In a year of digital experimentation and virtual adaptation, the Society of Women Engineers’ conference coordinators took on a challenge like no other: Maintain the networking, career, and professional development opportunities we have come to associate with the annual conference — and do it all virtually.
By SWE Editorial Board Members
Sandra Hyland, Ph.D., F.SWE
SWE President Heather Doty introduced keynote speakers and facilitated Q&A sessions following the presentations during WE20.
Although members did miss out on some of the in-person experiences they have grown accustomed to, WE20 offered several new features that delighted first-timers and longtime attendees alike, both collegians and professionals.
As a collegian, traveling to the annual conference is a big deal. The promise of landing your first internship at the career fair alone makes it a worthy investment. However, that doesn’t remove the stress associated with scraping together funds and budgeting for travel in the midst of tuition and other university expenses. With the accessibility of a virtual WE20, students across the globe had an opportunity that may have otherwise been out of reach. As a result, more than 7,200 collegians were able to attend.
At WE19, Friday morning keynote speaker Rachel Hutter, P.E., senior vice president for international facilities operations and worldwide safety, health, and engineering for Walt Disney Parks, shared stories of her career path and provided a salute to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the company’s new facility.
The all-day, “all-in” nature of SWE’s prior, in-person conferences meant that collegians and professionals had to pause other obligations and dedicate their undivided attention toward SWE. In fact, many longtime attendees have made it a tradition to plan annual vacations around the conference’s location. With the virtual model, it was more difficult to disengage from work or prioritize conference sessions in the middle of a hectic workday.
The fact that the sessions were recorded and made available for a full year, however, gave attendees the opportunity to get creative. Some sections scheduled virtual watch parties, and those who couldn’t make time during the conference found their holiday break to be the perfect time to dive in fully. Instead of having to choose between two concurrent sessions, miss a session in favor of an interview, or be turned away from a session that was already at capacity, attendees could participate in every single session if they wanted to. This flexibility ultimately resulted in more than 71,000 views of WE20 sessions. What’s more, having content available after the presentations made taking notes and reviewing insights from the sessions much easier.
From a speaker’s perspective, delivering content on a digital-only platform was a first-time experience even for seasoned presenters. While gauging the “energy in the room” was nearly impossible, the chat feature allowed members of the audience to interact with the speaker at any time and as often as they wanted. Thanks to the exceptional SWE moderators, Q&A could flow in the direction of the most popular incoming topics, instead of being driven by a handful of attendees brave enough to ask their questions over the in-room mic.
The conference career fair is known for hosting hundreds of companies and providing thousands of open opportunities. With more than 280 virtual booths, the WE20 career fair was no exception!
While leaving a memorable impression and conveying enthusiasm within the confines of a 10-inch window can be challenging for job seekers, companies were able to involve some 2,800 employees, recruiters, and hiring managers due to the ease of setting aside a couple of hours to virtually screen and interview candidates. While some attendees joked about missing out on the free swag, we can’t deny that virtual swag is the more environmentally friendly option. And, of course, there is one aspect that no one missed: the blisters that come from walking miles of convention grounds in professional shoes!
Organic networking and celebratory banquets were perhaps the most difficult to replicate. Spontaneous hallway interactions and open-invite luncheons weren’t possible, and there wasn’t that same feeling of “session camaraderie” that comes from chatting with fellow attendees before the start of a highly anticipated session. The excitement of dressing up with friends, enjoying dinner and live entertainment, and applauding wildly for friends being honored by the Society simply couldn’t be matched online. The ability to digitally interact with award recipients on the conference platform, however, was a nice touch, resulting in 7,500 visitors to the virtual Awards Hall and more than 2,700 congratulatory comments.
At the end of the day, 18,825 attendees were able to benefit from the virtual conference. While there is no doubt that members are looking forward to their next chance to connect in person, we hope to see many of these new digital features here to stay in future conferences. One thing is for sure, we are looking forward to a fantastic WE21!
Sarvenaz Myslicki has been an avid SWE member for more than 10 years. She has held leadership positions at the section and Society levels and currently serves as chair-elect of the editorial board. A vice president of engineering with American Express, she holds a B.S. and M.S. in computer science, as well as an executive MBA.
Sandra Hyland, Ph.D., F.SWE, has degrees in electrical engineering and materials science, including a B.S. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, an M.S. from Rutgers, and a Ph.D. from Cornell University. She works for the Northrop Grumman Corporation at the individual contributor level, playing the role of “semiconductor detective” for the Advanced Technology Laboratory in Linthicum, Maryland. A SWE life member and Fellow, Dr. Hyland has held numerous SWE section- and region-level offices, and has served on Society-level committees. She is currently on the editorial board and a member of SWE’s ethics committee.