenting. I once sat through a presentation in which the speaker used a gimmick of little cartoon fishies with whom she "conversed" and who "helped explain" her topic. The fishies even made noise - yup, she found a garbled, irritating bubbling audio track. Multiple times, she told the audience, "I'll let my fish friends explain," and proceeded to stand quietly on the side of the stage as the audio track played. We, as the audience, were expected to sit there reading the slides.

  5. Proof-read your slides. At GHC, I saw the phrase "If you don't, know one else will."

  6. Unless you specifically know your audience will be full of programmers, don't put huge chunks of Java pseudocode in your slides. Even if you're giving a talk for an audience that is mostly technical women, your presentation needs to understandable by the non-programmers, at least on a general level. Similarly, if you're going to include technical details, don't gloss over them using unexplained technical terminology to "give the flavor," because all the audience learns is that they don't know the jargon.

  7. Insist on a mobile microphone and/or a laser pointer. Sometimes you don't have a choice, such as at GHC this year. Tied to a specific location on the stage, you're unable to gesture at your slides or point to them except in a vague, flailing manner, and unable to be heard unless you're rigidly standing in one spot. A laser pointer and and a mobile mic add flexibility and allow you to more easily incorporate your slides into your talk.


More advice!

I collected a lot of good advice from the women at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, which I recently attended. I shared what they had to say about undergrads looking ahead to grad school.

This is Part II: applicable to everyone! A lot of it comes from the Imposter Plenary Panel. Those women had good things to say!

_a panel of five women sitting on a stage in front of a projector screen_

  1. One of the women on the Imposter Plenary Panel, Fran Berman, emphasized confidence. When you get the opportunity to sit at a table with the most important people in your company or in your field, is sitting there a right, or a privilege? "You'll do best in that room if you think you have a right to be there," said Fran. She said it's a tightrope between who you believe yourself to be and who you want to be in that situation.

  2. Yolanda Rankin, another of the women on the Imposter Plenary Panel, said the crux of managing situations is managing relationships with people.

  3. Diane Gonzelez, another of the imposter panelists, explained her "Don't ask, don't get" policy. You have to tell people what you want, she said. If you want a promotion, your manager may pass you up until s/he knows you're looking for a promotion. This doesn't just apply to the job market, either. Diane shared a quote from Althea Gibson: "No matter what accomplishments you make, somebody helped you."

  4. Fran Berman agreed with Diane Gonzalez: "there is no recognition fairy" who'll come along and give you an award. You must advocate for yourself and your career.

  5. From the "How do I become a Researcher?" session: You have more control in academia than you do in industry. In general, anyway, because in industry, divisions get outsourced, proposals and ideas get turned down, and companies get reorganized. Unless you're the one in charge, you don't get as much self-determination.

  6. Diane Gonzelez said she has observed a tendency among women: There's a job with ten requirements. A man may look at it, see he has two of the requirements, and apply, claiming that he can do all ten. A woman may have eight, but think, oh gosh, I'm not qualified, I shouldn't apply! Her advice: Don't doubt yourself so much.

  7. Fran Berman talked about mistakes. She said, when you make a mistake, "You have to learn from it and don't repeat it... right away."


_large conference hall at GHC 2010 filled with rows of empty chairs_

A lot of advice

Words of wisdom were being traded as often as poken high-fours at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, which I recently attended. Academics and professors shared their knowledge of navigating grad school; current grad students explained how not to do what they're doing; women in industry and government labs elucidated how they got there and why they enjoy their jobs.

These are a few nuggets I found to be particularly applicable. This list focuses on advice for current undergrads or early grad students -- I'll be following up soon with a list of more general advice!

  1. One of the women on the Imposter Plenary Panel, Fran Berman, said, "You were not born as an undergrad, and you were not born as an intern." The skills you used to get to be an undergrad or intern will help you get to the next step, too - whether that's grad school or your first full-time job.

  2. During the "How do I enjoy and succeed in grad school?" session, it was suggested that when investigating grad schools, talk to the students. Ask the students about advisors. How often do you meet? What's it like working with them, writing with them, and writing for them?

  3. From the "How do I become a Researcher?" session: If you apply to grad school without knowing exactly what your focus will be, when you write your application essay, pick one thing you're interested in and write about that.. Even if that's not the only thing that interests you. You can change your mind later. The admissions folks are looking passion, interest, and focus.

  4. Both the "How do I become a Researcher?" session and the "How do I enjoy and succeed in grad school?" session mentioned the following: When contacting potential grad schools, be conscious of professors' time. Professors are very busy people. Schedule meetings well in advance when visiting their schools. Show you've done your research: read their papers and ask questions about their work. You're not just finding out if these professors want you in their labs - you're finding out if you want to be in their labs! Oh, and if you send your resume to a professor, send it plain text, not as an attachment.

