Facing Forward: Smartsheet at Grace Hopper

Published on 01 November 2017

Early in October, nearly 20,000 women gathered in Orlando, Florida to support, inspire and share their professional journeys at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Started in 1994 by Anita Borg and Telle Whitney, the conference has grown to be the world's largest gathering of women technologists. Smartsheet supported this year's event in full force: sending 17 women from our Engineering organization as well as contributing financially as a Gold Sponsor.

As to why Smartsheet invested so heavily in the event, Lada Gorlenko, Director of User Research, said it best, "we were on a mission to educate our peers about our company, attract great engineers, and gently intimidate our competitors with our awesomeness."

That awesomeness was felt through the comments received from fellow conference goers, when they found out our team was from Smartsheet.

Lada heard the following from a team lead at Cisco, who came up to her on the first day and told her, "Folks, you don't even realize it, but I run the entire Cisco presence at this event in Smartsheet. All my planning for GHC, all recruiting for the conference, everything--all in Smartsheet."

Those sentiments were shared by the many customers who came by the Smartsheet booth on the expo floor.

"I ran our booth and spent the entire three days talking to young women who are looking for internships or entry-level software engineering positions," said Katie Wilber, Lead Senior Recruiter. "I also really enjoyed how many of our customers casually dropped by and said, 'I LOVE Smartsheet!'"

The conference format was made up of a combination of technical and career-based sessions. 650 presenters spoke on a variety of topics. For Susan Galbraith, Lead Software Engineer, some of the highlights were the keynotes by Fei Fei Li and Melinda Gates.

Susan, who admits that she has struggled professionally with asking for help, felt supported enough in the Senior Women's program to take that risk and ask for help from the panel.

"I got amazing feedback and a round of applause," said Susan. "Later on, women came up to say they'd had similar experiences and gave some suggestions."

Taking the risk to ask that question, and the positive response she received, helped Susan realize that she wasn't alone. There was a room full of women who felt the same way. The experience made her realize that she should speak up more often.

"Speaking up about something I'm struggling with helped me feel less alone, others have the same issue and the feedback was really useful," said Susan. "I struggle with asking for help, so this was a great example that I need to do it more!  My voice deserves to be heard, just like anyone else's."

Mariska Calabrese, Systems Administrator, was most impacted by attending a panel called, "Am I My Own Worst Critic?"  

"I was expecting that this panel would address things like perfectionism and stress about personal performance," said Mariska. "And while it did, it also addressed some common situations that women encounter in male-dominated fields and specifically worrying about our visceral reactions to them."

In addition to drawing inspiration from the conference sessions and tens of thousands of other attendees, traveling as a subsection of Smartsheet employees gave this group of women from different teams a chance to connect with one another.

At the beginning of the conference Lada and Jeilymar Brady, UX Researcher,  made dinner for everyone in the group. The small act made a big impact on their co-workers, especially Mariska who works nights and doesn't get to interact with many of her daylight-working Smartsheet colleagues.

"I have no immediate coworkers that are female," said Mariska, "and I work graveyards which can be isolating as well. So this opportunity to get to meet and form relationships with a whole group of astoundingly clever women was priceless for me.

"The fact that two coworkers that I have had zero facetime with, nor had I even met, were willing to take a chance on me and extend their hospitality is exactly why I started working at Smartsheet. The culture that I felt so confident about joining had given back in a way that made me feel like I suddenly belonged to a larger family of genuine individuals."

While bonding together as women and "Smartians" was immensely worthwhile, Lada hopes for a day when conferences like Grace Hopper will no longer be needed.

"The Grace Hopper Celebration of women in tech is a fantastic event," said Lada. "It's been growing since 1994 and the growth reflects its success.

"But growth is not the goal. The ultimate goal of any organization supporting minorities should be getting out of business when its success eliminates the very need for its existence. I hope that in 20 years, women entering technical careers will look at us quizzically: What was the fuss about women in computing? Why did they need special treatment? I hope they will take their success for granted.

"Dear Grace Hopper Celebration. I love you, and I wish that you become irrelevant in my lifetime."