A Deep Dive into Grace Hopper-2013

I hate networking. There, I said it.

What I mean by that is I really hate "networking events". You know those.  You go, awkwardly nurse a drink, glance down at your phone and wait for 45 respectable minutes to pass by so you can quickly make your exit, a pile of business cards still in your pocket.  I just think there's something so self-promoting about being forced to talk about yourself and your awesome accomplishments to random strangers in a closed room.  I don’t even like speed-networking events. It’s just not natural to me.

I have, however, always been a big believer of building relationships, one at a time,  that last many years or even decades. For me, these are based on some mutual interest or goal. It took me many years to realize that this was the sole purpose of networking events--to build relationships. For me, meeting people at “networking events” didn’t uncover any kind of real mutual interest or goal, other than wanting to meet people. I know it happens: people start having intense, amazing conversations at these things and it changes their lives. For me, it’s never happened because I never stayed long enough!

I can’t say enough about making time to consciously build and nurture relationships as well as taking the time to make introductions for other people. It's amazing how the most simple effort to build a lasting, trustworthy relationship can absolutely change your life and can change the life of the people you interact with.  This has happened to me hundreds of time over the course of my 12 year career in tech, but here is a story that's recent and led me to writing this article today.

I decided to attend that year’s Grace Hopper conference sometime the summer of 2013 while absently browsing the website while I was supposed to be paying attention in a meeting. My sister lived in Minneapolis, so if the conference turned out to be a dud, at least I’d have someone to hang out with. The fear came from the last time I'd been to Grace Hopper before, around 2008. I attend some interesting sessions and workshops during the day, but ate lunch alone and went back to my hotel right after the last session of the day, ordered room service and caught up on work mail.  In other words, I did nothing to build relationships while I was there.  I remember nothing about that Grace Hopper conference, not even what sessions I had found useful.

This past year, I decided to do things differently.  I was determined to make the most of the conference outside of the usual workshops. I made sure to find out who else from Microsoft was going. Two co-workers who I'd always been friendly with, Robin and Subha were both going and we made plans to meet up at the "night-before" mixer that Microsoft was having. Usually, I would have skipped such an event. After all, why would I spend time with people at Grace Hopper that I could easily see at work or in the office?  But, again, this year I was determined to do things differently.  I did warn my sister to keep her evenings open in case I was uninspired by the conference.

At the Microsoft mixer, I said hi to both Robin and Subha, but made it a point to sit down at a table with women who I didn’t know.  A few minutes later, a very attractive brunette woman sat down next to me in the empty spot next to me. She introduced herself to me as Angela Romei, new to Microsoft.  We started talking and she said that my co-worker Robin had sent her to me because she thought Angela and I ought to meet.  We started talking about Angela’s job in PR and how she wanted to be the People Storyteller—telling the stories of the people who built software. I told her that Microsoft was full of people with really fascinating lives, both in and out of work. I told her I was an author of fiction novels and also gave her the example of my friend Rebecca Deutsch, who created a non-profit organization that taught high-schoolers to code. This was later integrated into Code.org. I sent Rebecca and Angela introductory emails and encouraged them to meet.  Angela and I linked to each other on Facebook and I promised her I’d send her the information on the Italian lessons I’d been looking into—turned out we both were interested in traveling to Italy the following year.

The speakers that night at the Microsoft mixer were Julie Larson-Green, who had been the Vice President of Windows for many years and one of my long-time role models. She was as inspirational as always and all the women in the room were starry-eyed as Julie talked about her career and how they, too, could do great things if they only hung in there when things for hard.  The other speaker was Rane Johnson, someone I didn't know. I learned Rane was the Director of Diversity at Microsoft, a role I didn’t think existed. She really moved me with her short, but effective speech about the power of women helping women.  I found Rane really awesome and I made a mental note to thank her for her talk when I got back to a device where I could type better.  

