Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Nicol Challenge and My Latest Idea for Girls, Computer Science, and Games

On a whim, I entered the Carleton Nicol Challenge and was thrilled to make it to the Top 8.  I pitched my idea in front of a panel of judges (apparently in Dragon's Den fashion, not that I watch the show).  I didn't make the top three, but am perfectly happy with this first attempt at any sort of entrepreneurial competition.

My pitch was titled Girls and Computer Science: Increasing Interest Through Stories and Games.  It's similar in some ways to our recent Imagine Cup game, Gram's House (which sadly did not make it past round one).  However, there are some key differences, such as focusing on a novel with an accompanying app rather than a stand-alone game.

There are many outreach initiatives, and the main themes that appear in most include ensuring girls and women know what computer science actually is (e.g. it is not about learning how to use software), that life in computer science is not what the stereotype portrays, and that you can make a difference in society with computing.

In my pitch, I proposed the creation of a mobile app / novel combo designed to tell a compelling story about computing through story and games, thus encouraging middle and early high school girls to see the field in new light.

The most important aspect of this proposal is the story told to the users.  This story must be targeted to the audience of 12-15 year old girls and paint a positive image of computer science.  The girls must be able to relate to at least one of the main characters so they can imagine themselves in their shoes.  In other words, the story should encourage the girls to project their identities into those of computer science students, a concept explained by video games and learning expert James Paul Gee.  If done right, these identities can transcend into the real world and help counteract the many reasons that girls are not entering the field.

While the story helps with the image problem the field of computer science faces, it doesn’t necessarily show the readers specifically what computer science is.

For this reason, mini-games relating to computer science problems will be introduced throughout the story via a QR code that can be scanned by a mobile device.  These games will be closely related to the problems that the main characters have to solve for homework and for personal endeavours outside of class.  On the surface they will appear to be puzzle games (one of the most popular game genres for middle school females according to research), but of course a meaningful connection to real computer science theory will be made, showing that computer science problems are actually fun and interesting.

Another key aspect is to emphasize that computer science can be used for social good.  The focus is not on the computer or programming itself, but on making a difference with these tools.  Research has shown that girls do indeed care about social good, so these games are an opportunity to connect the technical aspects with the impact they can make.

During the question period of my pitch, I was asked how much money I would need to get this going.  The truth is that what I really need is time.  I have all the tools and resources to accomplish this, but no time to do it.  Maybe it can be one of my post-grad projects.  On the other hand, if anyone out there wants to collaborate with me very closely to get this done sooner, I'd love to hear from you. ;)

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Difference One Woman Can Make

I was at the Board of Advisers meeting for the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (ABI) last week in Mountain View when it struck me just how much of a difference one person can make.

Anita Borg, like so many others, saw the lack of women in computer science and decided to do something about it.  But she's among the relatively few who have been able to truly make a difference.  (That's not to say there aren't other amazing organizations doing good work, such as CRA-W and NCWIT.  I'm focusing on ABI because it's the one I know the best.)

It struck me how amazing this is when one of the board members, a professor of computer science, commented on just how much we have been able to influence our field.  Reflecting on just those initiatives I've been able to participate in, I can list quite a few that are directly related to ABI: Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship, Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, Systers, ABI Ambassadors, and a wonderful online community of technical women.

Other male-dominated fields might have "women in X" workshops and other programs, but nothing like what we've got.  Change is happening in computer science, even if the pace is slow.

The biggest takeaway is this: It is possible to make a difference, even if all you have is yourself and a good idea.  You just have to get started, build a team, and find your allies.  And most importantly, never give up.

So what are you going to change?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Patty Azzarello on Succeeding While Loving Life

The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (ABI for short) Board of Advisers meeting last week was really inspirational.  On the morning of the second day, we were treated to a talk by Patty Azzarello based on her new book Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work AND Like Your Life.  Even though the focus was on life in industry, I felt like there was a lot of advice I could apply to my own situation.

Business girl

The main theme was that "just working hard doesn't work."  In your career, it's easy to think that it's all about your expertise.  And it kind of is... at the beginning.  But then there's more to it.

It's not about politics, promotions, or raises — it's about how you approach your work.

There are three main things you should be doing / thinking about: aim to do better (have more impact), look better (be visible but not annoying), and connect better (get support).  Next are some tidbits on each of these.

