Event Reflections: ACT-W Bay Area 2017

What is the ACT-W (Advancing the Careers of Technical Women) Conference?

ChickTech’s regional, annual, and action-packed event is where talented women and individuals can build skills, grow their community, and accelerate their career path! The conference includes speaking sessions, hands-on workshops, one-on-one coaching sessions, career fairs, and so much more. The conference makes a huge impact on the professionals that attend and all of the proceeds go directly towards introducing youth girls to STEM based activities and careers.

More information about the conference is available at http://www.act-w.org/

This year, ChickTech held one these conferences in the Bay Area – in particular, at the Galvanize office in San Francisco. Galvanize is located in the SOMA neighbourhood; it has sizeable workspaces, classrooms, an auditorium, and beautiful common spaces among other things… but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

Friday

The ACT-W Conference started off with a Kickoff Happy Hour that was pretty kickass. The Happy Hour was sponsored by OfferUp, “a marketplace on a mission to become the simplest, most trustworthy place for people to buy and sell locally”. They had a booth at the event where you could chat with some of their employees and representatives to find out more about the company and perhaps even score some swag. There was also a booth by Anchor Brewing, “America’s first and oldest craft brewery, with roots dating back to the California gold rush”, which was the beer and wine sponsor of the event.

Upon entering the fifth floor – the penthouse floor, by the way 😉 – I took a moment to take it all in. On one side were the booths for the Happy Hour sponsors (and Anchor Brewing was flush with beer!). The centre of the room had some small bites to eat. The far wall had a long table with bottles of red and white wine. And scattered throughout the event space was a combination of attendees, speakers, organizers, volunteers, and representatives, among others I’m sure.

Skipping over some of the smaller details, I soon found myself chitchatting with some of the other attendees. We mainly chatted about our backgrounds, current work experiences, and what we hope to get out of this conference. I find that relatively standard questions like these are an easy way to strike up a conversation with people you haven’t met before, especially if the idea of “networking” makes you feel uneasy.

Although this was a conference to advance the careers of “technical” women, it does not mean that someone needs to be working in tech to attend by any means – and that openness and inclusivity makes it all the more awesome. I met some students who were just finishing up their degrees and would soon be looking for tech jobs. I met some people who had just started their careers after having made the decision to dive into tech from non-traditional academic and work backgrounds. I met working professionals who had been in the field for years already and were looking to advance their careers to the next level. Needless to say, the room certainly had a diverse group of women (and men!) from all walks of life, each one with an interesting story to tell.

Just as I found myself getting comfortable with the whole “networking” thing, the organizers decided it was time to change it up! After some introductory speeches, Bridget Quigg led a series of improv activities.

bridget

The theme was “How to Network Like an Improviser”. Now it was time to enter the world of imagination, however briefly. The two games I favoured were the “party planning” and “gift giving” activities.

  • In the party planning exercise, the larger group broke out into smaller groups of three. One person was the planner (yo!) and the other two were there to ask questions about the party, hype it up, etc.
  • In the gift giving game, the group broke out into pairs. One person would give the other an imaginary “gift” of whatever shape or size, and the second person would thank them and add some sort of follow up line to keep the dialogue going.

I’ve done maybe one improv workshop in my life before this. It can be challenging to think on the spot like that, but it can also be fun if you’re in a good group; not to mention it can help strengthen your communication and presentation skills overall. I admittedly don’t recall all the “rules” of improv, but I do remember that you should accept the information you’re given (rather than deny something and bring the dialogue to an abrupt halt) and make your partner (or group) look good.

happy hour

Food, drinks, games, good company… This was definitely an interesting and productive Happy Hour and a great start to the conference.

Saturday

The day started with breakfast – there were bananas, apples, pastries, bagels, and most importantly (at least for me, lol) coffee. There were no tables to sit at, but the auditorium was already open and ready so it was easy to find a seat and some people to chat with in the meantime. Networking never ends, eh? 🙂

There was a brief welcome address from the Founder and CEO of ChickTech, Janice Levenhagen-Seeley. (I met her briefly later on at the conference and she’s very friendly and approachable, so don’t hesitate to say hi if you ever cross paths with her!)

janice.jpg

Then Stacey Ferreira took the stage for “A Look at Global Female Entrepreneurship”. If you’re not familiar with Stacey’s story and accomplishments, I highly recommend looking them up since there are too many to list here. She’s truly an inspiration, especially for someone so young. She was one of the five featured women in the She Started It documentary and has founded multiple companies. Stacey’s first company, MySocialCloud, was one that she co-founded with her brother, Scott Ferreira, when she had just finished high school. For her keynote speech, she talked about her experiences as an entrepreneur, particularly as a female in this male-dominated area.

