Thursday, 18 June 2015

InspireFest Day 1

Conferences are essentially events wherein several lifetimes worth of thoughts and experiences and ideas are shared over the course of a day. As such, they are both inspiring and exceedingly tiring. Today I heard from astrophysicists, serial entrepreneurs, a Vice-President and a CEO of companies worth billions, historians, coders and more. I met tons of Twitter friends in real life for the first time, was interviewed for Ireland's leading tech news site, got free stuff and received a dubious broccoli lunch. 

Back to chronological order. 


For the few weeks leading up to InspireFest, I'd been seeing a lot about it on Twitter and feeling jealous that I couldn't affort the hundreds of euro it would take to go. Then, a week or so ago, I was fortunate enough to be given Digital Youth Council tickets courtesy of the wonderful Harry McCann and Silicon Republic. Bam, going. Summer starting to shape up.

Days ago

I received my digital ticket and mentally squealed a little upon seeing "DYC" under my name. 

08:35 today

My train left Drogheda en route to Pearse Station.


I disembarked from the train and began making my way from Pearse Station to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. I started off very well, but did have to ask directions twice.


I arrived at the BGET. It was a big relief to see the building after getting lost. I was slightly late and had missed the coffee/tea, but nevertheless registered and got my lanyard and wristband. Lanyard, great; wristband, itchy and impossible to get off. 

10.04 (approx)

I walked in on a talk about the female codebreakers at Bletchely Park (this was a session about the history of women in tech). The historian focused on three women called Margaret, Mavis and Joan and you should check out if you want to see more. 

Then there was another historian on a similar topic, about six women who programmed ENIAC, the first wholly electronic computer. I got one of their names - Jean Jennings Bartik. The historian, Kathy Kleiman, said when she first saw a photo of the women working someone told her they were just models. But it turns out they were the first programmers, creating the first sort routine and first software application (for UNIVAC 1). I loved her passion for history, it was infectious. Even though I normally hate studying history, this was awesome. She also showed us a snippet of a documentary that had its Irish premiere at the InspireFest Fringe Festival tonight with the women talking about their experience. Really cool. 

Favourite quote, said by one of the programmers - "The ENIAC was a son of a bitch to program."

The last historian was Dr. Nina Ansary, an Iranian woman who's written a book called The Jewels of Allah. She played a video about the amazing and underacknowledged achievements of Iranian women, although I disliked the shock tactic the video used since it made no sense ("I'm actually a woman"). I was pretty impressed by the women she mentioned, e.g. Dr. Pardis Sabati (renowned computation geneticist and rockstar), Anousheh Ansari (astronaut), Parisa Tabriz ("Google's security Princess'). 

I did get quite uncomfortable during this talk, though, because she kept saying "first female Iranian to achieve..." and it seems like a very diluted achievement when you phrase it that way. I mean, I'm sure I'm the first Irish 16-year-old girl to win x, but when you dilute it that far who cares?

Anyway, good talk and she was very articulate. 

Lessons in Leadership

I loved this session. Like I said, History isn't really my thing, so while I quite enjoyed the first session it was down to the abilities of the speakers. In this session, a global Vice-President at Intel, the CEO of Ixia (a public company with a worth of half a billion dollars) and the former advisor to Hillary Clinton spoke. Margaret Burgraff, Bethany Mayer, Shelly Porges. All awesome and very inspiring. 

Margaret worked at Apple in Cork, then Apple in Silicon Valley, then Intel. She believes "fake it til you make it" doesn't work in leadership, and that self-knowledge and self-awareness are extremely important. She went through some of the strengths of leaders she's known personally, like Steve Jobs (communication) and the leader of Intel (decisiveness). She recommended just sitting down for two hours and writing out an ambitious ten-year-plan ("I want to have sold five companies to Google for $400 billion apiece..."), then scale it down to a five-year-plan, two years, and work out from there what you need to do tomorrow. She said she's the kind of person to look at the monster under the bed, to turn the light on and look at it from every angle when solving problems. You need to be direct, she said: when she was close to being offered a job at Intel, she wanted to say "Yes, I'd love to know more about the position" but made herself say "I want this job. What do I have to do to get it?" She leads with her heart and validates with her head.

Apart from being very pretty and elegant, Margaret was a really good, confident speaker on stage and I really enjoyed her talk.

