European Women in Technology

European Women in Technology

The European Women in Technology conference, that took place in Amsterdam on November 8th and 9th is the latest conference in the WinTechSeries by Maddox events. Its goal is to stimulate the technology sector to act on gender diversity, to share experiences and to develop women’s skills. This was my first conference and an overall amazing experience, and I was especially proud to accompany my colleague Simone Janssen who was invited to give a talk on blockchain. From inspiring life stories and career journeys of successful women in IT to innovative data science solutions and stimulating questions; here are my highlights.

inspire me

Across the two days and four rooms, there were talks for every woman and for every subject of interest. The “Inspire me” track held in the main hall hosted accomplished female speakers from IBM, Microsoft, Uber, ING and other technology titans; all sharing their stories in the context of diversity, inclusion and success. For example, “Finding your passion” by Amazon’s Kim Murphy was one of the presentations when time flew by as she went over every time she has uprooted her life and moved to another corner of the world for a challenging opportunity. She made starting over to seem like more of a hobby than a worst-case scenario.

Inclusion starts with I, and I want to go where I am invited and stay where I am included. - Dr. Cara Antoine, Microsoft

That’s who I want to be when I grow up

And most talks followed the same pattern: they had a take-home message meant to change the way you view the tech world. However, I think some of the more inspiring moments happened outside the presentations; the sort of experiences you can only get by actually being at such a conference rather than watching a video online.

Things like the morning of the second day when the waiting room of the hotel was filled with women on their laptops or phones: on window frames, in a corner on the floor or leaning on the walls, they were all getting updates from their companies or giving out the last set of instructions on ongoing business. Seeing that dedication and drive was a true “That’s who I want to be when I grow up” moment.

the busiest seminar

Another highlight was having to sit on the floor in the back of a crowded room with someone’s legs dangling next to my head from the bench they were sitting on behind me. And that was because it seemed like every woman present wanted to get in on Kayleigh Rix’s “Afraid of being found out” seminar. It was eye-opening to see that almost everyone who saw “impostor syndrome” on the description of the talk identified with the sentiment. While I was aware before that this is an experience that mostly “high-achieving women” go through, it was refreshing to actually see women all gathered in the same room, each with a more impressive story and yet all having the same doubts.

Just stop expecting yourself to remain in a constant state of extreme brilliance. Instead, strive to feel comfortable with being fabulously adequate. – Valerie Young

The Tech track

It felt like a good moment to be the data scientist at the conference. By switching between the two tracks it was possible to have a full data science & AI path through the two days. Some were beginner’s walkthroughs to topics like machine learning or chatbots, and some offered by the tech track were more specific presentations on relevant and current topics.

An overarching theme that I think brought together most of these presentations was questioning privacy. Yoni Linden, a Maastricht University alumnus, presented her findings on the way people perceive and value privacy in respect to personalization. Would they be willing to “pay” for personalized solutions with their data? Does that change depending on how informed they are about such a “transaction”?

Pay with your data as you would with your money. – Yoni Linden, Capgemini

Privacy and trust

Most assistant services or predictors nowadays need user information to perform well: the tone and patterns of voice for language understanding, the shopping habits for generating personalized offers, sleeping times and heart rhythm for health improvement suggestions to name a few. By having this process not be entirely transparent very often users share more information than they realize, or that they would agree with when given the choice. Most of the time this data is anonymized and/or encrypted, not to mention the benefits of collecting it for the user far outweigh the drawbacks. Which is why I think helping the users understand the process can only be helpful; the unknown is scary, what you can grasp is not.

AI that respects your privacy

A possible, if not an extreme solution for this come from Alice Coucke’s talk on “Building an AI that respects your privacy”: home assistant devices that never go online during use. The Paris based company she spoke for, Snips, offers voice assistants that can be run on raspberry PIs or other devices that have specific functions such as answering questions about weather and traffic or playing songs and starting alarms. By training the model extensively before release Snips ensures that the device is “smart from the start” and therefore never needs to send data back to the server to be re-trained. Thus, if there never is any user data going to the server this means complete privacy, making it a lot easier to comply with new regulations such as GDPR.

never get into cars with strangers

Similarly, the introduction to Simone’s presentation about blockchain also adds to this theme. She remembers the time as a child when parents told us to never get into cars with strangers and most definitely never go to a stranger’s house by yourself. And yet today we pay Uber and Airbnb to do just that. This also speaks to the way our perception of trust has changed – trust in strangers or trust in the technology that tells us those strangers are “safe”. And this assurance is also based on data – people are more likely to trust online personas that offer more information about themselves such as their profile picture, date of birth or family situation.

These are just a few ideas that add to the general question on where the balance can be found between performance and the comfort of security.

The European Women in Technology 2018 will also be at the RAI hotel in Amsterdam next year.