Report: Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing

Last week I traveled to Austin, Texas with seven students for the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing. My job was to moderate a panel on teaching-oriented faculty careers—my fifth such panel, but the first at Tapia. CS program funding allowed me to bring along several students. To maximize impact, I recruited from amongst this fall’s class mentors and the leadership of the CS@W student club. Students are expected to share or apply what they learn on campus.


Whitman students and faculty at the Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing. You can tell we are in Texas by the steer made of license plates on the wall behind us.

I’ll start out with a diary of my experience, and conclude with my students’ reflections on their experiences.

Thursday, September 8, 4 p.m.

T-5 days. We meet with Kim Rolfe, Director of Business Engagement, and Gayle Townsend, Assistant Director of Career Development. They offer advice on conference strategy, networking tactics, navigating the career fair, and professional etiquette. This week, students also meet individually with Gayle this week to get feedback on their résumés, and Kim collects orders for business cards.

Sunday, September 11, 7 p.m.

T-2 days. Pre-flight huddle. This is mostly motivation for me to collect all our travel information on one piece of paper. However, students have some questions about how we’ll approach the conference, not to mention travel and sleeping arrangements.

Monday, September 12

T-1 days. John observes my Discrete Math class in the morning; we meet late in the afternoon to discuss lesson plans and administrivia for covering my class while I’m gone. We also discuss my use of clickers for peer instruction and make arrangements for my first observation of one of John’s classes. In between, I have the pleasure of overhearing Andy teach the A* algorithm to AI students who are traveling with me. I assure my Intro students that I am leaving them in very capable hands.

Tuesday, September 13

T-0 days. During my morning in the office, I catch up on grading and material prep, getting ahead on both my classes. My colleagues agreed to cancel the department meeting since we don’t have any urgent business this week and I would have to rush off immediately after. Andy and I use the time to discuss the information he needs to cover my Intro class. We also plan for next week, something we usually do on Thursdays.

The van arrives in the Jewett Parking Lot at noon; we had planned to meet at 12:15. We pull out at 12:25. There will be plenty of time at the airport: our flight is delayed 20 minutes.

As we check in, the United ticket counter staff are discussing flight delays. This doesn’t sound good, but we are assured we will have plenty of time to make our connection.

At the gate, the flight is increasingly delayed. We are eventually rebooked on a redeye flight from SFO to Austin; fortunately the gate agent was able to find a flight with room for us all. I change the flight information on our SuperShuttle reservation and call the hotel to ask them to hold our rooms.

We board. We deplane. We board again, and we are off, a mere 3 hours delayed.

In the waiting area, I draft slides for the panel and for an upcoming presentation to alumni. On the plane, I start writing this blog post. I am procrastinating on revising my tenure statements. I have a book chapter draft whose references need whipping into shape, which I will also get done before revising my tenure statements. Productive procrastination FTW!

The bright side of the delay and rebooking is that we have plenty of time for dinner at SFO. And a walk, and a browse at the bookstore, and some work after that.

Wednesday, September 14

After a very subdued wait at the airport for our airport shuttle, we check into our rooms at 6 a.m. and go to sleep. We had agreed to gather at 11:30 a.m., but it actually takes until noon to leave the hotel. We take the hotel shuttle to the conference hotel, which turns out to be a fairly short walk, albeit under a freeway. We register. The last member of our party joins us over lunch.

I charge students as follows: Meet at least three new people and learn at least three new things. I’ll ask about them when the conference is over. I expect students will meet more people and learn more things, but I want them to reflect and prioritize, and I want to set at least a minimal bar to get over.

Feeling unwell, I pick at my lunch and eventually give up. Students return to the conference hotel for the afternoon professional development workshop and I head back to my room to take a nap. The walk makes me feel a bit better. I get text messages from the two students who had not registered for the workshop saying they were allowed in. Good news!

I make it back in time for the newcomer session, which is interesting and informative since I last attended the conference in 2007. My biggest question is whether there is food before or during the fireside chat, since it’s not mentioned in the program. There is lovely food. I stake out a table in the middle of the room and several of my students find me. I spot Pablo, who had asked me for some advice about his evening interview. I’ll catch up with students individually or in pairs throughout the conference.

During the career fair, I’m on duty at the Liberal Arts Colleges Association for Faculty Inclusion (LACAFI) booth. It’s nice to catch up with Amy Csizmar Dalal (Carleton), who is in charge of the booth, and Brent Heeringa (Williams), who is also on duty. As usual, we see a few of our students and students from other liberal arts colleges, several peers asking how to join LACAFI, and a few faculty job seekers. Thanks to the exhibit hall passport raffle, we have more people than usual stopping by to ask what LACAFI is about.

