The Grace Hopper Celebration: 4 MPCS Students Give Their Perspective on Women in Tech

University of Chicago Masters Program in Computer Science students push boundaries and innovate across many facets of industry. Whether it’s developing seamless UX interfaces, engineering software at fortune 500 companies, working in big data or keeping networks secure; our students use their applied skills education from MPCS to problem-solve, create, and elevate the computer science field. Learn from their stories and discover how a CS background can prepare you for cutting-edge careers.

Current MPCS students Sammy Cannillo, Rachel Whaley, Winshen Liu, and Felicia Jiang attended the Grace Hopper Celebration last month. We asked them what they saw, how it added to their MPCS experience, and what advice they’d give to prospective students.

Winshen Liu Rachel Whaley Felicia Jiang University of Chicago MPCS

Tell us about the Grace Hopper Celebration. What drew you to attend? 

Winshen Liu: I first heard about the Grace Hopper Celebration years ago, when artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things were still new to my vocabulary. I wanted to hear about the newest advancements in technology and the women leading them, as well as be part of a larger tech community.

Rachel Whaley: I was interested in the opportunity to meet more women working in technology and build my network in the tech space. I've been to several smaller, local, "women in tech"-type events, but Grace Hopper was unique in its large scale: thousands of attendees, dozens of sessions to choose from, and a huge variety of companies and organizations represented.

Sammy Cannillo: As someone who has been 1 of 3 women in a 35 person CS course for the past 1.5 years, being a part of the world's largest gathering of women in technology seemed like an incredibly intriguing experience to be a part of.

Having always been an advocate for gender equality and inclusivity, I was excited to go to Grace Hopper to meet like-minded women that I wouldn't get to meet on a regular basis in school or in the workplace.

Felicia Jiang: I heard about previous UChicago students' experiences at GHC and how unique the experience was being surrounded by women in technology and science. It's empowering to attend workshops and career fairs led by women, for women, and a unique escape from typical professional environments where men dominate the conversation.

Tell us about some of the events and workshops you attended.

Winshen Liu: Two of my favorite events were a hands-on workshop on deep learning and a talk on multi-tenant architecture. The deep learning workshop had us in PyTorch, building generator models (which create real and fake data) and discriminator models (which take in data and determine if it is real or fake) to convert text into images. For instance, “a mushroom pizza” would return a photo of a mushroom pizza after being fed data like “a broccoli” and a photo of a mushroom pizza. It was interesting to see how these models are built and how many “lessons” need to be run before the model is reasonably accurate.

The other event on multi-tenant architecture was one of the most polished, engaging, and informative talks I went to at the conference. I heard the term “multi-tenant architecture” tossed around but I never understood what that actually meant. The talk not only defined it but also walked us through the conversion process and the complexities of doing so.

Rachel Whaley: So many to choose from! I attended a few sessions on the Internet of Things (IoT) and autonomous vehicle technology, which are both emerging fields that offer a lot of possibilities. It was a great opportunity to learn both more about the technologies themselves, as well as the various career paths in those areas.

Sammy Cannillo: I went to an amazing talk by Joy Buolamwini who coins herself as an “algorithmic bias” researcher. In a time where cutting-edge technologies are just being created, engineers are focused on building and finessing these new technologies from the ground up.

Joy talked about the inherent racial and gender biases that AI systems possess due to the biases of those with the power to create such machines. Using the example of facial recognition technologies, she talked about how the models recognize less African American faces than Caucasian faces. A problem like this is due to a lack of diverse training data and lack of metrics that may vary based on facial feature differences of people with different skin tones. Joy was able to highlight the importance of having a diverse workplace, in order to design the best technologies for use by all people.

Felicia Jiang: My favorite event was a poker and business event held by Palantir. Palantir invited a bestselling author who taught classes on why and how poker strategies are applicable to business, and why all women should learn to play poker. My favorite comment of that night was the idea that poker is a “people game” rather than a card game, just as business is.

What was your favorite part of the event? 

Winshen Liu: Although I went in thinking I’d spend all my hours at panels and workshops, I learned about the career fair and couldn’t get enough of it! I had incredible one-on-one conversations with engineers from companies all over the world. Their work on machine learning, computer vision, and networking rivaled the content from tech talks.

Rachel Whaley: The best part of the event was meeting so many great people, and learning about their journeys into tech. There are many nontraditional paths that don't start with getting a bachelor's degree in computer science. It's great to hear other people's stories and appreciate their diverse backgrounds.