stacey

After that, it was time for the panel – “Profit & Purpose: Creating an Impactful Career”. The presenter in this section was Robin Ducot (SVP Product Engineer at DocuSign) and the panelists were Barb Chang (VP of Product at Samasource), Laura Moon (VP at Glassdoor) and Katherine Woo (Product Lead at Facebook). They discussed some of the experiences they’ve had as well as some of the challenges they faced as women in technology.

panel

There was a short break, then it was time for a series of lightning talks. (Unfortunately, I won’t be delving into the details since it will likely make this post 10 pages long – and there’s just so much more to talk about!)

  • Natasha Awasthi (Director of Product Management at Medal) – “13 Lessons From 13 Years In Tech”
  • Bhavna Chauhan (Senior Software Engineer at DocuSign) – “What Not To Do in Your Career”
  • Sravanthi Sinha (Student at Holberton School) – “How Deep Learning and Drones Can Save the World from Asteroids” (catchy title!)
  • Tamson Ing (Technical Recruiter at DocuSign) – “Power Up Your Interview Prep”
  • Neha Jain (Senior Software Engineer at LinkedIn) – “Advice from Mothers in STEM”

And just like that, it was already time for lunch and the Career/Exhibit Fair. The ACT-W Conference sponsors, of course, had their own booths at the Fair with friendly company reps who were eager to chat and offer some swag. Many were there to provide information and opportunities to stay connected in the community, but some were also there to recruit, so it seemed like there was a little something for everyone.

career-fair.jpg

The afternoon was a less “unified” conference experience. In additional to the Career/Exhibit Fair (which remained available throughout the afternoon), there were areas to conduct mock interviews and resume reviews, take your photo for your LinkedIn profile, and breakout sessions.

The first breakout session I attended was another talk by Natasha Awasthi, “Mind Tricks to Make the Hard Stuff Easy”. She definitely had some good points which I think are great to keep in mind:

  1. You’re Not Networking, You’re Building a Community
  2. You’re Not a Power Monger, You’re a Role Model
  3. You’re Not Bragging, You’re Earning Trust
  4. You’re Not Seeking Confrontations, You’re Exploring for Solutions
  5. Don’t Get Mad, Get What You Want

natasha

There was even a catchy phrase that she mentioned in both of her talks: “Energy flows where attention goes”, so make sure you spend your energy on things that matter.

I also attended the “Level Up Your Career: Beyond Tech Skills” by Tracy Thomas, Director of Global Field Operations at Jive Software. This theme really caught my eye, especially after having worked here for a few years. What I’ve noticed, from my personal experience, is that the Bay Area has a lot of intelligent and capable Software Engineers. If companies are looking at technical skills alone, one engineer can theoretically be traded for another engineer with similar skills and work experience. However, I think that non-technical skills can play a big role in differentiating one engineer from another, particularly when it comes down to advancing your career. Anyway, that’s just my two cents.

Through Tracy’s speech – as well as audience involvement via role-playing – the technical skills that she emphasized were

  • Leadership
  • Initiative
  • Communication
  • Strengths and Self-Awareness
  • Body Languages
  • Teamwork
  • Critic Thinking
  • Change

tracy

The role-playing portion consisted of audience volunteers telling the group about a problem they’re facing at work, whether it be with a coworker or a particular aspect of their jobs; then there was an open discussion about potential ways this problem can be solved.

The day ended with a post-conference Happy Hour at Thirsty Bear Organic Brewery, where a section of the top floor was reserved for ChickTech for more refreshments and networking. This event was much smaller than the first Happy Hour and I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t see many (if any) of the organizers and sponsors there.

Final Thoughts

Nowadays, I’m (almost) always up for attending tech events – expanding my network, learning about other people’s experiences, getting career advice, building my skills, etc. – but I haven’t always been that way. At the start of my career, I was more timid and less likely to strike up a conversation. That hesitation still hits me from time to time, but it happens less often now.

That being said, I met a few people during the ACT-W Conference who asked me what advice I have for someone just starting out their tech career. If you had asked me this a few years ago, I would likely have said something like “developing your skills” and left it at that. However, now I would add that attending conferences such as this one (and other events that seek to involve more under-represented groups in tech) are valuable as well in order to build your community. That way, as your career progresses, you will always know people who you can turn to for guidance, advice, and support.


This post is also available at https://www.womenwhocode.com/blog/act-w-bay-area-2017

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