The next morning, I sat with Subha and Robin for Sheryl Sandberg's keynote around Leaning In.  As we listened to Sheryl talk about building "Lean In Circles" for women to help support other women, Subha and I had the same thought, "We need a Lean-In circle in our building!"  The rest of the conference passed similarly. Subha and I found a bug prediction tool at one of the sessions that we wanted to integrate into our daily jobs. I attended a talk on Google Glass that I found interesting.  There was a speed mentoring hour where senior mentors talked to small groups of women about their careers and offered advice. I actually enjoyed this—I listened more than I spoke and connected with several women around issues we both were facing. I also used this time to solidify my relationships with several women who I did know from work as well as visit the Microsoft recruiting booth and offer my services.  I’ve always been a huge fan of Microsoft recruiting and have an open invitation to them: call me if you ever need someone to fill in for last minute interviewing or “selling”.  They have taken me up on it several times over and I’ve learned so much more than I’ve given to these candidates.

Back in Redmond, after a really great Grace Hopper week, I emailed Rane Johnson asking if she would mind if I set up some time with her to get her advice on starting a Lean-In Circle.  She agreed to make some time for me in her busy schedule and we had a really great chat about how I could get more senior women involved in helping the next generation. Her advice was priceless: make your ask clear. Tell them exactly what you want them to do. Something like, "Spend one hour a month with mid-career women answering questions about your experiences" is a much easier thing to commit to than "Join this group and we'll figure out what we want to do."

Subha and I started the Lean-In Circle and our first meeting had a whopping 30 people attend as we kicked it off with a session around Mentorship and Sponsorship with our Director Greg Chapman and my long-time friend and mentor, Katie Frigon.  I got about 20 emails that afternoon telling me how great the hour was and how excited everyone was to have something like this in our building.  I loved being able to bring these women together and was surprised by how much I learned about both being and having a mentor.

In the meantime, I'd stayed in close touch with Rane Johnson and offered to help her how I could. She invited me to participate in a few different diversity events at Microsoft and ones sponsored by Microsoft, including speaking at the Tapia Conference in Seattle, a really cool conference focused on Diversity. There I met several recruiters from Facebook who talked about the need to hire diverse people.  Rane also asked me to give the keynote presentation at the WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) conference this past spring.  Mistakenly, I didn't ask how big this conference was supposed to be so I wasn’t appropriately nervous for the event! That morning, I arrived at the auditorium and discovered the audience was huge!  I gave my opening keynote and apparently, people liked it. I had young women coming up to me for hours after telling me that I'd inspired them, that I'd given them some really practical advice for success and they wished they could hear more. "Hmm, I should archive this presentation deck on my website or something," I thought. A seed was born then, but I did nothing with it.

The closing keynote of the WISE conference was the lovely Randi Zuckerberg, who'd started the Marketing department for Facebook back in the mid-2000s.  Randi, Rane and I spent the afternoon talking about life, work, home, boys, everything.  It was pretty incredible to hear how much stuff we had in common and we all promptly started following each other on Twitter.  I was impressed at how Randi, for having built her career around tech, was a big believer in disconnecting and focusing on the real world. I started reading her book Dot Complicated, all about Tech/Life Balance that night.

Meanwhile, back at the office, our Lean-In Circle was still in gear. The women still emailed Subha and I almost every week with new ideas for topics and questions. One of the really cool ones was a talk that Juliana Peña suggested around “How to Ask For a Raise.” She asked one of our Behavioral Scientists (seriously, that’s a real job—awesome), Matt Wallaert to come and talk to us.

At the beginning of this summer, I was standing in Chicago O'Hare airport following a wonderful weekend celebrating my sister's MBA school graduation. I checked my email on my phone and I saw a mail item from one of the women in our Lean-In Circle asking when we were having another meeting. She really wanted to talk about excelling at a new job. She wanted to make a good impression on her new team and thought it would be a great topic for a Lean-In discussion. She was absolutely right, it would be a great topic. It was also a topic we'd covered earlier. How could we document some of these things so the rich discussions and advice didn't get lost.  Maybe we should start a blog series…or maybe…I was an author after all. That seed of an idea that had been planted at Grace Hopper started to take shape and I spent the plane ride home organzing my thoughts. A non-fiction book. For all of those college students I hire and mentor and grow.For all of those people in my Lean-In Circle. For all of the people who were taken by tech at “Hello World”. All about succeeding in this crazy industry. A few key mentorship lessons. Interviews with great mentors.  You Had Me at Hello World.  And my first non-fiction book was born.