Bethany (I'm using first names, sorry guys) was also fantastic. I have a page of notes from her keynote (like I do with some of the others), but anyway. She's the CEO and President of Ixia, which is a sort of network quality control company, from what I heard. She's had an amazing career, though it certainly didn't pan out she expected it to (she wanted to be an attorney and ultimately become the first women at the Supreme Court). She's worked at Lockheed, Cisco, Apple, Bluecard, three startups (2 successes), HP and now Ixia. Her advice on navigating the "glass maze" (her idea of the glass ceiling) is as follows:

  • Careers are long, and moves are sometimes sideways
  • You can't rely on a plan (I found the contradiction with Margaret's point here hilarious)
  • Be open and curious 
  • Learn to read a room
  • There are no handouts, be prepared to earn things
  • Leave a company gracefully, no matter what they're like to youDon't follow others into jobs - you're the only one stuck with yourself.
  • The difference between mentors and sponsors is that mentors guide and are usually friendly, while sponsors can be the last person you'd expect and will stick their neck out for you and maybe get you a job, but they might not be warm and fuzzy. 

She said that sometimes in meetings people thought she was a secretary, which was a recurring theme throughout the day. Great keynote, really enjoyed it. 

Shelly Porges

Like I said earlier, Shelly Porges was Hillary Clinton's advisor (she calls her "Secretary Clinton", it's funny) and now fundraises for her. Shelly really worships Hillary, but her enthusiasm was contagious. She talked about what she's learned about leadership from Hillary, and there are some really great quotes.

"Some leaders are born women." 

"Talent is universal, but opportunity is not."

Shelly talked about Marissa Meyer and how she doubled Yahoo's revenue in her first year at the company, Christine Lagarde and the senior advisor to President Obama. It's been estimated, she told us, that we won't have gender parity until 2095. Which is crazy. 

She talked with great admiration about a speech Hillary gave in Beijing saying that "women's rights are human rights" in front of an audience that was both "powerful and potentially threatened by it". Hillary seems to have a good sense of humour, saying her limitless energy comes from "Vitamins." (you had to be there) and that anytime she wants to get a bad news story off the front page of the New York Times she can just change her hairstyle.

Shelly also told us about Hillary's loss in the Democratic elections to Obama (who later elected her to secretary of states). She got 18 million votes and conceded gracefully to Obama, apparently. Obama described her campaign as "valiant" and "historic". 

Hillary focused on empowering women through entrepreneurship, and believes that leaders elevate others. Shelly herself has created 6 startups, 5 successful. 

Women's emancipation is "the unfinished business of the 20th century", we were told, and to finish off with a Hillary quote I agree with:

"I hope we will see a woman president in my lifetime."


There was then a panel with those three plus an Eircom head and the head of DCU (first man on stage). 

Shelly continued to talk about Hillary, saying she's the most experienced candidate ever, which is a fair point. Someone (probably Brian from DCU) said girls want to make a difference in the world, and Shelly concurred, saying girls shouldn't be afraid to go after money first because you can then use that for your mission. We heard that 30% of Coolest Projects from CoderDojo recently were by girls, and that there'll be a huge shortage of data scientists in the future. Margaret said her sister's disabilities (intellectual) have made her a better person (bit icky) and Ann O' Dea asked a lot of questions about imposter syndrome. 


Another panel, this one on the workplace of the future. Sorta got distracted by Twitter. Sorry.

Steve Neff

This guy is the CTO of Fidelity. He talked about diversity and the economic case for it, and about how "diversity is needed for innovation, but innovation is needed for diversity". I'm sure he had that line rehearsed but hey, it worked. 


Lunch, just when I was starving. I felt a bit lonely at first but soon enough found Catrina, who was standing with Edel, to get our free lunch. I know I shouldn't complain about free stuff, but the box was soggy and we had weird gluten-free bread plus broccoli salad that looked weird but tasted okay. There was also the worst drink I've ever had in my life. I'm sure some people like it. 

We sat for a while, Catrina, Edel, Émer, her friend and I, I gave Émer the wifi password and then she disappeared. Catrina and I stayed there and chatted until an editor (Elaine) at Silicon Republic DMed me and asked if I was up for doing an interview. 

