Tuesday, November 22, 2016

GHC16 / What Are Tech Tools Doing That The Best Diversity Initiatives Aren't?

How can software help companies recruit and hire more diversely? Erica Joy Baker, Laura I. Gomez, Stephanie Lampkin, Liz Kofman, and Aline Lerner tackled this question on a panel at Grace Hopper this year. Most came from the perspective of creating the tools or working in tech, and one came as a social scientist studying the problem. It turns out that technology can do a lot, from removing biases to helping employees find good matches in prospective employers.

Here are my live notes from the session, edited slightly since I took them.

- we'd like to have the tech to kill the resume and allow for anonymous processes where everyone is evaluated the same
- what drives behaviour change? show candidates what's really going on in companies
- "I don't believe in unconscious bias training. I believe in results."

- compelling to see results of a fairer, more competitive process
- many challenges in academic research: one group, no change, another group, huge difference (why?); the more data we have, the more we can figure out what's really going on
- early feedback is that demystifying 'the pipeline' idea has been valuable

- technical interviewing it totally broken; interviewing as a process is as effective as putting names on a dartboard and throwing the dart (this is especially true of unstructured interviews, which have no correlation to success outcomes; structured interviews have a tiny amount of correlation)
- competency-based interviewing helps structure interviews as well as check later whether the interview ended up being a good predictor of future performance; issue is that managers don't know what competencies matter, so hand-holding in that regard is needed
- big companies need to have the same vocabulary and awareness of where the issues are

- want companies to dissect what makes a high performing employee, then capture that about a candidate; again, because traditional interviewing sourcing process is broken; need chances to capture data in soft skills, behaviour science, neuroscience...

- hiring processes are antiquated; why haven't we seen much innovation in this space?
- change is hard partly because those responsible for letting folks into the pipeline don't have the skills they're recruiting for; they have the wrong incentives

- anonymizing applicants: is this the same as that Wall Street Journal author's suggestion, which made many women and other feminists upset?
- even when we remove the name, there are other indicators; how you write can identify you, even when what you said doesn't change
- anonymization doesn't take away identity; it lets folks look at us differently

- audience question: should companies be aiming to improve diversity? how will anonymization help them identify those candidates?
- yes, there are companies actively sourcing; mixed evidence on blind identity (may not help companies that were already trying); have to understand the context of the companies, each of which are so complex
- not as simple as sourcing underrepresented groups; need efforts to improve the process and give resources to those that don't have them
- recognize that we do have biases, and give tools to interrupt them

- audience question: has bias affected how much funding your companies have received?
- bias toward funding previously successful founders, even though data shows this isn't a good indicator of success
- needs to be more examples of success because there's a lot of pattern matching going on
- Stephanie: need to set the example as a young gay black woman, farthest from an old white man as you can get
- having a personal brand ended up helping some of the panellists (though not deliberate); e.g doing a lot of writing on the broken hiring process and sharing data

Sunday, October 30, 2016

GHC16 / Building a Better Classroom: Lessons from Ed-Tech

One of the panels I attended at this week's Grace Hopper Celebration featured women from various companies engaging in ed tech, whether as their sole purpose or as a smaller part of their mission. Panellists included Prachie Banthia (moderator, Google), Lauren Janas (Microsoft), Stephanie Killian (Knewton), Jen Liu (Quizlet), and Sha-Mayn Teh (Teachers Pay Teachers).


The panel began with a discussion of the challenges in getting classrooms to adapt ed tech. Unsurprisingly, cost and difficulties in rolling it out topped the list. Then each panellist discussed what problems specifically they are trying to solve:
  • Learning can be static, tedious, and boring. Quizlet makes it more fun. Most users are middle and high schools using it for language learning, math science, etc. Some adults use it too, for things like med school and even bartending. Today, their focus is on K-12.
  • Knewton focuses on the problem in ed of 'one size not fitting all.' Standard models of education treat everyone the same (curriculum, pace).
  •  Some teachers were really focused on using tech in the classroom, e.g. to scale learning to class sizes of 45. Google Apps tries to support and reach the majority of teachers that aren't currently doing this.
  •  MS Office Mix supports developing materials for flipped classrooms. You can record yourself talking over a PowerPoint presentation, include quizzes, and distribute to students. The software provides analytics to improve lessons and see how well students are learning.
  • Teachers Pay Teacher helps teachers search for the right resources quickly.
Another one of the challenges faced by creators of ed tech is surviving the peak time of back-to-school. Advance planning is required to figure out how to scale the load capacity based on projected numbers of students. Launching any time after August 1 is really like launching the following year on August 1, because you've missed the critical window for adoption. The holiday season is the down-time, and that's where fixes and be made.

So how do these panellists view adoption of ed tech? They say tech in schools is fragmented, and so it is difficult to target a particular platform. It is very important for a company to earn the trust of teachers and administrators. Teachers are reluctant to test things on students. Too much setup time will make adoption harder: class time is precious. You have to make the barrier to entry as low as possible. And, of course, there are many issues around school networks / wifi. 

When it comes to the fear that ed tech might be trying to replace teachers, the panellists say this isn't the case; they want to empower teachers. Some call themselves teacher-preneurs and they all have such passion, and find creative ways to use technology to make their point with students.

A controversial question: are larger companies like Google and Microsoft more likely to succeed than the smaller companies, thanks to their resources? Having a lot of spare resources does give bigger companies a leg up. Smaller companies with education as a core product need to find a revenue model, which is challenging. Enterprise partnerships can help. All agree that it is good having the larger companies there, but also the smaller disrupters. Large companies have scale, and people already know how to use their products. Even still, monetization is hard for everyone (even Google struggles with this still). Smaller companies have the advantage when it comes to the ability to disrupt: Google can't take a pedagogical stance (65 million users whose trust can be lost), but smaller companies can.