  5. Erika Shehan Poole, during the "How do I enjoy and succeed in grad school?" session, suggested that students keep a research journal. Any ideas you have, good or bad - write them down. Questions you have. Later on, when you're planning your thesis (or any other time you need ideas), you can look back. Maybe there's a theme. Maybe some of those idea - even if they sounded dumb at the time - are actually good. Maybe they'll spark new ideas.

  6. Duy-Loan T. Le, Thursday's keynote speaker, told all the students in the audience, "If you want to be the top of your class, don't fall in love." This speaks, I think, to the notion that time is finite. You cannot put all your time and energy into your coursework if you also want to put some time and energy into your relationships with the people you care about. As I've oft been told, it's a matter of balance.


Last week, I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. It was fantastic. Here are my top ten highlights (in an arbitrary order):

  1. Everyone's friendliness. We were all in "network!" mode. It was easy to strike up conversations anywhere and everywhere - in line for food, waiting for panels to start, sitting at the same table at breakfast - because we all already had something in common.

_view of the stage, with GHC posters and the Anita Borg institute logo, from the dark audience_

  1. The schedule in the program. Color-coded, clear, concise. What more could I need? It made figuring out what panels to attend and what rooms to go to remarkably easy. The map helped, too. Better yet, the GHC '10 wiki has notes on many of the talks I had to miss!

  2. An unplanned interview. I was chatting with a recruiter about my past research experience, expecting to be directed to the company's careers website if I was interested in applying for a post-graduation job. I was - as expected - but at the end of the conversation, the recruiter asked if I'd have time the next morning for an official interview! My interviewing skills are a little rusty, and as long as I don't change my mind again about taking time off before grad school, I'll definitely be applying for a job at the company. On that note, I should mention:

  3. The tabling. Universities, tech companies - I'm their target soon-to-be-graduating-college market, and they were all recruiting. I handed out copies of my resume, signed up for mailing lists, and collected a veritable stack of brochures. I even got to watch one recruiter look over my resume, nod, smile, and say to a fellow recruiter, "No worries here!" (Ego-boosting moment, indeed.)

  4. Thursday's keynote speaker. Duy-Loan T. Le, a Senior Fellow at Texas Instruments, spoke brilliantly about the difficulties she has faced (and overcome) as a woman in technology. She focused on camaraderie and cross-gender collaboration, weaving stories from her own life into her counsel. I'm pretty sure members of the audience cried - she was that good of a speaker.

  5. The swag. 3 flash drives (4gb total), 5 t-shirts, 21+ writing utensils, tape measures, screwdrivers, lip balm, a pair of Google sunglasses, and some other stuff. How could I not mention all that as a hightlight?

  6. Free wireless. It was particularly useful on Friday after the Sponsor Night festivities, when several of my classmates and I needed to ssh into our CS department accounts to work on homework for our AI class.

  7. Georgia Tech's HCI and HCC research. I attended Elizabeth Mynatt's introduction to human-centered computing (HCC), in which she presented examples of how current research at the Graphics, Visualization, and Usability (GVU) Center at Georgia Tech enables creativity, wellness, learning, and more. I also showed up to the later panel on new HCI research, which was followed by a field trip to the GVU Center! A large group of us wove our way through Atlanta (the weather was beautiful) over to the research center, where we got to see demos of tons of cool projects. Haptic passive learning, computer programs you can control with your brain, multi-touch tables for manipulating searches and information - very cool stuff!

  8. Sponsor Night's pasta. One of the many dishes served at the Sponsor Night buffet was this fantastically delicious squash-stuffed ravioli smothered in creamy alfredo. It was really good. I'd like to find the recipe.

  9. Good advice. And lots of it! Being one of the younger women in the crowd, I was in the perfect place for everyone's words of wisdom. Advice on grad school, advice on early careers and job-seeking, advice on interviews, advice on life in general. Stay tuned - I'll relay some of the best nuggets in an upcoming post!


So, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is in about a week.

_tan-brown bookbag with Grace Hopper Celebration '08 logo on the front pocket, laying on a green carpet_

I first attended the conference two years ago, the year the free bookbags were tan-brown canvas, bright poster graphic plastered over the front, black adjustable strap, not enough pockets.

The appearance of the bag is important.

You see, last year, I missed the conference because I was studying abroad in Australia. On a friend's recommendation, my GHC bookbag was the bag I'd taken with me down under for carting notes and texts across campus. My friend said, maybe it'll work as a conversation starter!

The scene: Day Two of international student orientation. The crowd of 18 to 24-year-olds, hailing from every country you can name and probably a few you can't, was in mass exodus from a lecture hall to a large space in the Wentworth building, intrigued by the notion of morning tea. As I was walking across the footbridge to Wentworth, a young woman came up to me.

"Were you in Colorado for the conference this past year?" She pointed to my bag. I couldn't help but grin, of course: there I was, halfway around the globe, and I had a pre-made connection to someone! It turned out we were in the same Number Theory & Cryptography course, too; it was thanks to our six-hour-a-day study marathons that I vanquished the final exam.

A conversation starter, indeed.

Needless to say, I'm looking forward to this year's conference!