Do Better
  • Be less busy.  Nobody has motivation to make you less busy other than you.
  • Know what the business values.
  • Be wary of the trap of being a workhorse.  Although it might feel like the right thing, the only reward is more work. (Incidentally, this is one reason I don't believe in working overtime regularly.)
  • Rise above the work and learn to delegate.
  • Create processes and systems.
  • Defend your time and be ruthless about priorities.
  • Evolve your job in order to add business value, and change it to suit you better.  The better you make your career, the more value you will end up giving your company.
Look Better
  • Don't be invisible, but never put politics before getting results.
  • You don't need to have a big personality to succeed.  Humility is ok.  Build credibility as you.
  • People with high credibility get more done, and are asked fewer (potentially dumb!) questions.
  • Don't educate others about what you do. Instead, use the language of the business, and connect the dots to your own work for those you speak to.
  • You have a brand that is defined by others. Ask yourself if it's what you want.  It should show who you are, why you are good, and what you care about.  A package of skills is boring.  (Patty talks about brand-building on her blog.)
Connect Better
  • The biggest impact on your career will come from having a mentor.
  • Don't be afraid to get help.  Build your team and never struggle alone.
  • Build relationships.
  • When networking, give more than you take, meet people for a reason, and keep in touch with people you know.  (During the talk I mentioned how I use Facebook to do this when someone asked how to find the time to keep in touch.)
  • Schedule 30 minutes a month to send personal emails to your contacts.
  • Get on "the list."  There is always a list.  Find it and get on it.

Want more? I definitely recommend picking up the book.  I'll be reading it myself, since Patty was kind enough to give us all a copy.  There is much more detail and lots of great stories in there, so it's totally worth the purchase.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

My Great Canadian Appathon Experience

This past weekend was the Great Canadian Appathon, a 48-hour game design and development competition.  I was on Team Harmony with some of the guys who helped out with Gram's House, our Imagine Cup game.  We'd already worked together before, so I had high hopes for the weekend.  I was not disappointed!

This was the first hackathon event I'd ever participated in.  I really enjoyed the atmosphere in the little classroom all the on-site teams worked in.  Everyone was friendly and having fun.  As great as this was, it was also very distracting in terms of writing code.  I didn't get much done Friday night as a result.  I tried to keep my headphones on all day Saturday, and on Sunday I decided to save commuting time and work from home.  Though this meant fewer distractions, I didn't get to see the final game on an actual Windows Phone 7 device. (I was at least able to try it out in the emulator.)

Something else I noticed is just how often we changed our game concept throughout the weekend.  And we weren't the only ones - it looks like most teams did that, too!  Our final concept was called Sandscape, a fluid simulation puzzle game that has you scratching trenches in the sand, and tilting the phone to get certain colours of fluid into various goal drains.  This is pretty different from the Chinese-philosophy-based tile flipping game we originally designed in preparation for the competition.

As usual, I was one of the only girls participating.  There was a female volunteer and a female artist on one team, but I was the only coder working on site (turns out a friend was also developing, but her team worked completely from home so I never saw her).  This was noticed, so the National Post journalist assigned to Carleton wrote an article about me:
Gail Carmichael is accustomed to being something of an anomaly.

It’s not because the 27-year-old computer science PhD student is wired-in to her Acer laptop at the Carleton University hub for the Great Canadian Appathon, sporting a blue “You had me at Hello World” t-shirt.

It’s because she’s the only female coder in the small classroom.
You can read the whole article online.

Overall, I'm quite happy with how the competition went.  I'm glad most of us were able to keep to a normal sleep schedule, and that we managed to submit a complete game.  No matter what happens with the judging, we have something we can be proud of.  That, in my books, is success.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Met a Girl from My First Ever Mini-Course Yesterday

I went to Almonte and District High School yesterday for a pilot project called Futures Fair.  Community members were invited to give workshops and mock university lectures to students who could sign up for the topics they were interested in.  I did my usual computer science stuff, this time talking about how artificial intelligence and computer graphics are used in games.

One of the coolest things was seeing a girl from my very first mini-course Computer Science and Games: Just for Girls! four years ago.  She was in grade nine then, and grade twelve now.  She was so excited to see me, and still totally enthusiastic about the CS stuff I talked about and the activities we did.  She showed good understanding of the material, too.  It was awesome!

Of course, I then had to ask her what she had applied for at university.  I secretly crossed my fingers it would be something technical.

Her answer?

Political science and law.