Friday, October 21, 2016

GHC16 / Lyndsay Pearson on Valuing Inclusive Game Design

Invited technical speaker Lyndsay Pearson spoke at Grace Hopper this week about inclusive game design. Lyndsay has, as she puts it, grown up with The Sims, having working on the game in various capacities since nearly the beginning of the franchise. She shared some universally applicable advice on inclusive game design while sharing examples from The Sims.

By Dinosaur918 (Own work)

The first lesson, of course, is that the players are out there. Long gone are the days of believing all players are high-volume males in their late twenties whose central hobby is gaming. With such a huge diversity in players, there's an opportunity to develop games for even more inclusive audiences. To do that, we need to expand beyond the current factors most values in games: time, money, and number of games played.

So what can we do? Respect all players, invite different opinions, and intentionally build relatable experiences.

Respect All Players

Respecting players means truly recognizing them and their diversity. Coming to a game for a different reason that "most" gamers doesn't make you less valuable. Designers should ask themselves: how can I continue to connect with that player and relate to them? First impressions matter, which is why The Sims offered more options for body type and so on in their character creation.

Invite Different Opinions

The thing is that you have to do this even when it's uncomfortable. "We need to help bring people in and help them not bounce out," as Lyndsay puts it.

One example of this is ensuring you tune yourself to cultural sensitivity. For example, the Sims team learned that women were not allowed on game boxes in Saudi Arabia. Despite the fact they really didn't want to, they created a box with all men so that the game could be sold, and still be accessible in all the same ways to people in that country (especially women!).

Another example is religious sensitivity. They thought The Sims was good at avoiding overtly religious objects, but they later realized that the ghosts and voodoo dolls they included in the game also have religious origins. Thus, they realized were actually consistently inconsistent in this area. They had to own the fact they had no clean line and try to make decisions as consciously as possible.

The bottom line is that you need to get uncomfortable with these kinds of conversations. Do know that you get better at it the more you do it, though.

Build Relatable Experiences

Connect, relate, and interact with current world experiences. What's going on in the world that can be incorporated into the game? A nice example is finally incorporating women's team into the FIFA game. When they decided to do that, they became fully invested, considering all kinds of new possibilities, like a player leaving partway through a season to have a baby. The Sims also now has much more fluidity in its gender selection, helping break gender norms as we are trying to do in real life.


Lyndsay gave us a lot to think about when it comes to designing inclusive games, but as she pointed out, the lessons apply to all software design. Let's all make sure to keep these things in mind in our own endeavours.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

HLF2016 / Spotlight on Preethi Srinivas: HCI Researcher Improving Coordination and Communication in Hospital ICUs

This blog post originates from the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Blog. The 4th Heidelberg Laureate Forum is dedicated to mathematics and computer sciences, and takes place September 18-23, 2016. Abel, Fields, Turing and Nevanlinna Laureates will join the forum and meet 200 selected international young researchers.

Meet Preethi Srinivas, our next featured young researcher in a series about some of the women attending this year’s Heidelberg Laureate Forum in September 2016.

Photo courtesy of Preethi Srinivas

Preethi is currently wrapping up her PhD at Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing and is originally from Chennai, India. She is also a Senior UX Designer at Regenstrief Institute Inc.

Preethi’s dissertation work has the potential for making a huge impact on communication in hospital intensive-care units. Notes made on paper and synchronous communication in ICUs can lead to issues in awareness and coordination. Preethi proposes a method for “rapidly generating, managing, and sharing clinical notes and action-items among ICU providers” as well as a “visual and tactile notifications system that induces minimal interruptions to an ongoing activity.” Long term, her research provides novel guidelines for mobile communication tools for ICUs. She says she is “proud of this little accomplishment although this research is a small, design-based contribution to the medical and HCI communities.”

As for many graduate students, Preethi’s ultimate success comes from learning to embrace failure. She also learned that it’s ok to switch projects if you aren’t engaging sufficiently with your current research direction.
I started my PhD program working on a research project that seemed to work well, but I soon learnt that I was not meant to be working on the project since I did not really find myself interested, even though I was working hard. This experience taught me that one of the huge factors to research is involvement or drive to being committed to a project. I soon moved onto another project that kept me committed, without which I would have never made as much progress as I did.
As someone who switched topics completely between Masters and PhD, and who went through a few project ideas before settling on a thesis topic for my PhD, I can relate to this completely!

Preethi is excited for HLF for the opportunity to interact with some of the world’s best and most passionate researchers. The forum’s interdisciplinary nature is also very appealing. She hopes to receive some great advice from fellow researchers on how to embark on independent research post-PhD, and is “looking forward to making new friends with whom I could potentially collaborate in future.” Plus, she loves to travel, and who wouldn’t want to visit such an interesting city as Heidelberg!

I believe you won’t be disappointed in the city nor the forum, Preethi. Looking forward to seeing you there!

Stay tuned to meet other young researchers, a special post about mentors, and the advice our featured women want to share with others.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Low-down on Speaking at GHC

So you're speaking at GHC16. What do you need to know? How can you prepare to be the best you can be? How do you calm your nerves?!

Although I wasn't lucky enough to have any submissions accepted to this year's conference, I have spoken at Grace Hopper before along with many other venues. Let me start by reassuring you that this is one of the very best places to present. I have rarely found a more wonderfully supportive audience.

Let's get some of the official stuff out of the way. As a speaker, you need to thoroughly read through everything on the speakers section of the conference website. In particular, note the quick references on the right.

I'd like to draw your attention especially to the Speaker Ready Room info. There, you'll learn about uploading your slides before your presentation, and you'll see a link to the slides template. Please take the time to design your presentation using the template right from the get-go. Trying to shoehorn an existing presentation into the template tends to look unprofessional, and not using the template at all even more so. Also make sure to leave plenty of time to upload your presentation and test it. You'll want to make sure any embedded media is actually embedded, and that your fonts and colours look ok.

