Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Geek Girl Tech Con - Getting Out There and Doing It

As I wrote in my last post, there were 13 different simultaneous events going on at any one time for most of the day during the San Diego Geek Girl Tech Con. There was of course the Sharkette Tank, (see that last post), but also a slew of workshops, a Hackfest, the Vendor Marketplace, Demos, and a few other interesting odds and end (which I'll get to shortly).
The Technical Help Desk At the Ready

Workshops were what most people were after and the number and variety of them was staggering. At any given time there were on average 10 workshops, changing every hour on the hour. They ranged from beginning technical topics (e.g. HTML and CSS for Beginners) to intermediate (e.g. JavaScript) to advanced (e.g. Programming with Python III). There were also workshops to help advance your career such as Resumes 101: Leverage Your Strengths to Land the Job and Job Seekers: Learn the Secrets to Being Discovered by Recruiters, and for running your business such as How to Write About Your Business Online and Social Media Analytics: Yes, they Really are Important.  As I staffed my post at the T-Shirt table in the main lobby, more than one attendee lamented to me (while picking out their spiffy T-shirt) they were having a really hard time deciding where to go!

Despite my best intentions (and the lure of the Sharkette Tank) I didn't make it to any of the workshops, but I did visit the Hackfest where I had an interesting experience. The Hackfest was a drop in as you like event with people popping in and out all day. Teacher/tutor/speakers addressed various coding topics. During the afternoon, when I popped in,  there was a large group in the back of the room learning how to create iOS apps. In the front of the room I found June Clark, lead teacher for the "League of Amazing Programmers"*. As there was no one with her at the moment, we compared notes about the importance of providing explicit and ongoing encouragement to girls who might be interested in coding so that they don't feel marginalized. We talked about the research that clearly shows how important events like the Geek Girl Tech Con are for contributing to the creation of an ecosystem where girls will feel empowered to pursue coding.

Just then, two girls came running into the Hackfest room and practically flung themselves into chairs in front of open laptops at our table. Their fingers took off on the keyboard. As I peered over and saw the Java code appearing on the screen, I asked, oh so casually, about their prior programming experience.
Way to Go!

None. Absolutely None. They had come in to the Hackfest room earlier that day, never having coded before and with June's help had learned enough to create simple animated programs - which they proudly showed me. No fancy IDE layered on top of code to do it for them - they wrote their programs line by line in a no frills editor and then ran them. They had enjoyed it so much they were back for more. They barely glanced up to tell me how cool this was. I was momentarily at a loss for words. What a great example of everything June and I had been talking about.

It was hard to beat that experience, but I would be remiss not to mention the fun adults were having at the Con. Next to my T-Shirt distribution table in the lobby was the free headshot station, where attendees could have a formal or not so formal photo taken by professional photographers. On the not so formal side I could have sworn I saw Princess Leia (aka one of the Geek Girl staff) , and two members of Star Fleet (two of the workshop instructors) offering to pose with anyone who wanted to - as many did.
Live Long and Prosper Geek Girls

All in all, the Con was a nicely balanced blend of high energy learning and fun. If the Mission, as Geek Girl Tech Con founder Leslie Fishlock said in her opening remarks, is to get more girls into tech, what I observed all day is that things are moving in a good direction. But we have a long way to go, as anyone in the tech world knows. We have to keep on working to build that equitable ecosystem.

Leslie also said that it's about doing it; taking the time to get out there and do it. Geek Girl is more than a conference; they have a Meetup (San Diego incarnation here) and do a variety of activities throughout the year and around the country. Hopefully the momentum generated by this day will keep those girl's and women's fingers coding joyfully.

*June told me the organization has been known as Wintriss Tech, and is in the process of transitioning to the new name and a new URL (although not functional as I write,  the new URL will be jointheleague.org) 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Geek Girl Tech Con - View into the Sharkette Tank

San Diego Geek Girl Tech Con took place on Saturday and as predicted I wished I'd had a clone so that I could be in half a dozen places at once. The scope of activities was impressive: 13 (yes, 13) simultaneous workshops, speakers and events going on most of the day from 9am-6pm. Energy was high and people seemed thrilled with the opportunity to dive into such a diverse and supportive environment. For those still standing at the end of the day (which many were) there was a lively outdoor reception. Minus a clone, I nonetheless had some amazing experiences; I decided to focus much of my time on entrepreneurial sessions. So in this first post about the Con, I'm sharing observations and insights of the Sharkette Tank.
Sharkette Tank Judges

There were three sessions of the Sharkette Tank, which was made up of a panel of 5-6 judges and 10 local start-up companies making their best pitches to promote their business. With my bird's-eye view from the audience, it was a fascinating opportunity to watch everyone. Some of the product and service ideas were brilliant. In addition, the Sharkette Tank provided a great learning opportunity for anyone thinking of jumping into the start-up world. With that in mind, here are some take home messages.