Thursday, September 15

I arrive in time for the opening plenary, which is starting 15 minutes late. At 9:30, I meet my panelists on the outdoor deck. I’ve never met two of the panelists before. We have a lovely conversation, making a few strategic changes to plan for opening statements and prioritizing questions for me to ask as moderator.

We arrive early at the room assigned to our presentation and get settled, calling for help with the AV but eventually getting it all working. Then we learn there is a glitch in the printed program: The long descriptions list a different room for our panel than the schedule summary and the online program. We move to another room and set up the AV again, this time without help.

Hardly anyone is in the room at 10:45 when the panel is scheduled to start. A new arrival reports that the plenary session (which we panelists skipped in favor of our meeting) is just now breaking up. It was supposed to have finished at 10:15, giving a 30 minute break. Most people are taking their break now. None of the conference organizers can be found and there seems to be no official plan for the schedule slip. I finally make an executive decision that starting at 11:00 will give enough of a break and a critical mass in the audience.

Other than this, the panel goes well. 75 minutes gives plenty of time for Q&A. A show of hands demonstrates that as usual, the audience is dominated by liberal arts faculty (many of whom are hiring!). But there are a respectable number of graduate students, and a few job seekers. Audience questions bring out very diverse perspectives from the panelists. A major point of contention: To post-doc or not to post-doc?

Other than looking out for my students, my big responsibility is over.

I head towards lunch with several colleagues from the panel and the audience We join Beth Trushkowsky, who is eating alone at the Harvey Mudd College sponsor table. We have a nice conversation. But the ballroom is freezing. I go outside to warm up before a quiet shift at the LACAFI booth.

Later in the afternoon, I attend a birds-of-a-feather (BoF) session on disability led by UW CSE professor Richard Ladner, who I’ve known for quite some time now. I chose this BoF because I thought it was where I would learn the most; I speak up once when a teacher’s experience seems relevant, but mostly I listen. I very much enjoy the panel on minority leadership in computing. My grad school labmate Shaun Kane (UC Boulder) describes himself as a reluctant leader.

I’ve committed to judging the student poster competition at 6:30. The room is very crowded and noisy, completely overwhelming. I would turn around and leave, but I have a duty to fulfill. I feel bad for any poster presenters who also find the environment overstimulating or who find it difficult to navigate the narrow aisles. Judging 6 posters takes the entire length of the 90 minute session, and by the time I come out the staff are taking the food away. Apologizing to my students in the lobby for being hangry, I head to the hotel restaurant. I run into Dick Brown (St. Olaf) and his colleague Bruce King (St. Olaf’s CDO), who are having a drink. They graciously permit me to join them, and we are also joined by one of Dick’s students and a grad student who attended my panel.

Friday, September 16

After the ordeal of the poster session, I feel entitled to sleep in. I hear via Facebook that I missed a memorable plenary talk: Daniel Sonnenfield of Salesforce delivers his talk in ASL, reasoning that he has the opportunity to speak directly to Deaf people in the audience. I touch base at the LACAFI booth; Amy and I are both headed to a panel on best practices for increasing diversity in computing, in which I learn about several programs I hadn’t known about before.

The faculty lunch hosted by RedHat is worthwhile. Gina Likins (RedHat), who I met at the POSSE workshop over the summer, pitches teaching with open source projects. She calls me out, which I’m not expecting, but we get Amy interested in participating in the workshop this fall. We are given a discussion topic: How does the conference provide value to faculty and our institutions? How could it provide more value? It’s a surprisingly interesting discussion, and it’s nice to feel our perspectives are valued.

I join the session on “Engaging Students of Color in Computer Science” a few minutes late and struggle to find a seat. Partway through the panel, I make the mistake of checking my email and discover a minor but real technical crisis in my classes back at Whitman. I am thoroughly distracted. Fortunately, I look up and see Richie at the next table over. I ask him to wait for me so we can share our thoughts. My summary is that there were no real surprises; I already know what we should be doing. Richie points out that we have work to do to make the lab a welcoming environment. It’s on both my to-do list and Dustin’s, but lower priority than, say, keeping classes running. Richie agrees to investigate decor for the lab.

Raj joins us and we end up skipping the last session to back to the hotel together, where I spend an hour at my laptop fixing technical difficulties and sending emails.

We return just in time for our group photo, which Adrienne Decker (RIT) graciously takes for us. A few minutes later Richard Tapia himself walks by. I consider asking him to take a photo with us, but the moment passes too quickly.