(Needless to say I was sad.  I did at least tell her she could consider a minor in CS.)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Introducing Gram's House, Our Imagine Cup 2011 Game for Girls and Computer Science

Computer science is still a gender-imbalanced field. Outreach efforts by various non-profits and companies like Microsoft seem to make an impact on this issue. Inspired by this, we designed Gram’s House to reach an even larger audience of middle school girls. We believe that encouraging more girls to participate in computer science has the power to help those who are lesser privileged see new career possibilities and improve their situation. Furthermore, a diverse computing community will be in a better position to solve many of tomorrow’s problems, from education to the environment to health care.

In Gram’s House, the player takes on the role of a computer scientist. She wants to ensure her grandmother can stay in her house, so she uses her skills to outfit the place with technology Gram can use to remain independent. Each piece of technology must be activated by solving a computer science related puzzle, ranging from binary numbers to theorems to algorithm design. The first technology is a mail ordered robot, and subsequent technologies are obtained through a simple questing mechanisms. In the next version, a world map will allow players to travel to different areas of the city, and will provide opportunities for collaboration with other computer scientists and engineers. The player must balance Gram’s independence with her satisfaction with the various machines and devices collected.

The story of Gram’s House is meant to give the girls playing it an emotional investment in the problems they are trying to solve. Research has shown that girls do indeed care about making a social difference.

While point and click puzzlers are nothing new, they are well loved by middle school girls. The combination of a compelling story, puzzles, and learning real computer science topics is something new and exciting that could make a big impact on the game world and the field of computer science.

Watch the game video below and download an installer to try the game yourself.  I'd love to get your feedback!

Friday, March 4, 2011

One Positive Thing, Martial Arts, and Hitting the Proverbial Wall

The other day I read Cate's post on One Positive Thing:
The power of sustained small achievements is underrated. If every day I did one positive thing for my health, my living space, and my relationship, what would my world look like a month, six months, a year from now?
I love this concept.  If you're ever feeling overwhelmed, whether by grad school, work, or just life, focus on one positive thing you can do.  Chances are, other good things will follow, but even if they don't you still have that one positive thing.

After reading this, I immediately thought about a technique I've been using in my Taekwondo training recently.  I've been trying to push myself more - just ten more pushups, 30 more speed kicks, better patterns, whatever. Whenever I have hit the proverbial wall, I have been doing one of two things.

One is to think of Bruce Lee and how much he was able to push himself. I remember the story about someone being pushed to run just a little more by Lee and think of that. For some reason it gives me a jolt of energy and desire to succeed.

The other is yoga breathing. The other day doing 100 speed kicks on each leg was suddenly so much more feasible when I focused on deep breathing and keeping my body calm - it's like my leg was doing its own thing and I didn't even think about the fatigue.

These ended up being my "one positive thing" for Taekwondo.  Now that I'm thinking about the concept, I'll be watching for opportunities to use it whenever I get frustrated or lose confidence in my research.  There is always something small I can focus on that I can accomplish quickly, whether it's directly related to the area I'm being frustrated by or not.  And who knows, maybe some yoga breathing will do the trick. ;)

What do you do when you hit the proverbial wall?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Great Canadian Appathon

Carleton's Game Development Club is one of six host schools for the upcoming Great Canadian Appathon:
The Great Canadian Appathon is a chance for post-secondary students across Canada to showcase their skills in developing great games. Students can get together in teams of up to 4 people to hack their game together for 48 hours. The event is presented by XMG Studio and the National post. The Prizes are being sponsored by TELUS and the finale event is being sponsored by KPMG.
A few friends of mine were hoping I would join their team, and yesterday I finally decided that I would.  (I was a little worried about time because there are a few projects I have to wrap up in the next couple of months, but this looks like a really fun opportunity I don't want to miss.)

This is supposed to be one of those hackathon-type events where you work for 48 hours straight to come up with a game programmed completely within the allotted time.  I've never participated in any of these before.  The closest I've come is the one all-nighter we pulled for our school's notorious software engineering class project.  (And that's the only all-nighter I've ever done in my life!)  I'm a little nervous about it because that's not really how I work usually.  My eye problems alone make it impossible to work all night.

Luckily, it sounds like the plan is to design as much of the game ahead of time as possible, and maybe even prototype it.  Then the idea is to have us work in shifts with partners, so those who like working at night can.  According to the Appathon's rules, you don't even have to be on campus - you can work online if you want.  I don't know if it's a gender thing or just because we're getting older, but I personally really appreciate this flexibility.

The competition is happening March 11-13, so I'll post about our experience after that.  In the meantime, if you happen to be a student, consider giving it a shot yourself!