Women in computing: An interview with Leslie Hawthorn on the Grace Hopper Conference

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I sat down with Leslie Hawthorn, Community Manager at Red Hat, and chatted with her about the 2012 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference that was held in Baltimore, Maryland this year. She confided that the theme, Are we there yet?, is a reference to the idea that while women have made many strides for equality in terms of equal pay, equal work, and so on, the group still feels like women in tech have a long way to go.

The idea behind the Grace Hopper conference is to provide a gathering place for women in technology to be able to network, knowledge share, and enhance their technical skill sets; with the general conclusion being that we are going to get there, through mutual support and collaboration.

Tell us about your involvement in the conference.

Leslie Hawthorn (LH): This has been the 3rd year that I've been involved in the Grace Hopper conference. Three years ago, in Atlanta, we had a group of folks come together and decided that it was kind of a bummer that there wasn't a lot of open source related content on the program. So, we got together a program committee and put on a full day of tracks related to contributing to open source software—everything from how you get started as a contributor to different projects you may wish to join, and how to get involved in open source if you're a student (from an academic point of view, how working in open source can enhance your career prospects).

The tremendous thing about that first event was what we found out through our 'free and open source software projects booth'—quite literally, something close to 75% of the attendees had never heard of open source software. So, it was one of those moments where my eyes were opened and I thought, "I need to do better work to educate this community."

Why isn't someone doing it? I should do it!

(LH): Exactly! If you want something to get done then you start the seed yourself and other people can grow it. 

So, we continued to have more open source related activities at Grace Hopper through the next few years. Last year was our first ever Grace Hopper Open Source Day—which also included a Code-a-Thon for Humanity, where we had about 100-200 participants work on free and open source software projects with a humanitarian benefit. Projects like the Sahana Software Foundation and their disaster management suite of applications, or Google Person Finder, which allows folks to find thier loved ones after a disaster strikes. We had 10 participating organizations this year and a lot of the same folks that were with us last year returned. We also had a couple of different panel discussions about how to get started in open source software. 

The change this year was amazing! From three years ago, when most people had not heard of open source software, to this year, where we had the most popular booth in the exhibit hall. I think a lot of it had to do with the really cool socks from Mozilla (wink, wink), or as we were calling them, the "foxy sockszies." And pretty much everyone we talked to was really excited about open source; they either wanted to know how they could get involved or wanted to tell us about the projects they were contributing to. 

Plus, it was particularly exciting to be able to share the booth with my collegue Sumana Harihareswara from the Wikimedia Foundation, because she is not only the most energetic human being you will ever meet, but she was getting all kinds of women excited about contributing to Wikipedia by explaining how they can contribute to open source software through the spreading of free culture and any improvement to Wikipedia can have repercussions on how that will impact the underlying software, MediaWiki.

It sounds like by adding a focus on open source to the Grace Hopper conference, you have given the women who attend a boost in the industry.

(LH): Absolutely agreed. There were almost 3,000 attendees at the conference and we talked to a good 1/3 of them at the booth. And particularly with the degree to which employers are now looking for experience in the open source world as a hallmark of a positive future employee, the idea that women are only consisting of 2% of the participants of the open source software community is a real detriment to women's ability to advance their careers and their ability to be able to have a referenceable body of work that employers are excited about looking at when they go in for a job.

Part of our mission is not only to spread the good word about open source software, but it's also important to us to get more women participating in open source projects. I think the phrase I heard most often when I was in the booth was: "Yes, you may have heard that open source only has 2% female contributors, but the great part is we're here because we want more friends like you."

How did everyone separate and group together into different interests? And how will you keep in touch? 

(LH): We had a series of Wiki-pages set up on the Systers Wiki. The Systers Community is the world's largest online community of technical women. It's a mailing list that was started by Anita Borg several years ago and has continued for the past 25 years as a place for tech-minded women to gather and be able to share stories and knowledge share in a safe environment. So, the Systers group was kind enough to put together a whole WIki infrastructure for us and participants signed up for projects in advance. Then everyone showed up for Open Source Day in the morning and had some delicious coffee.

We were privileged enough to have Kat Townsend from USAID be our keynote speaker talking about the impact of mobile technologies on humanitarian efforts. Then, folks went to work with their particular project teams. We were all in one big room and everyone was kinda intermingled, so we got to swap ideas back and forth. Someone was like, "Hey I dont know how to use Github" and someone from another table would go and help them out.

We had around 15 facilitators, and some folks switched between projects as we went because they had a skill set that was required by a different project and they had contributed as much as they could to the first project. Then, at the end of the day we had a 'wrap up and report back'.

An interesting project was building the community portal for the Women's Peer to Peer Network, which is a project designed to get every woman on the planet connected regardless of their access to different technologies. It was a lot of SMS gateway stuff, also comm radio as well. Overall, just amazing... the energy was palpable.

And in terms of how particpants are keeping up with each other after the program, we've got an email list for all attendees of Grace Hopper Open Source Day and we want to invite them again next year. Also, the individual projects have their own mailing lists and all participants have been actively encouraged to sign up and continuing participating in the community.

How can other people from the open source community get involved in the Grace Hopper conference?

(LH): The conference moves every year and the location for 2013 is Minneapolis, Minnesota. Grace Hopper Open Source Day is usually on the last day of the conference when the Computer Science Teacher Association sessions are going on. The Code-a-Thon is free of charge to those attending the conference, which is around $500 a ticket. And there are scholarships available for students; this year we had an option for people who just wanted to attend the first day, which was around $25 a ticket.

In terms of our attendee profile, we had a very diverse audience. We had some women who had been working in the tech industry for 20+ years, and we had a great number of students, even some freshman and sophomores in college. Some women brought along their high school-aged daughters, which I thought was super cool. Whoever has interest is welcome: everyone from all skill levels, even if you've never particpated in an open source project, and folks who have a lot of experience are encouaged to attend because we like them to have the opportunity to share thier wisdom.

Next year we are looking at doing a different format; similiar to the Random Hacks of Kindness model where there are multiple, simultaneous hackfests going on across the world at the same time—but that's still TBD.

Great. Is there anything else you'd like to share with us before we go, Leslie?

(LH): I would like to welcome and encourage folks to get involved in the planning committee for next year. If you are passionate about getting more women involved in open source software and you're an experienced contributor, we'd love to have more help doing the heavy lifting to organize the workshop. Like, advanced communication with project participants to remind them about all the community resources available to them after the Code-a-Thon, and to help them set up their virtual machines.

To get involved, go to the Grace Hopper Open Source Day Google Group, or email me: mebelh at gmail dot com! You can also see and read more from the conference on my blog, Hawthorn Landings.

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Jen leads a team of community managers for the Digital Communities team at Red Hat. She lives in Raleigh with her husband and daughters, June and Jewel.


Great interview! Leslie is one of my examples, both for Open Source and Community Management. She ran the Google Summer of Code, and now this. Thumbs Up Leslie!

@Robin - If you are interested in writing something for the site from your experiences or any projects you are working on, or ideas you think are important in open source right now, please contact me at jnovelli@redhat.com. Thanks for being a part of the community!

@Jen, I've sent you an e-mail, did you get it?

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