Recent MEM Grad Reflects on Grace Hopper Celebration

Despite being virtual, the annual conference for women in tech was still an inspirational experience for Divya Sharma (MEM '20).

Divya Sharma (MEM '20) has goals of being a product manager in the tech space. It's the reason she enrolled in Northwestern's Master of Engineering Management (MEM) program, and it's why she found herself hunkered down in front of her laptop for five days this fall, soaking up as much knowledge as she could during the world's largest conference for women technologists. 

The Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) was forced online in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the experience differed from that of an in-person event, it did allow more than 30,000 participants from more than 115 countries to participate.

Sharma recently took time to reflect on the experience and how it will help her as a product manager moving forward.  

What was your overall reaction to the experience?

This was my first time attending GHC, and the first time attending any conference in virtual mode. My experience with virtual GHC (vGHC) was very different from in-person conferences, but I quickly got accustomed to the virtual classrooms, remote work environment, and social setup. I missed the vivacious environment and the opportunity to be in the same room with and get to know so many passionate and brilliant women in tech, but being virtual did make it possible for the conference to be attended by 10 times the number of participants as there were in 2019.

The theme for vGHC was “Together We Build,” which is important as globally we all face a common enemy in COVID-19 and want to build a mechanism for our economies to recover and flourish. The other tone was the need to be inclusive of all races and gender in the workspace and beyond, and I firmly believe in that.

In her closing keynote, US Women’s National Team co-captain and two-time World Cup Champion Megan Rapinoe said, "Without diversity, we will always reach the same conclusion.” It was a message to form a more inclusive future not only in tech but as a general perspective in all walks of life as community and collaboration are more essential today. 

How inspiring was it to have so many women technologists together for one event?

During these five days I met technologists from more than 10 countries, and I got to know about their innovations and efforts toward diversity, equity, and inclusion. The conference had many great keynotes, and I was lucky enough to attend many, including thone by Brenda Darden Wilkerson, CEO of the AnitaB organization. I also listened to the one and only Serena Williams, who talked about her remarkable tennis achievements and her off-court success in fashion and philanthropy. Learning from these women made me feel inspired and gave me a personal target to accomplish.

Why did you want to participate in the conference?

This conference is well known for celebrating women technologists and is a great place to meet other women in tech. I am an innovator at heart and could not miss this great opportunity to share and consume ideas that this conference had to offer.

I am at a crucial point in my career where I am finishing up with my Master’s in Engineering Management and wanted to interact with other women managers and hear about their experiences before starting work as a product manager. Attending a conference that brings these people to a common platform was a great way to learn from their experiences.  

What were some of the most important lessons you took away from the experience?

I learned more about how to build for users, a lesson every product manager must know. Customer obsession is lesson number one of any Product Manager 101 course. I attended a few sessions with some of the most customer centric companies of the world like Google, and I heard some great talks, including:

  • Developing Live View for Google Maps: A Lesson in Working with Emerging Technologies
  • You’re Asking Users the Wrong Questions!
  • Your New Product: What to Build and When to Build it
  • Finding the Human Behind Tech: Building Products for Emerging Markets

I heard about learning early from failures during the “Beyond the Code” session with Google leaders Jen Fitzpatrick and Aparna Pappu. They discussed their journey up the ladder and the experiences that felt like failures at the time in their careers. They summed up their talk by saying that all those times were defining moments of their lives, and the reason why they succeeded was that they decided to learn and grow from those experiences. They advised us to accept risk early on and not let it hold us back from our adventures. I took this as solid advice. 

With the conference targeting women and minorities in tech, there were many sessions that discussed the idea of inclusivity in experience and design, and I was inspired by these women’s motivation toward building inclusive worlds where biases can be overcome with the help of technology. 

How do you think you'll be able to apply what you learned at the conference?

I plan to work as a product manager in the technical domain after MEM, so all my product learning will be utilized to enrich the projects that I’ll undertake in my job. I attended the conference with a lens of a manager and this shaped the sessions I attended, the direction my conversations with others took, and my takeaways from the conference.

McCormick News Article