Trip report: GHC 2016

I’m writing this post on the plane ride home from Grace Hopper on Friday afternoon. Unlike previous years, I escaped the conference early: a compromise with my kids since I was at a conference last month and will be at a workshop next month. Still, it feels like I managed to squeeze about 10 days into 3, so while on one level I’m sad to be missing the last keynote and tonight’s party (and dinner with Carleton folks present and past!), on another level I’m just done with conferencing.

It’s been several years since I’ve done a proper conference trip report — I used to do them semi-regularly (see here, for example), but in the past few years life’s gotten in the way. But I wanted to honor my time at the conference this year, so I’m resurrecting the trip report tradition.

I should come clean first, though: After last year’s conference, I swore up and down that I wasn’t going to attend this year. I’m not a fan of Houston (sorry, Houston!), and logistically last year was kind of a pain. Plus I knew I wanted to attend Tapia and wasn’t thrilled about going to 2 conferences so close together. But then I was tapped to be Posters Co-Chair, and it sounded like too good of an opportunity to pass up. And then since I was going anyway, I agreed to speak in the CRA-W early faculty career track and volunteer in the Student Opportunity Lab. On top of that, I had my LACAFI booth organizing/setup/wrangling duties.

Apparently my conference motto is: If you’re going to attend, be busy!

The days and weeks leading up to the conference were busy: working with my co-chair to select and assign ACM Student Research Competition (SRC) poster and finals judges; working with my co-presenter on our slides and role-play scenarios for our CRA-W session; stressing over whether we had enough people to cover the booth during the Expo hours. (This year a lot of our usual booth-staffing suspects took GHC off, either because they were at Tapia and/or they’re going to SIGCSE. We missed you, intrepid volunteers!) Then there were receptions and breakfasts and meetups to keep track of. I actually had to put everything on my calendar and set multiple alarms so that I knew exactly where I had to be and when. It was looking very likely that I was not going to make it to any sessions that I was not leading or speaking at, so I didn’t even bother to look at the program.

To add more excitement to the mix, I realized a few days before the conference that my constant desire to sleep and my low-level ever-present funk was not due to recovering from the marathon I had just run, but was in fact my depression flaring up. Good times. I was worried, because I knew I’d have to be “on” a lot of the time I was at GHC, and was starting to dread going. I decided to give myself permission to skip out on anything that was not absolutely necessary if need be, to be a hermit when I needed to, and to escape the conference when possible, to recharge and try and keep the depression at bay. I’m happy to say that my strategy worked, and I was able to cope and function at a decent level. The knowledge that I was leaving the conference early also helped. This meant that I didn’t seek out people I knew to the extent that I normally do, but it was worth it for self-preservation.

I arrived in Houston on Tuesday afternoon, along with what felt like half of the 15,000 attendees of the conference. I was hoping to have some time to relax before attending the HP Inc reception as an NCWIT member that evening, but a longish wait for my luggage and a taxi meant I had enough time to quickly unpack and then head to the reception. The reception was at a really cool place, and I spent a lot of time chatting with someone I haven’t caught up with in a while. It was weird to be at an HP reception, given my former life as an HP Labs post-doc, but it was neat to hear about what HP’s up to now and to share stories about my time there. All of the HP women there were so friendly and welcoming, and it was a lot more fun than I expected.

I skipped the keynote on Wednesday morning, sadly, to set up our LACAFI booth. I had to get more creative than I intended with our limited space, but I made do. Once the Expo opened, our swag disappeared quickly, so we’ll definitely have to bring more next year.

I knew that the afternoon/evening would be crazy full, so I escaped the conference for a while to recharge and grab some cheap Tex-Mex food. Once the Expo opened, I came back to check on our booth, then wandered around the Expo. I kept running into alums, which was awesome. I promised some of them I’d find them later, a promise I did not keep. (Sorry, alums! Nice to see you briefly, anyway!) I also randomly ran into my posters co-chair, whom I’d never met in person, so we chatted for a bit. She is awesome, and I hope I get to work with her again someday.

Wednesday afternoon was the poster session and the first part of the SRC. Hilarity ensued (only hilarious now in hindsight) when the first poster judges came back to tell us that they could not find the poster numbers we assigned them — turns out we had posters listed by submission IDs, but they were actually numbered by position in the hall, and there was no easy mapping between them. Whoops! Luckily our judges did not revolt, and were super patient as we figured things out. (We joked that we gave them an encryption problem to solve before they could judge the posters.) Judging took way longer than we expected, but we finally figured out the finalists from the judges’ scores and got that info to our awesome ABI contact. At this point, my co-presenter for the CRA-W talk showed up so we could go over our slides and plan for our talk the next morning, after which we headed to a reception for CRA-W scholars. The reception was a great end to the day, but I was totally wiped afterwards, and collapsed into bed as soon as I got back to my room.

Thursday morning began with our CRA-W talk on balancing teaching, research, and service in academia. The talk was way better attended than I expected given the early hour and intended audience. And the role-plays we planned (my co-presenter’s idea) were a hit! The audience was game to participate, asked great questions, and offered great tips and advice to each other.

Afterwards, I met up with my colleague David, who was wrangling the students this year, and chit-chatted about sabbatical and department stuff. While I’m really enjoying sabbatical, I do miss the day-to-day encounters and conversations with my colleagues, so it was nice to reconnect. I then escaped for a bit to recharge, then headed back to the Expo to snap up some swag for my kiddos and chat up some people at the booths.

Thursday afternoon was as tightly packed as the previous day. We had the undergraduate and graduate SRC finals back-to-back, one of my duties as posters co-chair. The talks were fabulous and our judges were simply amazing and thoughtful. (One of my regrets for missing the Friday keynote is that I was not able to see these six incredible finalists receive their awards.) My co-chair and I then headed to one of my favorite annual events, the NCWIT reception. I met new people and caught up with some colleagues from liberal arts schools, took a picture with the rest of the CRA-W speakers, and got to hear a surprise speech from Megan Smith, the US CTO, who stopped by the reception. I always love what Megan has to say, so that was a fabulous treat. By this point, I was exhausted and my brain was mush, so I again collapsed (after stopping for gelato on the walk back to my hotel — priorities!) as soon as I got back to my room.

Friday started early with the CRA-W scholars breakfast. I sat with my posters co-chair; a colleague I see every year at GHC, SIGCSE, and NCWIT’s Summit; and some very enthusiastic students. If I have to be at something that early, it’s worth it when the conversation is that fabulous. I then went to an actual conference session (on motherhood in academia), then volunteered at the Student Opportunity Lab talking to students about how to get into undergraduate research, in somewhat of a speed-dating format. One last check of the LACAFI booth and the handoff of exhibitor’s credentials and I was on my way to the airport and back towards home.

My relationship with GHC has definitely changed over the years. While I think the conference is now way too big and way too career-fair focused, and while I think these are detrimental changes, I’m still surprised by the ways in which the conference rejuvenates me. What I get out of the conference now is very different from what I used to get out of the conference, and changes every year. This year, I definitely felt like my role was to mentor and give back to the community, but in giving to others in this way I was immensely fulfilled. I networked less, but felt more fulfilled by the interactions I chose to have. This year’s conference reaffirmed that GHC does still hold relevance to my professional life — maybe not on an every year basis anymore, but definitely within a rotation of conferences.