Monday, June 20, 2016

NSBC 2016 - Day 1

For anyone interested in what went down at NSBC 2016, this blog post summarizes the sessions I attended during the conference. There were many others, but as I stated in my previous post I focused on the future faculty track.

This conference started in the evening when everyone arrived with a reception at the hotel. This was a great chance for folks to get acquainted in a casual setting before the sessions began the next day. I got a chance to meet some people the very first day (and re-connect with some I'd met previously).  This set the tone for the rest of the conference; friendly faces, intelligent conversations, and GREAT food :).

The next morning, Dr. Juan Gilbert kicked everything off with a great welcome message. Not only is he one of the people who started NSBC and helped organize the conference, he brought a CONGREGATION of University of Florida current and future CS PhD students. A one group inspiration (seeing as I'm willing to bet for any given institution, you won't see that many African American CS PhDs) that contributed to the overall message of the convention. 

The keynote was given by Nancy Douyon, Googler and all around bad-ass. She gave an engaging keynote on building your personal brand and putting the best you forward. Now, this is a common topic among conferences targeted at minorities. However, Nancy not only stressed the importance of personal brand and online presence, she provided unique (and sound) advice for managing your brand. She made suggestions such as using Google Alerts to manage your search results, publicly tweeting what you want others to find, keeping your LinkedIn up to date, and using a website or portfolio to tell your story.

Next up, Coach Sandra Roach gave an interesting talk on prioritizing values and setting life goals. One theme for this conference, which I very much enjoy, is the focus on work/life balance. Coach Roach's talk, as well as others', focused on various facts of this topic. We tend to talk about these things in passing, but knowing our values and how we prioritize the things in our lives is important for growth (and sometimes necessary change). 

She made some great points, including but not limited to the following:

  • Emotions affect productivity, so good to be aware of your feelings and things that could affect your emotions
  • Organize things you have to do (lots of software available to do it); the Priority Satisfaction Model (depicted right) can help with organizing.
  • Take action on value prioritization by setting P.O.W.E.R. Goals (Purpose-driven, Outlined, Written-down, End-date, Results-oriented)
  • Always fight for your priorities - and they will change over time!
  • Celebrate your successes!

At this point, we all broke up into our sessions. The first future faculty session was focused on finding the right institution for you. I was particularly interested in this session; my biggest struggle as I'm getting closer to finishing has been decided where I want to go when I graduate. The panel consisted of three heavy hitters in the CS community: Dr. Elva Jones (Winston-Salem State), Dr. Gloria Washington (Howard University), and Dr. Cheryl Seals (Auburn University). We were also fortunate enough to have other faculty in the audience that could chime in with additional advice (Dr. Gilbert and Dr. Shaundra Daily to name a couple). As usual, everyone had a different path to how they got where they are today, so it was definitely great to hear different perspectives. I won't go into too much detail on this here, perhaps later in a blog post on what I've learned from the various future faculty workshops I've attended :).

The last session of the day was for everyone again, and focused on building professional networks. As I stated in my previous blog post, there was a HUGE emphasis on networking at this conference. And not just networking inside your peer groups, but also networking outside you peer groups (and sometimes comfort zones). This session was a panel; NSBC had a lot of panels, which I LOVE. The panel consisted of Dr. Gilbert, Nancy Douyon, and Dr. Shawn Gittens and was moderated by Joe Johnson himself (kinda cool!). I didn't get to catch the beginning of the panel, but I did catch the end of it. Here are a few points that stood out to me from this panel (some are direct quotes and some are my attempts at paraphrasing panel responses):

Q: What advice do you have for dealing with more difficult personalities in CS or situations where you may truly be the only one?

A (Dr. Gilbert): “Understand ignorance is alive and well and put it in its place. Take the opportunity to show them who you are and what you’re capable of.” 

A (Nancy): Find some way to connect with them; try to appreciate who they are and help them appreciate who you are.

Q: How do you blend in in an environment where you stand out?

A (Dr. Gilbert): For him, it turned out to be the best thing that he didn’t have other African Americans around. He hung out with who he was around and learned all he could about and from them. As a result, he is where he is now. He also learned how much harder it was for other students (i.e. international students) to get their degree. He recommended we embed ourselves with them and learn their ways; you’re going to deal with people like that no matter what. It might not seem like it at the time, but it’s an opportunity.

A (Dr. Gittens): "Don’t be afraid to make friends outside your department if needed."

Q: How do you be consistent when building relationships while being resilient in real life situations?

A (Nancy): Some networks are seasonal; not all networks are meant to grow with you. Be aware of the relationships and if they’re helping or hurting; the structure might have to change.

A (Dr. Gittens): You don’t have to talk to everyone in your network everyday; some might be frequent while others are only every once in a while.

Finally, to close the day, we took a group picture (see pic in previous post)! It's pretty hard to see everyone in the picture, but just the sight of so much techy melanin is beyond beautiful! And of course, thanks to my signature red hair, it's not too hard to find me :)

Stay tuned for the last installation of my 3-part post on NSBC 2016!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Diversity in CS shines at NSBC 2016

I spent my weekend in the beautiful A-T-L, Georgia where I had the pleasure of attending the first annual National Society of Blacks in Computing (NSBC) Conference. This is separate from NSBE or Richard Tapia, though related (and almost just as new to me as NSBC). When I started studying CS, though I was aware that there were few females, and even fewer females that look like me, I was fortunate enough to have a solid support system from my mentor (Jim Bowring) and participation in SC LS-AMP under the direction of Christine Moore. However, the community that I found at NSBC goes above and beyond any of my prior experiences for various reasons, which I will attempt to summarize below.