The conference website also includes some tips on speaking. I'd also like to share another amazing resource that brings you weekly inspiration and advice on speaking: a newsletter called Technically Speaking. Subscribe now and you will benefit leading up to your talk, and check out the archives as well.

Finally, I have a few tips of my own:

  • Design your slides with as few words as possible. Convey the main idea through pictures and a short phrase.
  • Add speaker notes into the notes section of the slides. When practising, you can simply read the notes at first. This should make you familiar enough to be able to improvise more day-of.
  • Practice in front of colleagues at some point with enough time to receive feedback. Provide them with a written feedback form they can use to give you anonymous ideas for improvement.
  • On the day of your talk, arrive in the room early to give yourself time to calm your nerves.
  • Make sure you have access to water during the talk.
  • Before you start, take some deep breaths, maybe with your eyes closed. Think yoga breathing.
  • Invite the audience to chat with you after the talk, and stand somewhere where it's easy for the audience to actually do so.
Good luck with your talk – I'll know you'll be awesome!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

HLF2016 / Spotlight on Hana Khamfroush: Research Associate in Wireless Communications and Networking

This blog post originates from the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Blog. The 4th Heidelberg Laureate Forum is dedicated to mathematics and computer sciences, and takes place September 18-23, 2016. Abel, Fields, Turing and Nevanlinna Laureates will join the forum and meet 200 selected international young researchers.

Meet Hana Khamfroush, our next featured young researcher in a series about some of the women attending this year’s Heidelberg Laureate Forum in September 2016.

Photo courtesy of Hana Khamfroush

Originally from Sanandaj in north-west Iran, Hana has a PhD in telecommunications engineering and currently works as a research associate at Penn State University in the United States.

Hana’s PhD focused on applications of network coding for geographic communications in dynamic wireless networks. Her Masters was on reducing energy consumption of routing protocols in wireless sensor networks. Hana’s current work looks at security and recovery issues of interdependent networks. More specifically, she says, “I work on modelling and analyzing cascading failures in interdependent networks and network recovery after massive disruptions.”

Hana’s proudest accomplishment is impressive indeed: she was named as one of the rising stars in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) by MIT in 2015. But despite such an amazing background, success did not always come easily. It was, at times, difficult to maintain motivation and perseverance as a graduate student.
I think the biggest lesson I learned from my PhD was to stay patient and work hard toward your goals, and be sure that “Hard work pays off.” I learned not to get disappointed by defeat, instead to learn from them and always have hope for better results. In the first two year of my PhD, I was not getting very promising results for my research and I didn’t even like what I was doing. I kept working harder and changed my research topic. The last year of my PhD was the best; I got many papers accepted and it felt like everything changed! I learned a lesson: I am the only one who can help myself, so I solved my problem by finding a more interesting research problem! Don’t wait for others to help you, change your status by yourself.
For HLF, Hana is particularly excited about the positive energy she finds at any conference or academic gathering. HLF is an even more amazing opportunity since she’ll get to meet some amazing new role models. She says, “it is very exciting to meet with those who were internationally known for their scientific contributions, and who actually made a change to the world.” She expects to learn a lot and bring back the positive energy when she returns home.

Hana is also looking forward to meeting other young researchers in her field. If you share research interests, don’t be afraid to reach out and say hello!

Keep up your amazing work Hana, and see you in Heidelberg!

Stay tuned to meet other young researchers, a special post about mentors, and the advice our featured women want to share with others.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

HLF2016 / Spotlight on Helen Wauck: HCI Researcher Studying Spatial Skills Training with Games

This blog post originates from the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Blog. The 4th Heidelberg Laureate Forum is dedicated to mathematics and computer sciences, and takes place September 18-23, 2016. Abel, Fields, Turing and Nevanlinna Laureates will join the forum and meet 200 selected international young researchers.

Meet Helen Wauck, first to be featured in a series about some of the women young researchers attending this year's Heidelberg Laureate Forum in September 2016.

Photo courtesy of Helen Wauck

Helen is a PhD student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where her work centers on human-computer interaction. Her research, as she explains it, is on the cognitive side of a rather broad field.
I study how to use video games to train spatial skills. Spatial skills are crucial for success in STEM disciplines, so figuring out the best way to train them is very important for lowering the barrier to entry into these fields, especially for populations that typically have lower spatial skills, such as women and ethnic minorities. Some existing commercial games are very effective at training spatial skills (Portal 2 and Tetris, for example), while others, including cognitive training games like Lumosity and Dual N-Back, are completely ineffective. The goal of my research is to determine what specific game features contribute to the effectiveness of a video game for spatial skill training.
Helen's proudest accomplishment so far was to win the "United States' National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRF), a prestigious fellowship that grants recipients three years of generous funding and international research opportunities." The application process included a proposal for a multi-year research project, and despite not winning the award the first time she applied, she worked hard and won the second time around. As Helen says, "It's really encouraging that not only my advisor but the NSF has faith in my ability to carry out this research topic and that it's worth researching."

Of course, life as a graduate student hasn't been without its challenges. For example, Helen attended a liberal arts college and therefore took fewer computer science courses than many other undergraduates would have. At first, this left her feeling like a second-class citizen in her graduate program, but over time she came to realize that, in fact, everyone has come from wildly varying backgrounds. Even better, she eventually saw how her multidisciplinary background gave her an edge when it came to communicating her research effectively.

Like all participating young researchers, Helen is very excited for her upcoming trip to HLF:
I'm very excited to meet the other young researchers from around the world and hear about their experiences in their programs. Human-Computer Interaction is a very different field from many of the more systems- and math-oriented computer science subfields. The perspectives I get from researchers coming from all sorts of different backgrounds in computer science and mathematics will be very different from the perspectives I usually have access to in my field, especially given the heavily international nature of the HLF. I hope to meet lots of fellow researchers whose experiences can give me new insight into how I might direct my own graduate school experience, and who I can hopefully maintain contact and friendships with after the conference is over! I'm also very curious to hear this year's laureates speak about their research process and how they overcame the challenges that were thrown their way; it's so rare to have an opportunity to meet these incredibly successful researchers face-to-face and hear their personal stories.
Congratulations on your accomplishments, Helen, and we look forward to meeting you in September!