Sammy Cannillo: The closing celebration was one of my favorite parts. I went to the party alone and ended up spending the entire night with newfound friends, senior developers from Facebook and Workday.

My conversations with these experienced ladies were incredible. Hearing their perspectives on navigating the software engineering industry as seasoned professionals with 10+ years of expertise was a very refreshing and calming perspective. This encounter made me realize how easy it is for new developers to get wrapped up in trying to get the “perfect” job using the “most lucrative” technologies. I learned that waiting around for all of the stars to align isn't going to make you a great engineer. Rather, getting your hands wet with whatever technologies that you're given the opportunity to work with is the best way to set yourself up to become a talented and marketable engineer.

Felicia Jiang: The best parts were the opportunities - on the flight, at the conference, even in the hotels -  to meet both young women and seasoned professionals, and to learn about their experiences as a woman in tech.

How do you feel that attending the Grace Hopper Celebration will add to your MPCS experience? 

Winshen Liu: I left with an expanded perspective on the current and planned advancements in the tech industry, which greatly informed my course selection. Having been only in non-technical roles prior to MPCS, I also gained experience doing technical interviews. I developed an even deeper interest in my upcoming classes and greater confidence in finding a suitable role after graduation.

Sammy Cannillo: Attending GHC has already incredibly enhanced my MPCS experience. One of the biggest takeaways for me from the conference was a revitalized sense of confidence. I left Texas feeling empowered and excited to be a woman in technology.

Throughout GHC, I was able to communicate and articulate conversations on a wide variety of technical topics. When thinking about this and remembering that I've only been in tech for 1.5 years, it felt incredibly validating to realize my skill set and capability in this industry. Being surrounded by so many talented technologists and realizing that I too fit with this crowd, was an incredibly affirming experience. I felt this “theme” of encouragement, reinforcement, and positive energy from each woman to another throughout the conference.

Felicia Jiang: In the majority of my MPCS classes, the women-to-men ratio is woefully low (as it is in the majority of the industry). GHC not only allowed me to pursue invaluable career advice, connections, and opportunities, but it also reminded me that we should continually encourage women to pursue technical opportunities and work toward an even ratio.

What is a piece of advice you’d give someone considering applying to UChicago’s Masters Program in Computer Science?

Winshen Liu: I knew without a doubt that this was the program I wanted to be in. If you find yourself regularly browsing the program blog and getting excited about the course offerings, this could be a great fit.

Rachel Whaley: There are so many different types of programs out there - I'd encourage anyone applying to do their research, and make sure that the classes offered in the program fit with their long-term goals. Also, for anyone considering working full-time while completing the MPCS part-time, I'd recommend good time-management skills - it can definitely be done, but the more you can make good use of your time, the better.

Sammy Cannillo: For anyone interested in applying to MPCS, I highly encourage you not to feel shy in getting answers to the questions that you have. When I applied, I remember calling the office about once a week with tons of questions about the program. They clearly haven't gotten sick of me yet! The MPCS staff was incredibly helpful, supportive, and honest with everything that I asked them, making the process feel very personal and promising.

The courses in MPCS offer an extremely challenging, yet immensely rewarding, platform to rapidly advance one's career in CS. As someone who has pivoted careers from Psychology to CS, I have learned to highly value MPCS's emphasis on core CS theory and fundamentals throughout all of its courses. For applicants who are hesitant about what MPCS can offer, the challenges of the courses and the amazing colleagues that you will meet here will set you up for the ability to tackle any career in CS that you put your mind to.

Felicia Jiang: I would definitely encourage all women, whether you have a technical background or not, to consider and apply to UChicago's MPCS program. It will give you concrete skills and experiences, as well as resources provided by the University to build confidence as a female engineer. I would recommend learning more about the different areas of computer science and have at least an idea of what you are interested in (software, data, cloud, machine learning, etc).

What are your career goals upon graduation?

Winshen Liu: I aspire to be a back-end software engineer for a company related to urban development, healthcare, or climate change. I am also interested in using machine learning and functional programming on the job, and to continue delving into computer science topics since I know MPCS is just the beginning.

Rachel Whaley: My goal is to have a positive impact on the world through technology, and I'm especially interested in how data and data science can have a positive impact.

Sammy Cannillo: Throughout my graduate study, I have been specializing in iOS Application Development through taking as many mobile electives as possible and working on personal side projects. I am very excited to be joining the Braintree team in Chicago as a Mobile Engineer this winter upon my graduation from MPCS!

Felicia Jiang: I plan on pursuing software development in the Bay Area. I am interested in the biotechnology industry and using technological tools to improve drug development and healthcare in general.