NSBC was started with the hopes of building a community and awareness of  the accomplishments of blacks in computing; though if you attend NSBE, for example, you'll see hundreds if not thousands of us, that's is not the case in CS. We have much fewer African Americans in CS than any other engineering discipline which, I don't find surprising as I am typically one of few African Americans at the conferences I regularly attend. It was also apparent in the significantly smaller number of attendees at NSBC in comparison to engineering targeted groups like NSBE. But when I say it was refreshing to be around others like me on a personal AND professional level; people with similar research interests and areas that I would have NEVER met had it not been for NSBC.

However, when I say we are here...we are here. The conference had an attendance of 90, higher than they (and I) expected. Especially being the first year of the convention; nevertheless, NSBC was truly an informational and inspirational experience that I recommend to any African American studying or with a career in computing.

Now I would like to note that it seems a large part of the goal of this convention is to recruit more African Americans studying CS into PhD studies and then academia. So the target audience is undergrads and grad students (both early and late in their studies) that haven't made a decision regarding what they are going to do or need some inspiration and information to make a decision. Though there were some industry folk, both there as mentors and to learn more about potentially transitioning from industry into an academic career.

I would also like to note this was not a blacks rule, everyone else's drools kind of conference. It was empowering, but there was lots of advice and anecdotes that attempt to put us in our places as well regarding how we perceive our place in the community, the non-uniqueness of our struggle to our race, and how we can use our resilience to build relationships and be successful through adversity. The example that stood out to me was the Ben Shneiderman, who is basically the father of the field of Human Computer Interaction. Before he was renowned and successful, however, he was a leper in the CS community, constantly ridiculed, belittled, and disrespected. He even had trouble getting tenure promotions, something we wouldn't expect a white male to have any issues with. However, ignorance is real and transcends race, ethnicity, and culture. Sometimes we're just scared of what we don't  know or just like Ben, help them understand. Be a part of your community, despite the adversity, and continue to stay true to who you are and what you believe. Once they understand, they'll come around. And if they don't, you didn't need them to begin with.

Though some sessions were for all, most sessions were divided into three tracks: undergraduate, graduate, and future faculty. Being I'll be on the market in the Fall, I attended the future faculty track where I was able to gather extremely useful information, mostly in the form of anecdotes delivered by computer scientists with various education backgrounds and career paths. However, I was told all tracks were valuable and provided both opportunities for learning, networking, and personal growth. For more information on the program from this year's conference, look here:

I want to narrow in on the networking point...we really don't hear enough about all the GREAT things we are doing in computing and computing education. One thing in particular that stood out to me at this conference was the incredible intelligence, resilience, and success our people have come to achieve and utilize. For example, I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Dr. Elva Jones. Dr. Jones got her PhD from NC State (something I was almost embarrassed that I didn't know); afterwards, she got an offer to come back and teach at NCSU and turned it down to go back to her HBCU alma mater to give back (Winston-Salem State). And give back she did...Dr. Jones is the founder (and legacy behind) the CS department at Winston-Salem State! Probably the coolest thing I've ever heard...and it hits so close to home. Now I was really embarrassed that I didn't know who she was...though super glad I got to meet her. Not to go on too much of a tangent, but this is why we need more specialized efforts in recognizing and archiving the achievements of African Americans in CS...unfortunately they tend to fall by the waist side, leaving people like myself to find inspiration on their own. One initiative I've been involved with plans to change that - maybe I can give more details on that later when it's come closer to finalizing ;).

To better assist with networking and the forming of relationships (i.e. professional, mentoring), the organizers used personality assessments to provide personality profiles to each attendee. They used stickers on our badges to show what personality profile we are, and for many this was a great way of meeting like minded people that could potentially contribute to each other's career. I will say I didn't use the stars to decide who to meet, but for those who know me I just love meeting new these wonderful women pictured below. I already knew one of them, but the rest I met at the conference. I can honestly say about each and every one of them that we have formed some sort of foundation to a future relationship in our careers, both mentoring and professional. Plus, ain't we cute?? ;)

At the end of it all, there was a dinner with a keynote and surprise guests. The keynote was GREAT (I'll talk about in follow-up day by day details), but the surprise guests were the founders of the aaphdcs listserv! It was such a humbling (and tear jerking) experience seeing them take in all the beautiful, intelligent African American Computer Scientists around them. I had a similar moment with one of the other faculty attendees that where we both took a step back to take in the idea that we are building relationships that will help bring in a new generation of diversity in tech.

I would also like to mention that aside from the fact that they had us in the NICEST hotel I've ever stayed in for a conference, the food was PHENOMENAL! There were options for everyone, and plenty to go around. The only downside, cash bar :(. But, due to the hospitality of the organizers, we were able to have some fun after hours watching the NBA Finals and enjoying each other's company (with free alcohol, which never hurts XD).

Now that I've given you an overview of my experience and what I thought was great about NSBC, I hope it'll inspire you to join the community or spread the word so others know they're not alone! We're here baby!

For those of you interested in more details on the happenings at NSBC 2016, I'll have a couple highlight blogs posts (one for each day) posted shortly -- pictures and resources included! ;)