Stay tuned to meet other young researchers, a special post about mentors, and the advice our featured women want to share with others.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

How to Be a Leader, Shopify Style

Self-actualization, that thing at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: “what a person's full potential is and the realization of that potential.” Shopify cares deeply about growth, and aims to be a company where its people reach the self-actualization level of the pyramid. I think that’s pretty special, and it’s just one of the things that leaders need to manage during their time at Shopify.

For the last few months, I’ve been participating in what we call Lead Level Up. I’m not formally a team lead yet, though I have been in a bit of a leadership role and should become a team lead eventually. A lot of what we learned in the all-day kick-off is general enough to share, so I’m going to highlight the things that resonated with me the most. Most of what follows comes from our CEO and co-founder Tobi’s presentation that day.

An interesting fact is that Tobi and his co-founders/early employees didn’t know how to be managers. It was an entirely new skillset. Tobi admits he was not a natural manager; he found it difficult losing the tight feedback loop you get when programming. He admits he fought often with the others in the early days until they sat down and decided to respect each other by committing to being honest and improving their feedback.

Tobi ultimately believes that he was able to improve his own management skills by learning how to better give effective feedback. Everyone is bad at this at first, and there is no limit on how much better you can get. It can be really difficult to take feedback as the gift it is because your ego is so tightly wrapped in the exchange. When I was an instructor at Carleton, I learned how hard it can be to give good, honest feedback, especially if the other party (students, in my case) don’t entirely trust that you have their best interests at heart. I’m now learning to give feedback with radical candour.

A major tool that will help any manager is trust. Trust is more nuanced than a binary relationship. Trust exists between departments, and is fundamental to being highly aligned and loosely coupled (that is, fast-moving teams with high autonomy working toward common goals). When you start seeing a large amount of process being introduced, it’s usually because there is a lack of trust. Process is a prescriptive solution to a problem that isn’t terribly intuitive. It’s a bit like baby-proofing.

After trust is established, the manager’s job is to make their team better every day. If the team is not getting better, it is getting worse. Questions a manager can ask include whether they can remove any ambiguities or dependencies, have they helped someone have a breakthrough, etc. Focus on the high leverage activities that yield the greatest output for your team. Teaching, for example, is high leverage in all its forms. One-on-ones, while important, may generally not have high leverage.

Speaking of one-on-ones, how do you make them effective? Have them at least once a month. Take notes. Find your own style. Use them as a learning opportunity, and a chance to understand the other person. There will be hard situations, and they are only solvable if you have an extremely good read on all involved. Crucially, you must give good, honest feedback. And if you ever hear during a one-on-one that you have made a massive, positive contribution to someone’s life, then you know you’ve made it as a manager.

As mentioned above, managing is an entirely new skillset. Become well-rounded, focus on personal growth, read a lot (e.g. High Output Management and Thinking Fast and Slow). Become the guidance counsellor, the coach, the shrink. Help get yourself and your team to self-actualization, and you’ll do just fine.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Google I/O 2016 as an Anita Borg Scholar

Back in February, I ran an event to celebrate Anita Borg's birthday. I along with some Shopify colleagues focused on students not majoring in computer science; we invited them for a short talk, organized mentoring activity, and coding workshop. I got the idea from the alumni network of past Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship winners: we were invited to run events all over the world. Google program managers picked the most impactful events from each region, and the winners got to attend Google I/O all-expenses-paid. I was one of the winners!

I'm not a developer within the Google ecosystem, though I do use Google products to run my life. (Even more ironically, my husband is currently an Android developer.) As such, my experience of Google I/O wasn't going to be based on the talks per se. Instead, I focused on networking while catching a few talks that seemed interesting and relevant to my group back at Shopify.

Most of the AB scholars attending for the same reason as me stayed in the same hotel, and I was really grateful to be able to head to the conference grounds with one of them after arriving Tuesday afternoon (thanks Saboya!). We got our conference badges and then headed to the Women Techmakers dinner around the corner. There, I met a bunch of wonderful women, including some as passionate as me about computer science education. I also met up with some women with whom I submitted an (unsuccessful) Grace Hopper panel proposal. The event was lovely and I'm very appreciative of the folks that put it on.

Fellow scholar Saboya before the delicious food was served

The next morning, I/O proper began. Our group of scholars was extremely lucky to be given reserved seating at the opening keynote. Hosted at an amphitheatre, half the audience was in the direct, late morning sunlight for two full hours. We were in the front half of the seating area and therefore shaded.

The keynote itself had a really fun opening with animation and music that was totally my style. I wasn't terribly inspired by CEO Sundar Pichai, and it took a while to see any women on stage. But there were a few interesting announcements like Google Home and clever uses of AI in messaging, even if I still don't see how changing the font size in instant messages was ever considered note-worthy.

After the keynote, there was a flood of people having no idea where to go to get lunch food. The conference had to feed us because there was nothing else available anywhere nearby, but being so incredibly hot and sunny, it was not exactly comfortable to eat most places on site. Our group of scholars and friends managed to find a tree to sit under, which was again quite fortunate.

This was the best we could do for lunch. Many were stuck in the sun.

You may be starting to see a theme here about the sun. Many folks, including my work colleagues, were feeling sick from being in the direct sun during the keynote, and it was difficult to escape it the rest of the conference as well. The activities were all spread around the amphitheatre's parking lot with little shade available.