The banquet has the usual rubber chicken, but good company. Richard Tapia claims he’s never given a plenary talk at the conference before, but I vividly remember his plenary talk in 2007. David Patterson (UC Berkeley) receives the Richard A. Tapia Award and gives a lovely, brief reflection on his career and his principles. Then the poster competition winners, and the raffle winners, with some really nice prizes.

Finally dancing, which at Tapia traditionally starts with the chicken dance. I did not dance as a college student myself, and I really enjoy seeing my students on the floor. I learned to dance over 10 years of attending the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC), a very safe space. It was lovely to learn that the Tapia conference has the same annual dance party tradition. A group of us stayed until after 10 (not my original plan, but I was having too much fun), took some photos at the Lyft photo booth, and then headed back to our hotel.

Saturday, September 17

We gather at 4:30 a.m. for the airport shuttle. Everyone makes it on time. Our flights are on time.

Over lunch, I ask students to reflect on who they met and what they learned.

  • Emma met the director of the computer science division at PNNL, who wants to connect with Whitman students;
  • Annabella met Liz of Accenture, whose data analytics persuaded Starbucks to advertise on Facebook;
  • Pablo met Afiz of Microsoft, who went to high school in LA near where Pablo did and told about his colleague who transferred from Whitman to UW to finish a degree in CS;
  • Richie met Matt, a student at University of Puget Sound who wants to start a coalition of CS students at small liberal arts colleges;
  • Devon met Elizabeth at UC San Diego, whose research relates CS to social justice, and Zara, a grad student who is having a rough time with male coworkers;
  • Raj met Carl of Lyft, who started the chicken dance.

I also asked: Why should Whitman students go to Tapia?

  • To better understand about the importance of diversity not only in computing but in any field;
  • To learn how to start conversations about diversity;
  • To build a professional network including employees of tech companies and startups, grad students, and students from other colleges;
  • To gain practice with networking;
  • To find career opportunities;
  • To learn how your skills compare to others’ skills and employers’ expectations;
  • To learn about professional organizations like Systers;
  • To learn about opportunities to coordinate local outreach efforts with national efforts, such as Girls Who Code and the STARS Computing Corps;
  • To be inspired;
  • To get beyond the Whitman bubble.

And finally: What advice do you have for Whitman students attending Tapia in the future?

  • Research the companies in the job fair;
  • Be prepared to network;
  • Polish your resume and upload it to the resume database;
  • Bring a notebook and take notes on sessions and people you meet;
  • Be prepared to be invited for technical interviews–actually study;
  • Try to learn from other students at the conference, and don’t be competitive;
  • Don’t be scared to talk to people, even people who are older than you;
  • Don’t be intimidated—you can get something out of it no matter what your skill level;
  • Apply for scholarships, which offer opportunities beyond just attending the conference.

We already have some plans for following up:

  • The conference theme was “Diversity Matters.” Devon’s feedback for conference organizers is that she was looking for more discussions about why diversity matters.
  • I have feedback for conference organizers about accessibility in the student poster session.
  • We will plan a session with Kim and Gayle for students to debrief on their experiences and to share things they learned that differ from the advice they got beforehand.
  • Thanks to Devon’s leadership, we are hosting a Friday “Continuing the Conversation” on Diversity in Tech, which dovetails nicely with the Andjelovic Lecture and discussions this week with Cathryn Posey ’05.

Conclusion: Tapia vs. GHC

I have attended GHC at least five times, and Tapia only twice. After last year’s GHC in Houston, with over 12,000 attendees, I’m not enthusiastic about attending another. The size is intimidating, and it seems like it’s gotten very focused on making connections between undergrads and industry. On the other hand, Adrienne Decker, who attended for the first time in 2015, pointed out that GHC still offers transformative lessons and invaluable connections for those who remain isolated from communities of women in computing.

Having attended Tapia for the second time, there are three things I really appreciate in contrast to GHC. First, by addressing all kinds of diversity, Tapia makes space for intersectionality across race, gender, sexuality, and disability in ways that GHC can only aspire to. Second, by addressing all kinds of diversity, Tapia makes space for allies. Since there are so many identities at play, including people who are LGBTQ or who have invisible disabilities, allies don’t stick out as not belonging (oh, the irony!) in the way that men (and especially male undergrads) stick out at GHC. Allies were generally welcome in spaces focused on particular identities, but it was clear we were there to listen. Third, Tapia is still intimate in scale. I only hope we don’t ruin it by making it too popular.

1 thought on “Report: Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing

  1. Amy Csizmar Dalal

    I love the idea of meeting with career center people to talk conference strategy and etiquette beforehand and debriefing with them afterwards!

    (Also, I did apply to that workshop, so thanks for selling me on it!)


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