What lights you up? Do it!

By Kathy Richardson

Kathy Richardson

Kathy Richardson

Before the first Grace Hopper Celebration, women rarely had the opportunity to be both computer scientists and women at the same time.

On my own I wouldn’t have gone to the first Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC). Like most techie women in 1994 I was afraid to ask for sponsorship to a “women’s conference”. But Anita Borg was my industry advisor, and I couldn’t possibly let her down. So I put on my brave face, had an awkward conversation with my thesis professor, applied for a scholarship, convinced my friend at Oracle to do the same… I got a ticket, registration, and a room to share! I attended that very first GHC, and it changed my life.

The first GHC was an amazing experience for everyone who attended. None of us had ever been a room with more than 20 women technologists, and now we were 400. Every one of them loved technology and wanted to make a contribution. Everyone was there to share her ideas, support, stories, and enthusiasm.

The atmosphere at the Celebration was so different from academic conferences. Everyone immediately included others, introduced herself to anyone sitting nearby. All these women seemed much more interested in technology ideas and bringing younger technologists into the technology community than promoting themselves.

After many long years being the only woman in my Stanford research group for my PhD career, I instantly found a home! Suddenly I had 400 role models, some like me, some very different, all trying to pave their own way forward. All in computing because they love it.

A GHC leadership workshop gave me the idea of going for things that Light Me Up. Extraordinary goals are worthwhile and they motivate you to actually accomplish things you only imagine doing. The first application of this goal-setting was to finish my thesis and graduate by the end of the year. So, I set a date, made a plan, chopped out a chapter, got friends to help with the graphs and proof reading, and worked my life around accomplishing this goal. I ended up having a 100% complete draft to my advisor on my target date. I was thrilled! I had set an amazing goal, and I met it! I also came away with a life changing view of how I could accomplish much more than I thought possible.

The other life changing insight from the Celebration was: Do fun work. Every amazing, accomplished speaker exuded enthusiasm and excitement about her work. There was no bravado — I’m not good at bravado. I could never see myself bullying my way to recognition and fame, by making people feel stupid when they didn’t understand the importance of my work. Today I’m still excited when I think how wonderful it was to be there experiencing all of this enthusiasm — makes me want to go write some iPad code right now.

These women ignored the game of bravado, focused on the work they loved and did it well. They were all highly successful as computer scientists. This was a model that I could internalize and let guide my career and life. I’m so much better at things I enjoy than at things I “should” do. By doing fun work, I’d line myself up for a greater possibility of success. (And if I failed to be as successful as I want, I’d have fun — how cool is that!).

The two ideas, choose goals that light me up and do fun work, continue to guide me every day. They help me through the unappealing steps and they re-energize and re-orientate my path. They fit me, they work for me. I’ve stepped up to exciting projects, and jumped into projects with all-new and unfamiliar technology. Along the way I’ve learned that I enjoy learning various technology rather than becoming an expert in one area. In the traditional sense I might be more successful if I focused longer in one area, but for me recognition is not as fun as trying something new.

It has been important to see role models that match my style, and see some of the ways they were successful. I still try to do things that put me in contact with new role models, and new ways of approaching situations.

I encourage you to find a community and seek out a set of role models or ideas that help be your best. Some specific things you might consider are:

  • Attend GHC when you have the chance, attend local Women in Tech events, join women code-athons. It might take some exploring to find a community, but it is really worthwhile!
  • Take a day in the next week and only work on things you enjoy. Think about ways to expand this to be a bigger part of your job.
  • Sneak in a few mini discussions at lunch with colleagues or friends about what you each like about your career or current position. What do people find motivating. What would cause them to look for a differ position, where do they want to be in 5 years. A few casual questions could give you powerful insight.

At Grace Hopper Celebrations I have the opportunity to be both a computer scientist and a woman and see others in that same light.

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