Talks were in air conditioned tents, but there was grossly insufficient seating in them, so long lines started forming an hour or even two before the most interesting talks. I was lucky to get into a couple of the rather popular virtual reality talks without dying of sun stroke, which was nice. But I only attended three talks in total because it just wasn't worth standing on pavement in the sun. Frustrating to consider that people watching the conference from home for free got better access than those spending hundreds of dollars to be there in person.

I spent most of the conference chilling in the shade, but because of the reasons I was there, I didn't mind. I had opportunities to chat with work colleagues as well as fellow scholars and new amazing women I tried to recruit to Shopify (still hoping to hear from some of them!). I'll never forget the many times I got to talk CS education with some truly amazing people.

Plus, you can't complain about the parties, assuming you weren't too exhausted by the evening to attend them!

Our scholars group got to meet up several times for meals at the neighbouring Google offices, and on the last day of I/O we gave presentations about the events we ran. So inspiring! I am really looking forward to keeping in touch with the group, and seeing how we might make an even bigger impact together.

All in all, despite the griping about I/O (no device giveaway!) and the very real issues with this year's venue (your take-home is heat exhaustion!), I'm very grateful I got to attend and that I got a lot out of the trip. Can't wait to meet up with some of the scholars again at Grace Hopper!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Innovation Needs Computer Science

On Wednesday, I gave a talk at an event called Ignite that brought together government and business folks to talk innovation. There were four lightning talks of about 5 minutes each, and mine was on computer science education. Below is a transcript of my talk.

This event is not focused only on technology innovation, but let’s face it: technology is everywhere. Computers are everywhere. And yet, most of us are just consumers of technology, rather than producers. I’m willing to bet that this applies to many of us in this room.

There is so much to gain from learning computer science, not least of which is to think in a new way: we call this computational thinking. You gain skills applicable to so many areas of life, like decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, and algorithm design.

And, if you learn to program on top of it, you can learn how to automate the really boring, menial tasks you may be completing manually right now. ;)

More generally, with some computer science knowledge, you can create things instead of relying on others to do it. How empowering!

Based on the benefits, I believe that innovation will increase as more Canadians understand at least some computer science.

So why aren’t more of us learning it?

There are two big factors that contribute: misconceptions about what computer science is, and problems with computer science education.

One of the biggest misconceptions of computer science these days is that it is just about programming computers. Many people aren’t interested in learning to program for the sake of it. However, computer science is actually not equivalent to computer programming; it’s about solving problems. It just so happens that programming is one of the tools used to realize a solution.

We have some cultural problems for computer science as well. Who do you picture when asked to imagine what a computer programmer looks like?

The Nerd

Perhaps more importantly, what does Hollywood have to say about it?

Even worse, an awful lot of people believe in the “geek gene”: you either have the brain for logic and programming, or you don’t. This is known as fixed mindset, but what we really want is growth mindset: the belief that anyone can do it if they are willing to put in the time and effort. You don’t have to be a genius to learn computer science; you don’t even have to love math.

And best of all, your main job doesn’t even have to be as a computer programmer! Because computers are everywhere, you can pick your passion and use computing to solve problems in that area. (That’s the thing that excites me the most about CS – you can use it to the solve problems you care about and made a real impact on the world.)

Unfortunately, even if we are able to clear the misconceptions of computer science and get more folks interested, we still have the issue of effectively educating them. A lot of people are interested in learning computing in theory, but don’t pursue formal education opportunities. The way we teach computer science just isn’t appealing to most.

For example, women are severely underrepresented in computer science. It’s difficult to recruit women and other underrepresented groups, and it’s even harder to retain them. Members of these groups face issues like stereotype threat and low confidence in their abilities compared to the majority group of white and Asian men.

Ensuring students get insight into what computer science is in K-12 is a big help. But K-12 teachers are generally not trained in computer science, and don’t know how to teach it. Beyond that, the lack of confidence many have of their ability to learn and do computer science affects their students’ beliefs as well, not unlike what happens with math.

Computing education research is also in its infancy. We are just scratching the surface on how to effectively teach computer science, especially to beginners. Pushing this research forward, and finding more effective ways to share results with teachers, is important.

So what can we do?

  • We need to give students in K-12 a more accurate picture of what CS is, and teach them fundamental skills so they can become producers sooner.
  • We should also scale informal education to help achieve this goal.
  • Curriculum and pedagogy at all levels should be carefully redesigned to be inclusive and engaging to a broader range of students.
  • Related to this, we need to support and encourage faculty in Canada to pursue computing education research.
  • We need to actively recruit underrepresented groups – “build it and they will come” does not work here.
  • We need to change the culture around CS and programming. This may be the hardest task of all if we don’t get broad buy-in, including in Hollywood.
At Shopify, we recently started building a new team that hopes to contribute to each of these issues. My role is Manager of External Education Programs.

Since we began earlier this year, we’ve started forming partnerships with educational institutions and experimenting with new learning models for computer science. We care about making learning computer science better for everyone, where “everyone” is as inclusive as possible.

I hope that everyone here today will also play their part, even if it’s just to spread the word about what computer science is really all about to the people you know.

Let’s make change together.

Photo by Matthew Usherwood

Thursday, April 28, 2016

'Take Your Kid to Work Day' Coding Workshop with ScratchJr

A new professional development day was recently added to our local school board's calendar. One of my colleagues, John Duff, made the brilliant suggestion to have a 'take your kid to work day' instead of scrambling to find babysitting. Naturally, I suggested we also add a coding workshop.

Little did I know that most of the kids in attendance – my own included – were between 4 and 7 years old. Grade 4 or so was the youngest I'd ever worked with before, and the idea of teaching kindergartners was especially foreign. Thanks to the helpful advice of a few kind folks (especially Kate Arthur of kidsCODEjeunesse), the workshop turned out great!

To prepare, I read through a bunch of The Official ScratchJr Book from No Starch. The book is awesome, and I definitely plan to use it to continue working with Molly. One thing that I especially liked was the curriculum connections listed out at the end of each chapter. If you happen to be a kindergarten teacher, and have access to tablets, I highly recommend checking this book out.