So, that’s a lot of threads that tied together pretty neatly, huh? So, whatever happened to that wonderful woman from PR named Angela Romei? We stayed friends for the past year and this summer, she called me with a very special ask: she was having a press tour for 3 friendly journalists and wanted to focus on the “human” side of Microsoft. She asked if I wanted to be interviewed as a part of it. Scary. Wonderful. Amazing.  Once I found out where they were from (Seattle Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Times and my favorite…IWantHerJob.com), I started sweating. Um, did I really have anything to say that wouldn’t make my company look silly?

I had my interview with these inquisitive press folks and we had a rich discussion about tech, culture, diversity, Millennials and best of all, storytelling. The lovely Brianne Burrowes, the founder of IWantHerJob and one of my personal role models just blew my mind. Here was a woman who had a great job yet she wanted to do something to help other young women find the jobs of their dreams and founded a great site where women can learn about all of the other women out there who were living their dream jobs. Brianne also fosters relationships between people if a woman emails her asking for contact info of one of her “Leading Ladies”.  I love what this woman does.

Brianne, Angela and I knew we needed to know each other more and we went out to a serendipitous lunch the next day where we talked through Brianne’s business plan, talked through my non-fiction writing plan and made a promise to meet at…yep, Grace Hopper this year.

In other news, the Microsoft recruiting team did take me up on my offer to help them how I could and invited me to speak to the University of Michigan interns this summer (GO BLUE!). I was very impressed to meet two young men who asked me about promoting diversity through events like MHacks and realizing that diversity is a very real goal for the next generation.  

One of the interns, Dylan Hurd asked to meet with me before he left for the summer and asked if I’d be willing to write this article talking about hack-a-thons, conferences and general gatherings of tech people with a specific goal.  

My lesson in the TL:DR way is this when you’re faced with a gathering of sorts:

  1.  Ask some people around you if they’re going. If they’re not, suggest going together. Sometimes all people need is to feel “invited”. I know I never felt invited to Hack-A-Thons till someone specifically said, “Dona, you should go. I am. Want to go with me?” Invite others to go.

  2.  If people around you are going, ask what they’re hoping to get out of it and if they mind if you join. I can pretty much guarantee they won’t mind.

  3. Make it a point to introduce people to each other with some things they might have in common. Something simple like, “Angela, please meet Dona. You both did internships last summer on the West Coast,” goes a long, long way.

  4. Make deep connections. Ask people questions and really listen to what they want to get out of the event. If you think someone is cool, follow up with a nice email thanking them for their time and maybe planning to meet up again. That is actually the biggest differentiator between people who build relationships and people who don’t. Every leader I’ve interviewed for the mentoring book has said that: people who follow up really stand out. You’d be surprised to hear that maybe 1% of people follow up.

  5. Attend! Even if you don’t know anything, even if you don’t think you’ll get anything out of it, GO. Make one connection, make it a deep connection. Stay in touch, nurture the relationship. You’ll be shocked at where it can lead.  Trust me, I’m living this.

Now, not even a year later, my life has changed quite pivotally after that epic Grace Hopper conference of 2013. I’m able to help young women connect with each other, senior leaders and mentoring lessons through the Lean-In Circle.  I'm writing a book about the key lessons I've learned from my mentors as well as many visionary leaders in tech such as Rane Johnson, Randi Zuckerberg, Matt Wallaert, Julie Larson-Green, several vice-presidents at Microsoft, Zynga and Facebook and many other companies that I’ve met through my friends in, yep, Microsoft Recruiting. I have a wonderful circle of female supporters such as Rane, Brianne and Angela who I “lean on” almost every single day and I can easily say that I’m the luckiest girl in the world—all thanks to the wonderful relationships in my life.  

I wish you every success in the world and know that if you invest time and energy in building relationships, that success will come much easier.

Dona Sarkar is an engineering manager at Microsoft, a wannabe fashion designer and the published author of several young adult fiction books. YOU HAD ME AT HELLO WORLD: 5 Mentoring Sessions with the Leaders of Tech is her first non-fiction, due out late in 2014. Please visit at http://donasarkar.com or email her atdonasarkar@gmail.com