Wednesday Opening Keynotes – Virginia Rommetty

Dr. Sweeney’s inspiring talk (more here) was followed by the 2016 Technical Leadership ABIE Award presentation – to Dr. Anna Patterson, VP of Engineering, Artificial Intelligence at Google. Dr. Patterson’s acceptance speech was full of amusing little anecdotes (for example, how she had to manually toggle bits to debug at her first job, working on planes – debugging and IDEs have come a long way since then!), but perhaps one of the most touching moments was when she paid tribute to her grandmothers and great-grandmother for being women leaders in their own right, showing her great-grandmother’s poll tax receipts from voting.

Right after Dr. Patterson’s speech was the Top Companies for Women Technologists award presentation. Top Companies is a program that was started by that is the only data-driven benchmark for the technical workforce and shows which companies provide the most women-friendly work environments. This year, 60 companies participated in the program and are divided into one of two categories – change alliance and leadership index companies. The main things that distinguishes leadership index companies (ie, the best places for women to work at) from others are their flex time policies,  formal leadership development programs for women, and formal gender diversity training for all employees. Also, this year’s findings reveal that women now hold about 21.7% of technical jobs, up 0.9% from 2015. This year’s award went to ThoughtWorks.

The keynote ended with a talk by Virginia Rometty, CEO and President of IBM. She started off by talking about what she believes is the biggest natural resource of the present – data. Not only has 90% of all the data out in the world today been created just in the past 2 years, 80% of it is unstructured. Ms. Rometty believes that over the next 5 years, systems that learn using data are going to be increasingly important in the tech world. Given that, IBM is investing a great deal of its resources in the Watson systems, and already, has partnered with healthcare firms like Quest Diagnostics in an effort to find oncology patients the best treatment possible.

Ms. Rometty also shared several anecdotes from her own life that led her to where she is today. She explained that her mother was perhaps the single biggest influence in her life, inspiring by example. Ms. Rometty’s mother was a single mother in the 60s, a difficult situation back then, and even went back to school while working on a night job in order to take care of Ms. Rometty and her siblings. She also mentioned that she derived huge support from her husband. Early on in her career, Ms. Rometty was offered a job opportunity that rather overwhelmed her, coming, as it did, “too early”. She was inclined to walk away in the belief that she needed more time and experience to gain the necessary skills. It was her husband, however, who pointed out to her that this was something a man would never have felt had the same opportunity been offered him, and urged Ms. Rometty to take the job on. Since then, she has never looked back :-). The biggest take-away from that anecdote is that growth and comfort never co-exist. So even if you are attacked by the “imposter syndrome”, which women frequently are, take big challenges on and learn from them. Another life-lesson that she shared was that it is important to work on something that you are passionate about, and that you believe is bigger than yourself.

Ms. Rometty ended the talk by inviting on stage three inspiring women from IBM, who have become leaders in their field and juggle multiple responsibilities Their advice to women – work on things that excite you, and always appreciate the people around you for everything they do.