In case you want to run a similar workshop, here's a bit of info on what we did. The workshop was held in our coffee shop. We moved away a bunch of tables and set up our bear beanbags in a semi-circle in front of the projector screen. I AirPlayed an iPad to the screen for demonstration purposes. To get the attention of the kids, we did a "hands on head" thing: everyone, parents included, had to have their hands on their heads before I talked about the next thing.

Before the workshop, I sent out a doc with information for parents containing the following key information.

 What we'll be doing
We will be working with ScratchJr, which is a visual block-based programming tool. While not required, you might like to learn a bit about the tool ahead of time. On the website, you can get an overview of the interface, the sprite editor, and what each block does. There are also videos with tips
ScratchJr is officially intended for ages 5-7, but the appeal for this workshop should be broader. That said, older children might prefer being a “helper” for a younger sibling and/or trying out the web-based Scratch instead. The older kids could get the basic ideas in ScratchJr first, and if they get bored, they should be able to pick up the main ideas of Scratch fairly easily. 
We have arranged to bring iPads for those who said they needed them.
We recommend bringing your laptop with you, both to look things up about ScratchJr, and to switch to Scratch if desired.
During the workshop
The assumption is that you, as the parent, will sit with your kid the whole time and work with them on their projects.  If you are bringing two kids, you may choose to have them work together or separately. We are hoping to have extra volunteers who would be able to help if they end up working separately. 
We hope to have those participating in the workshop up near the projector, “circle time” style. We should use comfy chairs and beanbags to sit on in a generally circular shape. 
One of the techniques we plan to use to gain attention of the kids is “hands on head” – when we ask kids to do this, it would be great if parents did it as well. Once everyone’s hands are on their heads (and therefore not touching the tablets/computers), we can starting talking up at the front. 
Super important: Try as much as possible to not do anything for your kid. Make sure that you guide them, ask them questions, perhaps even make suggestions, but not do it for them. 
Try to stop your kids from playing with other apps on the iPad at first (perhaps turning off wifi will help?). Later on, if they get bored of working on their own projects, they might enjoy sharing their favourite apps with the other kids.
General workshop plan
  1. How to add a new sprite and edit it.
  2. How to add a new background.
  3. Example blocks (will ask kids what they think the blocks do before showing them; time to play will be after all blocks):
    1. Move right (what does the number change?)
    2. Turn left (what does the number change?)
    3. Say (how could you have it say your name?)
    4. Play recorded sound (try recording your voice!)
  4. Example of snapping blocks together (can you guess what will happen?)
  5. Start on Green Flag:
    1. Have them add this block to the beginning of a script (suggest a bunch of movement blocks to make the character dance)
    2. Have them press the green flag button at the top
    3. What happens?
  6. Repeat forever
    1. What happens if you put a repeat forever at the end of the script, then press the green flag?
  7. Save your project! Go back to the home screen to save

I was pleasantly surprised that we managed to keep the attention of the youngest kids for a whole hour. Later, at lunch, several of the girls excitedly exclaimed how much they loved working on the iPads / playing with ScratchJr. Music to my ears!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Mastering Difficult Conversations

Do you dread bringing up a problem in your relationship because you know your partner will be blinded by emotion? Are your 1:1s at work just happy recaps of your weekend because nobody wants to bring up the hard issues? Sometimes conversations are just plain hard, but it is possible to learn how to have them effectively. I've personally learned a lot from Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, and have even put some of it into practice already.

The book introduces three conversations that are really taking place in a difficult conversation: what actually happened, how feelings factor into it, and how the participants' identities might be affected. When you're about to embark on a difficult conversation with someone, you should first walk through each of these three conversations to sort out where your story came from as well as the other person's, to "explore your emotional footprint," and to reflect on what's at stake in terms of how you see yourself.

Then, you need to determine what your real purpose in the conversation is. Generally, it's a good idea to come from a place of learning, which means keeping your mind open to the fact that you could have been wrong about how you viewed the situation.

When it's time to talk, you want to start from the "third" story – that is, you need to "describe the problem as the difference between your stories." You have to pretend you're an innocent bystander, and invite the other person to become your partner rather than your adversary in sorting out the problem in front of you.

During the discussion, you have to be an amazing active listener (so much easier said than done!). Acknowledge, paraphrase to check understanding, question...and continually reframe to keep on track. Then, finally, you can get to the problem-solving stage.

A few key takeaways for me:

  • Never lay blame; instead, talk about contribution, and try to reframe the conversation to help the other person do the same. Every problem arises because of contributions from both sides, even if the split is 95% to 5%.
  • Pay special attention to feelings. They are always there, and they can get really complex. Even in a professional situation, it is ok – and important – to discuss how various actions and outcomes make you feel. It can help to sort through feelings before the conversation so you can unpack complex bundles of emotions and better explain your perspective.
  • Be mindful of your identity, and how it has been affected by the problem you are facing. The reason that the conversation is so difficult might be because you have to face the fact that you may not be acting in alignment with how you see yourself.
I've used the ideas in the book already to talk through how a friend might be able to approach their next 1:1 at work. The feelings story was of particular importance in this case, and not something that my friend would have talked about normally.

I have also found the knowledge useful when faced with a difficult conversation started by someone else. Where I might have normally become defensive and frustrated, we were able to resolve our problem somewhat quickly. (Now I just have to make sure I don't do the same dumb thing again.)

I think this book would likely have something useful in it for just about anyone. If you're in a leadership position of any kind, it will be all the more valuable.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Annedroids: A STEM Show with a Positive Impact on Girls

Some time ago, I shared info about a STEM show that premiered on TVO back in 2014: Annedroids. Recently, the show's PR specialist followed up with me to share some really interesting research about the positive impact the show has had, which I'd like to share here.

