Last September, I had the honor of attending the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing which was held in Austin, Texas between September 14 to 17th, 2016. Thanks to a generous travel scholarship I received from the University of McGill, me and my fellow McGill student got the chance to travel down south for this week of fun workshop and conferences.
The application process for the scholarship was not especially complex. At the end of May, the McGill University’s School of Computer Science opened up a scholarship application to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration which was to be held in Houston, Texas in October 2016.
I applied to the scholarship (which consisted of sending in a letter answering multiple questions, a transcript as well as your resume). Some of the questions that must be answered were:
- Why are you interested in attending GHC? (max 300 words)
- How would you contribute to making the School of Computer Science (SOCS) a more inclusive and diverse community? (max 300 words)
- In the future, are you willing to 1) speak to SOCS students about GHC and 2) lead fundraising efforts for GHC?
In July, I finally received a positive answer which left me super excited, but … also dumbfounded. Indeed, by then, all tickets were sold out. I contacted the other student in the same situation as I was and, with the recommendation of the teacher in charge, we applied for the Tapia Celebration conference. This conference costs a fortune to attend, but luckily we were accepted in the volunteering program. As we decided to share the cost of hotel and transportation, this trip ended up being a lot less expensive. We booked tickets with United Airlines and the hotel was about 10 minutes by taxi away from the main event.
We arrived around 11:30AM on the day and went to the hotel to leave our baggage in our rooms.
We fresh up a bit, changed from our airport apparel and went to the Renaissance Hotel where everything was held.
The event started with a four hours resume building workshop hosted by big Tech companies such as Facebook, Microsoft, IBM, etc. Then, from 5:00 to 6:00PM, there was a Scholarship Recipient Orientation & Newcomers Session. It was at this moment that Professor Richard Tapia made his first appearance. Many people were surprised to see him there and it was fun to talk with everyone about the excitement. This talk was followed by a panel on “Using Technology and Social Media to Diversify Computing” which was a fascinating and perfect way to start the plenary talk series.
Afterward, from 7:30PM to 10:00PM we were able to taste a delicious dinner (high class burgers in my opinion), delicious salad and a hear-warming potatoes/cheese/shrimp based dish.
Next, we went to the Career Fair downstairs where many companies already started tabling. It was the first time to see meet recruiters from companies like Github and Red Hat so that felt pretty crazy too.
Oh, and of course, we were able to taste amazing dessert throughout the night including perfect red velvet cups. One of my biggest regrets was to not have enough of these.
On day 2, we went a bit crazy as I technically tasted three different breakfasts. We first ate a bit at the hotel before arriving at Tapia, where only more food was waiting for us. Tapia’s breakfast selection was crazy so it was a shame we couldn’t eat much. Indeed, as I luckily got an invitation to Breakfast with Ebay to hear a talk for university students on Debugging the Brand of You, I couldn’t eat much of anything. The talk was a lot of fun as the students were all very enthusiast and the host himself was passionate on helping us understand the power of self-marketing. The food was fancy pancakes with five stars service.
Next, a speaker from UCLA, professor Joseph Teran, talked about his research Scientific Computing in the Movies and Virtual Surgery. As an important member of the Disney Animation Consultation team, he showed powerful examples of the use of computing for movies like Frozen, Zootopia and Moana. Following him, another diversity talk was held.
After the morning talks, I went to the career fair to get goodies as well as talk with the recruiters about potential summer internship opportunities. This part was a bit exhausting mentally, but totally worth it. I got a few recommendation again on how to improve my resume. The lunch was a simple sandwich box with water, salad and chips which was enough to fill me up.
Afterward, I went to my first volunteering shift which lasted until 5:00PM. For volunteering, I was assigned to the registration table where most of the other student/volunteers were at too. We took the name of people coming, explained the procedure and gave them their swag bag. The swag bag contained the T-shirt, the pamphlet as well as many goodies from sponsors. All the volunteers were really welcoming and I had a blast talking to them about life as a student in Canada. After volunteering, I had time to go to one workshop on Open Source projects as well as the poster presentation by students and industry researchers.
For dinner, I was again extremely lucky to be one of the few students invited for the Microsoft Reception. There, we were able to talk with some of the people behind the cool researches at Microsoft around their many US offices (Seattle, Boston, New York, etc). I even picked up a conversation with a researcher who stayed in Montreal for a few years. He knew a few of my teachers which felt crazy to me.
First, here is a sneak peek at the lobby of our hotel. The night before, I stayed late to change a few things about my resume as I felt that it was indeed lacking. When I arrived at the Renaissance hotel, I went to print a few of these new versions.
During the morning, we saw two plenary talks about diversity in computing which were both full of information. I felt energized to hear so many people passionate on fighting for diversity and closing the gap between the average computer scientist and the people from different minorities and disabilities. I went back to the career fair afterward to give out my new resume. It felt that the hard work was worth it as I had a long talk with a Facebook recruiter there about my past summer internship.
From 12:00 to 5:00PM, I went to my volunteering shift. As there were a lot less people coming in for registration, I was able to attend a few more workshops in between. I went to a talk about Computing for people with disabilities and another one on Computation and Finance. Both were unique in different ways.
Then, it was more chilling with the volunteering friends as we wait for the big Banquet Reception to happen. The reception was mostly memorable for Professor Tapia’s ending talk where he tells his life and hardships and how he was able to go through it all. It definitely felt amazing to hear him speak and pour his experience out like this. The night ended with a big dance party which I tried to participate in, but with horrible result (I suck at dancing).
Like always, the food was amazing:
As most of the activities for Day 4 were by invitation only and we got none, we decided to use the remaining time to visit the beautiful city that is Austin. Austin is the capital of Texas and is full of amazingly tasty food trucks. We booked a one hour visit of the city with a tour bus which was a 100% worth it. (See more pictures at this post)
Afterward, we went to one of their main streets for lunch and to buy some local souvenirs. It is just amazing to be in such under such a warm weather away from school and responsibilities.
Around 1:00PM, we had to head to the airport. Everything went generally smoothly except that we had a delay for our flight. This made us miss our transfer plane from Toronto back to Montreal and we ended up coming back home about two hours late. I can deal with that. 😉
Review of My Experience
All together, I can’t believe how lucky I was to be able to attend such a wonderful event. The people there were smart, friendly and passionate. It was my first professional conference and it was an honor to be able to speak with so many amazing people. This definitely put me more into perspective on what diversity means. Back at McGill University, we rarely see African-American and people with disabilities around. If not for the Tapia Celebration, I would not have been able to understand the importance of this sub community in computing world. This whole experience also allowed me to visit a region in the United States I would never have had the chance to visit. Because of all this, I will forever be grateful to the McGill SOCS community as well as the Tapia team for making this happen. It was such a positive event that I will definitely apply again next year. Furthermore, I hope this blog post will encourage more people to attend this wonderful event of discovery and networking. Tapia is the best place in the world to learn about the importance of diversity in computing.