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‘We lose out on a lot of incredible STEM talent when the barrier is so high’

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Janet Phan, a tech leader at PwC and founder of nonprofit Thriving Elements, explains why good mentors are invaluable to disadvantaged communities.

As the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Janet Phan is certain she wouldn’t be working in tech today without the guidance of mentors.

Now, Phan is an EMEA technology programme leader at PwC and the founder of Thriving Elements, a nonprofit specialising in mentorship for girls from disadvantaged communities.

‘Mentors can make all the difference in a mentee’s life; they sure did for mine’
– JANET PHAN, PWC AND THRIVING ELEMENTS

Why are women from disadvantaged communities often excluded from the tech industry?

Education lays a foundation for vibrant lives for girls and women, their families and their communities. Communities in need lack the access to quality education and resources, such as reliable and affordable broadband and devices to connect to the internet.

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Refugees have the challenge of adapting to a new environment, including culture and language barriers. They may come with a good education in their home country, but it is not recognised in their new country, and thus they are forced to take a job far below their skillset.

A culture still exists that encourages women to stay at home to take care of their partners and children. In addition to communities in need, in a thriving country like Switzerland, expensive childcare results in women staying at home. Those who live in poverty are at risk of not reaching their full potential because their priority is survival.

For a woman who wants to get into tech, this could be near impossible if she isn’t set up for success financially, educationally or without a mentor to guide her. Without mentors creating access and opportunities for me, I wouldn’t have reached mine.

What do you see as the major barriers in tech for women from disadvantaged communities?

We need more mentors. From my experience of being in this industry, the one thing that has really stuck out to me is that oftentimes I am the only female at the table.

Women are grossly underrepresented in key leadership and managerial positions within the industry. We need those in those positions now to lead and mentor the next generation. Sometimes it takes just that one moment or that one person to help someone see what they are capable of and go beyond their potential.

I’ve also observed from time to time junior to mid-level male counterparts who are also trying to reach leadership positions or get that next promotion not being supportive of their female counterparts’ growth, since they are looking out for themselves.

We need more male allies to help with sharing with leadership about their team members’ impact and achievements, especially those who are underrepresented. In some cases, people who have risen from communities in need, we feel so thankful to have the opportunity to be where we’re at that we don’t necessarily push the grain as to avoid conflicts.

What steps can we take and what resources will we need to address this?

We need our women leaders in technology to shift the narrative that technology is computer programming or coding. Computer programming is just one facet of the field. Technology encompasses a breadth of areas. If more girls and women understood how many STEM careers were available to them beyond coding, the number of women in tech would increase.

We need creative designers to make digital interfaces attractive and user-friendly. We need auditors and detail-oriented personalities to ensure compliance with local country regulations. We need those who love programming and project management to be the glue that brings a successful technology or engineering programme together. We need to change the narrative to expand our audience and message. We need more inclusivity of the diverse personalities and skillsets needed in order for technology to be impactful.

My ask is that leaders, educators and anyone in the sphere of influencing the next generation of women in technology expand the scope of messaging. We need to shift from the idea that technology and engineering is computer programming to the message that technology is for everyone, and the industry needs what you have to bring to the table, whatever that may be.

We lose out on a lot of incredible STEM talent when the barrier is so high.

What makes for a good mentor, do you think?

Encouragement and empowerment are important. Some of the most powerful advice I’ve ever received from a mentor was, ‘The worst thing they can tell you is no. What do you have to lose when you try?’.

As a mentor, the role isn’t to instruct; it’s to encourage and empower. Great mentors also share their thought process on the decisions they’ve made along their career paths. More importantly, they share their failures and what they learned from them. Transparency and authenticity can help mentees make these difficult decisions as they face them later in their career.

Mentees may feel too intimidated to share some of their challenges or worry that it will make them seem unqualified. This is why it’s also important the mentor gets to know the mentee on a personal level. It’s crucial to understand what they need help with and what drives them.

Lastly, mentoring isn’t one-sided. For the relationship to be rewarding to the mentor, it’s important they find a mentee who’s willing to take advantage of access to the knowledge, experience and time the mentor can offer.

What impact can a good mentor have on a mentee’s life?