A recent study led by the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI), involving 301 girl and boy participants from the United States of America and Canada, revealed the following: TVO’s and Amazon Prime’s show Annedroids helps increase self-esteem, foster interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in girls, and reduce gender stereotypes in girls and boys.

The need for positive role models for girls in STEM areas

There is still a considerable degree of catching up to do in regards to fostering interest in STEM subjects, especially among girls. As scholars have noted, the reasons why girls don’t get interested in STEM issues and don’t choose their professions from among STEM areas to the same extent as boys are complex. The stereotypical assumption that STEM is – by gender – a strength of boys, still prevails and there is a need for positive role models to demonstrate that girls can be competent in science and technology fields. The media, especially children’s leading medium, television, can play a key role in this respect, but so far it is still an exception that girl and woman characters apply technology at all. Unfortunately, children’s TV overall misses its gender equality mission especially in what concerns STEM. One of the few exceptions: Annedroids, a series showcasing 12-year-old Anne who builds and operates androids and robots. Together with her lively and slightly overweight friend Shania and her Afro-Canadian friend Nick, she experiences various adventures with the technical companions. In every episode, the humorous and child-appropriate plots pick up a STEM-relevant topic.

A study in the U.S. and Canada

In a recent study led by the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television, research was conducted with 301 6-to-12-year-olds (U.S. N=203, Canada N=98). The children watched two episodes of the Annedroids series. Before and after watching these episodes, they filled out questionnaires assessing their attitudes toward STEM and girls, positioning in regards to gender stereotypes, specific scientific knowledge, and interest in having various jobs in the future. With open questions and drawings, children gave feedback on the show and its characters.

The results of the study give clear indication that the program Annedroids helps increase children’s interest for STEM issues, with girls in particular benefitting in the process. This is because children have an opportunity to see in this TV series girl characters who are interested in STEM, are skilled in operating new technologies, and are good at problem-solving, and because these characters can serve as role models for girls. Thus, the program makes STEM issues accessible to children by providing access to knowledge that is more restricted for girls than it is for boys due to their gender-specific socialization. The study further suggests that regular viewing of the programs can help reduce gender stereotypes by promoting gender fairness and equality in regards to STEM education and professions – for a small (yet statistically significant) number of children this was the case after watching just two episodes.

Dr. Sorin Nastasia, a contributor to the research and a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, states: “The Annedroids series is successful by featuring fictional characters who show that it is possible to be enthusiastic about and competent in science and technology regardless of gender, colour of the skin, or other social factors.” The lead researcher in the study and director of IZI, Dr. Maya Götz, concludes: “The show offers girls the inspiration that they can be what they want to be and can use technology to make this world a better place.

Episodes of Annedroids are available on tvokids.com and on air on TVOKids Wednesdays at 6:30 pm (episodes repeat on Saturdays at 11:00 am and Sundays at 12:30 pm).

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

My Nonlinear Career Path

I've had a really nonlinear career path. One step forward, two step sideways, new goal, start it all again...

My interest in computers started at a young age. I was lucky that my dad, a government worker, was able to bring home the computers his office was done with. As a result, I have had access to computers, and even had a computer in my own room, from a young age.

I've always loved to create with computers. From writing stories to designing newsletters for my Guiding troupe, I was always making things. Even today, I make digital scrapbook pages!

In high school, I started becoming more and more curious about how things work "behind the screen," so to speak. How do you write code to make a word processor? What's the math behind vector graphics? How does computer hardware, at the lowest level, add two numbers?

I decided I wanted to take computer science in university so I could learn all this and more. I didn't learn how to program in high school; instead, I took drama and music while I still could. But I was pretty sure I'd love the world of code whenever I eventually entered it.

Turns out I was right. I also loved working in the industry during my co-op terms. One of my jobs was at Ross Video, working on software for a video production switcher. The other was at Corel, where I worked on the text engine for Corel DRAW, software I had used for many years in my personal projects.

Nearing the end of my undergrad, the most difficult decision I faced was which of these two companies I would try to work at full-time. I never thought I'd do anything other than go to industry.

I was going to be a software developer.

Until, that is, a professor approached me and convinced me to consider graduate school. The catch? The application for the big scholarship was due in a week. Well then.

Image adapted from Ivory Tower by OfTheDunes

I applied, and I got the scholarship. So I went to grad school for my Masters. I had a great time, and even got my start in outreach, but learned something very important: I didn't care for the low-level, experimental nature of my thesis topic, and wished I did something more applied.

I decided to continue on to my PhD, choosing storytelling in videogames as my thesis topic. I engaged in educational games and computer science education research on the side. I also took the opportunity to gain more teaching experience. I eventually realized that education was my passion and I wanted to teach.

I was going to be a university instructor.

After some contract work, I got a two-year term position as a full time faculty instructor. I made an impact with some innovative course designs and a lot of hard work in outreach and diversity. But when I tried to get a permanent instructor job, I missed it by a hair. Although I was not yet finished my PhD, I didn't really fancy going back to being a full-time student. Instead, I figured: why not go back to industry and be a software developer again?

So off to Shopify I went. I joined the Home team, working on the first page merchants on the Shopify platform see when they log into their admin. I learned both Ruby and Rails, and finally had a chance to try real-world web development.

I quite enjoyed working as a developer, but it was a step sideways from my goal of teaching. However, in the fall, an opportunity arose.

I was going to jump back into education once again!

Starting this past January, I became Manager of External Education Programs. I'm working on some really exciting education projects, including a sponsorship of the Ottawa Network for Education's AppJam. I get to create curriculum, teach, and even create a team of similarly passionate folks here at Shopify.

So while I have taken some steps back in my career, and some other steps sideways, I find myself feeling very fortunate to end up where I am now. So if you ever find yourself on a really windy career path, don't fret: go with the flow, and see where it takes you. You might find yourself ahead of where you expect, even if it you hit your goal at a bit of a strange angle.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Rana el Kaliouby and Tracy Chou's Formative Moments

As a belated celebration of #WomenInSTEM day, I wanted to share a couple of really great videos (and below explanation) shared with me. Enjoy!

