My journey in Technology by Elif Akeli

This month, we are hosting Elif Akeli, who is a PhD student at Istanbul Technical University
(ITU), Turkey. Read about Elif’s journey in computing so far and the amazing experience she
had at womENcourage 2019 in Rome.

Hello! I am Elif, a computer engineering PhD student at Istanbul Technical University (ITU), Turkey. Since I was in high school, I dedicated my time to computing. I am grateful to share my journey on this path, especially with ACM womENcourage contribution. So let’s start!

I started my professional journey six years ago. During this time I have worked as both a software developer and a member of the academic staff at the university. I have been fortunate to have a taste of both career paths: industry and academic. Being in computer science I noticed that the way I think in everyday life is highly influenced by algorithms. For example, even in simple decisions that I have to take daily, my mind will create a search tree, with logic gates and sequences to get to an answer or a choice.

Currently I am a research and teaching assistant at ITU, in the area of data-driven computer networks. I believe this is a hot topic in the networks area, in which machine learning algorithms plays an important role. From the research perspective, I feel engaged and absorbed when reading a new publication or testing a new algorithm. Doing research fulfills me. On the other hand, from the teaching assistant perspective, I enjoy working with students who come with creative ideas and different points of view, for instance, about a specific algorithm. I also like to see how my contribution helps them grow and broaden their knowledge.

Each profession has indisputably its own value. In my opinion an engineer is creating things that in today’s dynamics are essential to the core of our society. I think that an important aspect of computer engineering and computer science nowadays is computer communication. The computer communication research is focused on developing a model that provides high-quality access through the Internet for the end users. The end users can be even computing machines that need to communicate with each other to share information. Technologies are constantly evolving to enable a fast and efficient communication, making use of the latest research findings in machine learning and deep learning. Many things are still waiting to be discovered, so join me in researching on this topic!

Being a woman in computing
Honestly, I did not encounter much difficulty due to being a woman in my profession. I believe that most of the difficulties come from within ourselves, and are highly related to how we perceive other people’s behaviors in relation to us. I do not want to say that there is no problem at all with gender imbalance in computing, but I think that self-confidence is a key factor. We should stop comparing ourselves with our male counterparts and keep going following our goals.

ACM womENcourage is the perfect place where gathers many qualified people (mainly women) and professions together. There are several informative talks, workshops and social meetings. There are a lot of people to meet, many panels to attend and competitions to win! Let me share a few things about the awesome time I had at ACM womENcourage in September 2019 in Rome. The weather was nice, neither hot nor cold, and the location was amazing. Rome always has something to offer.

My participation was funded by a hackathon scholarship program that provided accommodation, conference registration and 1-year ACM student membership. This is a super cool opportunity for students at the beginning of their career.

This year’s Hackathon had four challenging topics: Circular Economy, Enabling Sustainable Cities though Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence and Welfare, and finally Work-life Balance and Smart Working. Each challenge had its own great prizes for the first place winners. The atmosphere is not stressful, everyone is so kind and friendly, so do not be afraid to attend one Hackathon in the future. You do not have to produce complex software, just think about the problem given, design a solution model and trust your team. You have one working day to prepare your presentation like all the other teams. So being simple and clear are the key factors for success in the Hackathon. Also, don’t forget to have fun!

I participated in the competition for the Artificial Intelligence and Welfare challenge and I had a magnificent team. Teams are randomly created, but beforehand you are asked whether you want to be in a team with a friend or not. We won the first place in our category and believe me, you can do it as well!

The rest of the conference days were full of panels, keynotes and workshops which helped me learn new things. I chose 3 workshops from 9 available and I attended panels and tech talks: ‘Gendering ICT’, ‘Data Science for Society’ and ‘So you believe your software is reliable?’

In the following I will share more details for two of the workshops I attended:

  1. ‘Gendering ICT’ (Information and Communication Technology) covered gender issues and biases for diversity in ICT. Various speakers talked about the diversity problem and presented striking facts. The diversity problem is not just about women; It’s about gender, race and most fundamentally, about power. On the other hand, today’s AI models can be also sexist and racist. In fact, this causes unfair data sets generally. For example, when Google Translate converts a sentence written in Turkish into English, phrases referring to a ‘nurse’ often get translated to female; and ‘doctor’ gets translated to male. Moreover, Nikon cameras interpret Asians as always
    blinking eyes. Or another example, some biased AI models classify black people as basketball players even if they are tennis or football players. Actually, bias is not just in our data sets, it’s in our thoughts. The amazing research, dramatic examples, and speakers’ presentations changed the way I think about diversity.
  2. ‘So you believe your software is reliable?’ was one of the top workshops I enjoyed. The workshop covered the technical parts as well as the conceptual. Three successful and friendly Google engineers gave the introductory lecture about Site Reliability Engineering (SRE). Then, we’ve been asked to implement what they explained on a small project. It was very fulfilling and informative.

I highly recommend both of the workshops if you have a chance to select such topics in the future ACM womENcourage events.

Last but not least, fun and friendship are some of the most crucial aspects of the conferences. Here, you will be a chance to meet with colleagues from all over the world. In fact, there will be great social activities with nice dinner and drinks. I am still texting with my Hackathon team and other friends. Also, you will have a chance to meet qualified professors to discuss with them. Believe me, you don’t want to miss it! I still have memories of all the lunches, dinners and social activities from womENcourage and I often miss them.

Next year, ACM womENcourage will be organized in Baku, Azerbaijan, so get ready to submit your posters! And don’t do like me: I’ve not heard about womENcourage until the last day of the application. On the last day, one of my professors sent me an e-mail about the event, and I immediately applied. I appreciate so much the opportunity that my professor gave me by emailing me that day. Hope to see you soon at the ACM-W Europe events!

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