My life has been changed by my mentors. I am the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, and I quickly learned my parents would not be able to guide me to where I needed to go, whether educationally or financially, to achieve my goals.

I spent my summers working 12-hour shifts at KFC (with a night shift at Hollywood Video) to save for a car and tuition. I met my first mentor in high school, before I had a name for what he was. I was dropping out of a business competition that would have required me to travel across the state. With a phone call, he was able to bring my parents around and I ended up participating. For the first time, I realised that there could be ‘guides’ along my way. If I was willing to do the hard work, they could open doors, increase access and help me navigate the system.

The series of mentors that I’ve had since – mentors who guided me through college, the start of my career and my role today as a global technology consultant for a major consulting firm – were so impactful on my life that in 2016, I founded a global nonprofit, Thriving Elements, that matches girls in underserved communities with long-term STEM field mentors.

So yes, mentors can make all the difference in a mentee’s life; they sure did for mine.

Is current STEM mentorship lacking? How can we fix that?

Yes. I believe there are three key reasons why and how we can fix it. The first is that people are not sure how to be a mentor.

The second is that the mentoring programmes that exist are often an add-on to the core competency or vision of a nonprofit organisation. Or someone is running it on the side of their desk in a for-profit organisation with no proper funding or resources.

To fix this, nonprofits should partner with mentoring programmes where mentoring is their core competency.

The third is that mentoring programmes – either those run by nonprofit or for-profit organisations – are fixated on the number of mentor and mentee pairs they can match up and lack proper guidance to mentors and mentees. I believe mentor-mentee matches should not be run like a supply chain. It is a two-way street that must be driven by the mentee.

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AWS to retire classic EC2 – the compute service that started the IaaS rush • The Register

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Comment Amazon Web Services has announced the retirement of its third cloud service: the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, aka EC2 Classic.

A July 28 post by AWS Chief Evangelist Jeff Barr explains that the service was superseded in 2009 by Amazon Virtual Private Cloud, then again by Virtual Private Clouds for Everyone in 2013.

Barr’s post explains that customers who signed up with AWS since December 4, 2013, couldn’t use EC2 Classic unless they specifically requested it. The bulk of AWS customers will not, therefore, be inconvenienced by the service’s retirement.

Those that do use the service need to be on their toes, because AWS has set a deadline of August 15, 2022 – after which it expects “no remaining EC2 Classic resources present in any AWS account,” and all migrations to something else will be complete.

As a reminder, on October 31, 2021, AWS will disable EC2 Classic for accounts that don’t use the service and stop selling reserved instances. Barr writes that AWS will work with customers to make those migrations as easy as can be.

“We don’t plan to disrupt any workloads and will do our best to help you to meet these dates,” Barr explains.

The AWS man also reminisces about how EC2 became a big hit, fast. “We helped Animoto to scale to a then-amazing 3,400 instances when their Facebook app went viral,” he writes.

AWS has scaled things rather higher since: in 40th place on the June 2021 update to the Top 500 list of Earth’s mightiest supercomputers was a 172,692-core machine that ran for just 24 minutes in the Amazonian cloud.

EC2 was AWS’s third service. It debuted in August 2006, after the March 2006 debut of the Simple Storage Service and the July arrival of Simple Queue Service.

That all three sparked a vast and important change in business computing is not in dispute. Service providers had previously rented remotely-located compute and storage, but AWS made them more accessible and scalable than predecessors. AWS prices were also shockingly low – in a good way – and its services took off.

The Register cannot think of an enterprise computing product or vendor that has not been influenced by AWS and EC2. Makers of on-prem IT have all striven to become more cloud-like ever since EC2 debuted – both in terms of the user experience and by charging for consumption rather than up-front. Whole new software development and deployment practices have emerged to take advantage of elastic resources sold as-a-service.

EC2 has also left a cultural footprint, as the likes of Netflix realized that cloud computing offered previously unavailable possibilities.

AWS brings in more than $50bn of annual revenue, and is widely regarded as the dominant force in cloud computing.

Barr’s post states that AWS will give EC2 Classic “a gold watch and a well-deserved sendoff!”

The service deserves that, and more. ®

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Got an idea for the future of science in Ireland?