- Focus, focus, focus. The judges, always polite (unlike their counterparts on network television who can be scathing), suggested more than once that a company was trying to solve too many problems, or trying to solve a big problem before nailing down their core solution to a targeted customer pain point. This can be easier said than done of course, because having vision and a passion to scale impact is what gets entrepreneurs up in the morning. Lose that passion and you lose your reason for existence.
This pitch left no stone unturned

- Distribution Strategy? Quite a few companies received feedback that they had a great product or product idea, but didn't have a concrete, viable plan to get it out there to the people who would want it. In a related vein, had they done a solid test of their idea in the target market? This is another tough issue. It's easy to fall into a "build it and they will come" mentality. Especially when you think, you know, that your product or service is the next best thing since sliced bread. Besides, the leg work necessary to gain a foot hold in competitive markets isn't exciting (to most people).

Which brings me to my next observation:

- Who is missing from the team? A few teams were told that they were lacking a key principle person in some area (e.g. technical, marketing). Companies that want to make an impact, that want to scale, can't be companies of one. Now, here is something really cool I learned about later on when I was having a conversation with one of the judges: Founder Dating. Connecting entrepreneurs with other entrepreneurs. Kudos to the people who came up with this idea!
Bet you can guess what this company is about

- Presentation matters. The best presentations grabbed the judges in the first few seconds and kept them interested and engaged throughout. The bottom line message was "Show Me, Don't Tell Me". It is much more effective to demonstrate your product or service in some way, rather than simply talk about how wonderful it is. You could tell by watching the judges' facial expressions and body language if they were intrigued. Long before you got to the Q&A where the nature of their feedback removed all doubt. You could also get a second read on this by looking around at the audience. When a company was really kicking butt, no one was on their cell phone or chatting with their neighbor.

The judges' favorites included Packsack, a new twist on reusable bags, inspired by observations about plastic on the beach by the surfer founder. This is Southern California! Another favorite was Giftovus, an interesting way to crowd source gift buying and giving. They call it, appropriately, "friend sourcing".

The judges' (and my) hands down favorite was USKey*, who are prototyping an ingenious way to prevent laptop theft. As the two college student presenters noted in the first few seconds of their presentation: don't you just hate it when you get settled into a coffee shop or other public place, with all your stuff spread out and your computer set up, and only then discover you have to go to the bathroom? I think everyone in the auditorium, including the judges, could relate to that scenario. I'm rooting for these two women and their company big time.

From my pov, everyone won. Everyone who pitched in the Sharkette Tank received valuable feedback about the content and style of their presentation as well as about their product plan and trajectory. The audience had the chance to observe first hand what a pitch can look like and what works or doesn't work.

The judges generously donated their time and experience to the community through this event. It didn't stop there because they were accessible all day. I was not the only one who had enjoyable and professionally helpful conversations with them.

Meeting new people and learning new things was happening every where at Geek Girl Tech Con. In my next post, I'll share some of the other goings on at the Con.
Just a few of the Sharkette Tank Entrepreneurs

*As far as I can tell, they don't yet have a website.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Bounding Along Towards Geek Girl Tech Con

Warming up my best shoes for the Con

Approximately 10 days from now I'll be writing you about the San Diego Geek Girl Tech Con. I'll be zipping around here and there, helping out as a Volunteer, and taking lots of notes for you. I suppose I just might send out a Tweet or two along the way (get your devices ready to receive). In perusing the latest conference schedule updates I find myself hopping up and down enough that I want to share a small preview. Cool stuff is more cool when it is shared; besides which, I'd rather you were forewarned and had the opportunity to think about signing up rather than hearing about it only after the fact and banging your head on the wall with regret.

First of all, looooook at all the cool women speaking and presenting. I mean oy! I may need a clone or two of myself, because when I mentally take that picturesque 2D matrix and overlay it with the array of workshops (from programming through UX and design to entrepreneurship) I realize that I face a looming temporal  anomaly.

Coder alert: Yes, there will be a hackfest. Just in case you were wondering. The last female hackathon I attended was so much fun to watch that I'm pondering whether I'd prefer to be there, or OR OR OR

AT THE SHARKETTE TANK PITCHFEST!!!!!!!!!!!! I can't begin to tell you how psyched I am about this. "Default Font" just doesn't carry the communicative weight of emotive body language. Ever since last Fall when a good friend of mine and woman start-up founder up in the Bay Area told me I should check out Shark Tank on TV, I have been hooked on the idea. Even more so here because of the focus on tech girls and women entrepreneurs.

So yeah, this is serious business. There are going to be more techie girls and women in one place than I've seen in a very long time. There are going to be years of wisdom and experience to network your happy way through and along. Techie stuff to learn. Fascinating people to meet and speak with, share ideas and plot and plan. I love to plot and plan.

This conference (did I mention the date: June 21) is bound to be mind blowing and transformative. How can I be so very confident about that? The very first time I went to a women in computing conference oh so many years ago, (I cut my geeky girl teeth at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing),  I was blown out of the water by the vibe that emerges when you have technical women congregating en masse. I was also blown out of the water the second time. The third time. The fourth time. (instantiate While (TRUE) loop)

I expect no less this time. So I hope that many of my women tech friends and colleagues will attend. Especially, especially if you are already here in the San Diego area. For those of you living in the nether reaches of the universe I'll be writing something to fill you in on whichever portions of the day I manage to teleport myself in and out of.