Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) 2019 Recap

by Rachel Cipkins, Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ

A few weeks ago I had the inspiring experience of attending the annual Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC), the world’s largest gathering of women in technology. Over four days in Orlando, Florida, GHC hosted a slew of workshops and presentations, plus a massive career fair with over 450 vendors (by comparison, Black Hat USA had about 300 vendors this year). The conference attracted over 25,000 attendees from 83+ countries—a mix of women in technology as well as a significant population of male allies. And at a time when still only 25% of computing jobs are held by women, it was encouraging to see GHC garner vast coverage from the technology industry.

As an aspiring security professional, I was also pleased that GHC 2019 had extensive coverage of cybersecurity (at least 15 talks!), even though the conference was not dedicated to it. It was uplifting to represent women in computing from Stevens along with 20 of my peers (half engineering majors and half computer science majors). We took full advantage of the jam-packed conference program, which included highlights like:

  • Keynote speakers focused on the importance of giving women the courage to explore careers in technology.
  • The PitchHER competition, where female entrepreneurs leading early-stage startups compete for prize money.
  • Open Source day, where participants can contribute to open source projects with the goal of making a positive impact on the world.
  • Diversity group meetups for organizations such as Lesbians Who Tech and Black Girls Who Code.
  • 20 workshop tracks scheduled in between events such as Artificial Intelligence, Emerging Technology, and Open Source.

That awesome, unexpected cybersecurity focus

Naturally, I took in as many of the cybersecurity events as I could. I especially appreciated the featured academic presentations from three ACM Award Winning Research in Cybersecurity winners—I highly recommend digging into their research papers:

  • Aisha Ali-Gombe, Towson University, Leveraging Software Instrumentation for Android Security Assessment. Ali-Gombe outlined ways to maliciously use Android security flaws, such as methods for spying on users, privilege escalation, data exploitation, and botnet. She also described her process for combating these threats, which included developing DroidScraper and AspectDroid to eliminate malicious Android use without low-level modification of the OS/framework.
  • Alexandra Dmitrienko, Institute of Information Security, ETH Zurich, Secure Free-Floating Car Sharing For Offline Cars. Free-floating car sharing is efficient, cost effective, and reduces traffic and air pollution. However, it does not support offline cars, and modifications have to be made to the car in order for the service to work. Dmitrienko created a solution that uses RFID chips in off-the-shelf cars to overcome these issues. She also implemented two-factor authentication on mobile platforms for enhanced security.
  • Shagufta Mehnaz, Purdue University, A Fine-Grained Approach for Anomaly Detection in File System Accesses. Mehnaz’ research explored how access control mechanisms cannot always prevent authorized users from misusing or stealing sensitive data. She created fine-grained profiles of file system users, then used these profiles to detect anomalous access to file systems.

I attended most of the Security/Privacy track workshops, which covered all knowledge levels. One of my peers, a third-year doctoral student in cybersecurity research, agreed the workshops covered a wide range of skill levels and presented the problems well, but thought the time constraints (~1 hour) didn’t allow for enough background information to help everyone understand solutions. Still, it was a generous attempt to allow non-technical attendees to benefit as well.

THE place to find female tech talent

GHC is a well-known recruiting ground for women in technology; the conference is scheduled to coincide with the start of the recruiting season for new graduates and summer internships. The career fair spans the duration of the conference and includes companies as well as universities.

One of the most useful things GHC provides is a resume database companies and universities can use to recruit potential candidates before the conference starts. Recruiters can also rent space in the interview hall to host interviews at the conference, and larger companies tend to host private networking events at offsite locations. Almost everyone in my group received an offer from a company they interviewed with, or was contacted to schedule an interview with a company not holding interviews at the conference.

Nearly every company I talked to at the career fair perked up at the mention of cybersecurity. Despite the high demand for security expertise, though, there were few security sponsors. Notable security companies that were recruiting at the conference included MITRE, Red Balloon, and Crowdstrike, but only one of them conducted interviews on-site. Hopefully, we’ll see more security companies at GHC next year.

You want to be there

Attending the Grace Hopper Celebration was an empowering experience for me as a woman in technology and especially as a woman in security. The coverage of cybersecurity-related workshops and talks at GHC is definitely growing, and it has proven to be a great place to recruit female security talent.

It was also just an incredible and unique experience to spend the week surrounded by amazing women. Everyone I spoke to described the energy at the conference as “electric.” My peers and I were able to make new professional connections, learn about new technology trends, and bring back new ideas to the various women in STEM groups at Stevens. We left the conference with a sense of courage to continue to grow our careers in technology and to inspire other women to pursue the same path.

GHC 2020 will be held in Orlando, Florida, Sept. 29–Oct. 2, and it is definitely an event worth considering for both general attendees and sponsors.

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