This morning I had the great pleasure of meeting two mentees from a State Department program called TechWomen that pairs future female technology leaders from Africa and the Middle East with American corporations. Our team is mentoring a young lady from Nigeria and a young lady from Jordan. Mentoring short term interns is very challenging but also very rewarding. One of the proudest moments of my professional career was when I mentored a summer physics intern and his research project was selected for presentation at the Division of Nuclear Physics conference in Hawaii. Unfortunately, I did not get a free trip to see the poster presented! For TechWomen, we have the mentees working on two projects that we had planned, one around optimization of email campaigns, and one around using machine learning to evaluate the quality of job descriptions. For this program it is unimportant whether the specific project is a success – I hope that we can show them the process by which we are able to innovate, and hope they take at least one lesson learned back to their home countries (or, better yet, come back to work here when they graduate).
Next up was a lunch with a former colleague who recently joined LinkedIn. The workplace has changed, and people are not with a company for life. LinkedIn is part of this change – we aim to be the place where you can maintain your professional identity and nurture your professional relationships online. Nothing, however, is more important than meeting in person. No matter how busy you think you are, keeping up with your network in person needs to be high priority.
After lunch, I attended that ACM conference on Recommender Systems. The conference is being held in Foster City, a city which I know well since I delivered pizzas there when I was a teenager (this was before GPS, and Foster City is a very confusing place). The topics of the afternoon were novel recommender systems, the cold start problem (how to recommend new items or recommend items to new users), and how to identify people trying to manipulate recommender systems. The quality of the talks was superb. I had never been to this particular conference so the topics were very interesting to me.
After the conference, we gathered at the bar to celebrate the birthday of my manager. He asked a very provocative question – what, if anything, is the value of these conferences? For me, the answer is clear. We work day to day on the same problems with a fairly static group of people. Even though everyone I work with is brilliant, there is always a tendency towards groupthink. At conferences, I often see new ideas or am reminded of old ideas that inspire me to work better. Often, it is just a passing statement by the speaker that causes me to start looking at my work in a new light. At least for me, I need to spend some time geeking out on cool work that other people are doing. Of course, there is a fine line between recharging the mental batteries (attending an occasional conference or technical talk) and being a permanent student (always learning, never doing anything concrete).
At the coffee break, I saw someone who looked very familiar. This was an interesting experience. I walked up to this person and we tried to figure out how we knew each other. We ran through former employers, conferences, and meetups. We gave up. During the session, however, I realize that I was engaging in situational bias. Figuring that both of us work on recommender systems, I assumed that we had met professionally, but I realized later that our relationship was different – we had kids at the same school and knew each other in that context. We had barely spoken before, but now we have two reasons to be friends!