Before doing that, we went upstairs (I wanted to try on Google Cardboard) and I saw Aoife from CTYI, which was very exciting. I had a little chat with Harry (McCann), then went down and did the interview. I'm absolutely awful at interviews, but Elaine was very good and - just in case you don't read my Twitter - has great hair. Green!

(I'm going to go through all the Twitter stuff in a separate post, there's enough going into this post already.)

Elaine then interviewed Catrina since she's doing Outbox too, and we did something until we went back into the theatre to hear the next session.

Next Generation

This session made me feel like I think the PhD students at Evolve Biomed felt about me. 

Ten-year-old Lauren Boyle came on and talked about her journey. She's cute, and did very well. I haven't checked out her websites, but I should. I wonder what she'll think of her childhood when she's older - it's been very unusual. Then Émer came on, played a video from Ciara (who couldn't come because she's at the MIT incubator) and spoke about their new company Germinaid. Very short, like Lauren's. There was then a panel I loved (didn't want it to end), with those two and Anne-Marie Imafidon, who's head Stemette and part of the Outbox team.

This made me so excited for Outbox. She talked about some stuff we'd be doing and said Microsoft is giving us free laptops for the duration of our time there, that the house has like a dozen bedrooms, that we'll be going somewhere with wall-to-wall trampolines, that the Salesforce foundation paid for all our food (which we're assured will be awesome), accommodation and flights. So awesome. I'm going to talk to Anne-Marie tomorrow, it'll be great. 

I know I said I'll do the Twitter stuff separately, but just look at these Tweets I got around this time:

Look at that! There's a Tweet about me on the national Twitter account! Which, yes, is currently being run by a Silicon Republic editor. Then there was a Tweet from this guy I don't know which was lovely - but I really want to know where it came from because he just randomly posted it.

This Tweet is cool too (I'm done now I swear).
I hadn't heard about the next session, and it was a lovely surprise. Famed space journalist Leo Enright had us watch Pluto rotate, then Chris Hadfield singing Space Oddity aboard the USS, then introduced awesome people in turn.

 We had Ariel Waldman of, a NASA contractor working on the problem of space debris who wrote a book called "It's only rocket science", the creator of Mission Critical apparatus for the Philae-Rosetta mission and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered pulsars and is one of the reasons I wanted to attend InspireFest in the first place. 

Ariel Waldman was delightful. She trained in graphic design, then one day geeked out at a Discovery Channel space documentary and emailed NASA saying she was there if they wanted her. Her reasoning was "I don't know anything about space exploration. I wanna get a job at NASA." And she got a job there! She left after a while to make, which has loads of ways for civilians to get involved in space research. 

The author of "It's only rocket science" said NASA let her do whatever she wants as long as it has the potential to positively affect the lives of at least a billion people. She also gave a fascinating talk on space debris - there are millions of pieces by this point, as if we put more than 20 of them there every day since Sputnik. 

Susan McKenna Lawlor then came on, and she is really awesome. She took us through the science of Philae's landing on the comet 67P. I really admire her knowledge. Also, in the panel at the end she proposed that Ireland create a space race - if that really happens, it's going to be really cool to have been there when it was first aired. She said it should only cost about €5 million. 

And then Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell - where do I even start? I'm still fangirling right now. She went through the details of how she discovered pulsars and it was just fascinating, I really think it could make a great movie. The talk was also heartbreaking - she went through an insane amount of prejudice as a young girl who wanted to do physics sixty years ago, it was absolutely horrific. Not just from men, but from women too - she said "Young women were meant to get engaged and married, not to make major astrophysical discoveries." Add to that pervy photographers who asked her to button down her top while she reported her discovery, a school that didn't trust her to do physics, the one computer at Cambridge, which she couldn't access, and it's a wonder she's done what she has.

I'm honestly just so impressed. I tried to find her afterwards for a picture/autograph but couldn't. She's incredibly inspiring.


We left the theatre and stood chatting to people for a bit (and getting sweets from Intel, thanks Intel). Lauren Boyle's mother came up to me and said she'd read my blog post where I talked about how some people in my school go on about me winning things and said that I should just ignore them and rise above, and that Lauren had felt the same or something. It was really lovely to hear, so thank you. Nice to know people read my blog too!

Catrina and her mother then walked me back to Pearse station, and now I'm here in bed. If Silicon Republic want me to write about my experience at InspireFest (over the two days probably), let me know because there'll be a lot of shortening to do.

See you all tomorrow. 

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