Expanding the number of women pursuing careers in computer science is an ongoing challenge, partly because female tech leaders are underrepresented in the media. But Reddit and Google Cloud Platform are working to highlight the achievements of high-profile female tech pioneers, through a new web series called Formative.

The premise is simple: Formative invites tech innovators to share the one “formative” moment behind their success. The guests are nominated by Reddit’s Entrepreneur community, a group of over 170,000 members, who suggested innovators not just in business, but also in education, the arts, and science.

The series’ second episode features Rana el Kaliouby, the Chief Strategy & Science Officer at Affectiva. El Kaliouby shares the personal journey behind her start-up success—leaving Egypt to attend Cambridge and MIT, where she worked on developing wearable high-tech glasses for individuals with autism.

In the fifth episode, Tracy Chou, a software engineer at Pinterest, shares the story behind her decision to pursue computer science, and how she brought Silicon Valley hiring practices to the center of a national conversation about diversity in tech.

All episodes of the Formative series are available now on Reddit’s YouTube channel.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

First Canadian Celebration of Women in Computing (CAN-CWIC)

For the first time ever, I attended a women-in-computing conference with absolutely no student affiliation whatsoever (I recently de-registered from my PhD for the time being). But that's not what made the first ever Canadian Celebration of Women in Computing special; not exactly. The thing I really, really enjoyed was spending time with my past students and colleagues from my time at Carleton.

I went to the first ever local ACM-W celebration held in Ontario way back in 2010. At the time, it was the Ontario Celebration of Women in Computing. I was doing the student thing full-force at that event, with two posters and one talk that covered both research and our Women in Science and Engineering group. Since then, other local celebrations cropped up around Canada until this year, when they amalgamated into CAN-CWIC.

The format of CAN-CWIC was similar to what ONCWIC did years ago: dinner, keynote, and social on Friday night with various talks and workshops on Saturday. At this year's banquet, I sat with an awesome group of mostly Carleton students and one lonely uOttawa student. And it was so nice. I loved catching up with everyone, and even had opportunities to give mentor-oriented advice.

The time I spent with my own former students made me realize that in fact most of the attendees were students. I would really love to see more industry representation, and not just to stand behind recruiting booths. I feel like more balance would meet provide more mentors and role models for the large student contingent. What could CAN-CWIC do to attract more industry professionals? Maybe looking at Grace Hopper's career tracks would give some ideas.

This year's tracks at the conference were interesting nonetheless. The speakers I saw were quite good. I particularly enjoyed Amber Simpson's talk on medical computing (more specifically, how image analysis can help with cancer diagnosis). It was also great to see Jennifer Flanagan, CEO of the Canadian STEM outreach non-profit Actua, talk about Actua's involvement in computing outreach. I'm really pumped about trying to team up and contribute to bringing computing education to all K-12 across Canada.

I do have some nitpicks about the conference location this year, the main one being that the space was too small and segmented. Hopefully next year's event can be in a larger, more thoughtfully laid out space. But my concerns are small in comparison to the impact conferences like this have. I hope CAN-CWIC continues to grow, and that it's somewhere awesome next year so I'll be enticed to go again. ;)

Friday, January 22, 2016

Artificial Intelligence Simplified: Understanding Basic Concepts

I am officially a published author!

I co-authored a book called Artificial Intelligence Simplified: Understanding Basic Concepts.  My expertise is not in AI, but I am skilled at bringing technical content to more general audiences.  So my co-author Binto George wrote the text, and I helped transform it into an informal, tutorial-style overview of the basics.

The book grew from what was originally going to be a chapter in a larger volume that touches on many different areas of computer science.  Our philosophy was that learning in context was more effective, so each chapter was going to have its own motivating question.  For example, in my first chapter on data representation (which will likely make it into a book of its own), my question was "How did photography go digital?"  The AI chapter's context was healthcare, which we decided to stick with in the expanded stand-alone book version.  The result is an introductory book that discusses the main ideas of the field in the context of a few problems found in healthcare, such as scheduling surgeries for an operating room.

Here's some info from the back cover of the book.  Go check it out on Amazon (Canada, US).  There's a cheaper student version floating around as well.
Artificial Intelligence concepts explained using real-life examples. No complicated math or jargon.  
Have you ever wondered what Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is all about? Let us guide you through the key concepts of AI with our friendly, tutorial-style explanations. We use everyday language and concrete examples in the context of healthcare to ensure things don’t get too abstract. Whether you’re a complete beginner who’s curious about AI, a student who’s intimidated by the technical nature of traditional textbooks, or even a robotics enthusiast who just wants to get started with AI, this book is for you.

Monday, January 11, 2016

PhD: On Hold

I've sent in the forms.  I've updated my committee.  The deed is done.

My PhD is on hold.

Pause / Rafa Puerta

More officially, I am deregistering from the program in good standing.  I am giving myself max one year to reevaluate, but my intention is to eventually reapply and finish my thesis.  I don't need the degree right now, which is why I feel ok putting it on hold, but I do want it in hand eventually to open some doors in the future.

I have been on leave from the program since September 2015.  It seems that I could get another semester of leave, but I don't think it will be enough.  There's an exciting new education project at work.  I unsurprisingly found my way to it, and even have the opportunity to lead it.  It's on the ambitious side, so I want to make sure I can focus all my attention on its success.  Worrying about my thesis seems like a distraction for now.

All I need to do is finish my project and write my thesis.  ("All.")  I've completed coursework, comprehensive exams, and even the thesis proposal.  I do have a lot of development and experimentation work to do, but once that's done, I shouldn't have that tough of a time writing the dissertation.  I like my project and want to see it through.  It just doesn't have to be right now.