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The Creating Our Future initiative is seeking 10,000 ideas on which to base Ireland’s next science and research agenda.

The Government of Ireland is hosting a ‘national brainstorm’ to guide the future of science and research in the country.

First announced last month, a nationwide conversation about research and innovation has officially kicked off today (28 July) at CreatingOurFuture.ie.

The online portal aims to collect 10,000 ideas from a broad section of the Irish public. It will be open for submissions from now until the end of November.

‘Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas’
– SIMON HARRIS, TD

“Covid-19 has highlighted, like never before, the vital role that research has played in mitigating challenges facing the country,” said Minister for Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris, TD. “But we have many more challenges and opportunities that research rigour and analytical excellence can help us with to build a better future for Ireland.”

Harris added: “Good ideas and curiosity are the starting point for most research, and nobody has a monopoly on good ideas. So, we are asking everyone to submit that idea that they have been thinking about, or have a conversation with their neighbours, host an event with a researcher or in your local community to think about what might make a difference and let us know.”

Events will be held across the country until the Creating Our Future ideas portal closes, inviting and encouraging citizens and communities to engage with the project.

The national initiative is itself an idea borrowed from similar efforts in other countries. A key inspiration was a programme driven by FWO, the Flanders research foundation. Launched in the spring of 2018, its Question for Science campaign received 10,559 responses, and has returned answers to more than 1,500.

These questions formed the basis of the Flemish Science Agenda, a strategy for science and innovation that is built on societal issues and citizens’ curiosity. Questions asked of FWO included ‘What is the effect of the 24-hour economy on psychological health?’ and ‘How can we avoid war and violence?’.

The Irish effort is hoped to deepen relationships between the Irish science community and the public it serves, and the resounding call from organisers is for all to participate.

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“This is an important opportunity to contribute to shaping future research. I encourage everyone to get involved,” said Taoiseach Micheál Martin, TD.

“This isn’t for any one section of society, we want to engage everyone in conversations in communities across the country, to inspire curiosity and generate ideas for research that will shape our future.”

All responses submitted to the portal will be collated and shared with an independent expert panel of researchers and civil society leaders.

There is also a Creating Our Future advisory forum chaired by Nokia Bell Labs global head of external collaboration programmes, Julie Byrne. In this role, Byrne brings researchers together for collaborative work and she herself has almost 30 years’ experience in engineering, tech and research.

“Over the coming months we will have many conversations about research across the country to gather ideas from our communities that research can tackle to create a better future for all of us,” she said. “I encourage everyone to get involved so that we capture ideas from all communities across the country.”

The results of the campaign will be published in a report by the end of 2021. This will go on to inform Ireland’s future strategy for research, innovation, science and technology.

Previously, Science Foundation Ireland’s director of science for society called on Irish citizens join a mass public debate about lessons learned throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr Ruth Freeman spoke at Future Human in 2020 about the importance of including the voice of the public in shaping the future of science.

“Giving people more of a say in their future is clearly the right and democratic thing to do, and it might just make for better science as well,” she said.

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‘Disinfo kills’: protesters demand Facebook act to stop vaccine falsehoods | Facebook

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Activists are to descend on Facebook’s Washington headquarters on Wednesday to demand the company take stronger action against vaccine falsehoods spreading on its platform.

Protesters are planning to cover the lawn in front of Facebook’s office with body bags that read “disinfo kills” as a symbol of the harm caused by online disinformation, as Covid cases surge in the US.

The day of protest has been organized by a group of scholars, advocates and activists calling themselves the “Real” Oversight Board. The group is urging Facebook’s shareholders to ban so-called misinformation “superspreaders” – the small number of accounts responsible for the majority of false and misleading content about the Covid-19 vaccines.

“People are making decisions based on the disinformation that’s being spread on Facebook,” said Shireen Mitchell, Member of the Real Facebook Oversight Board and founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women. “If Facebook is not going to take that down, or if all they’re going to do is put out disclaimers, then fundamentally Facebook is participating in these deaths as well.”

In coordination with the protest, the Real Oversight Board has released a new report analyzing the spread of anti-vaccine misinformation on Facebook during the company’s most recent financial quarter. The report and protest also come as Facebook prepares to announce its financial earnings for that same quarter.

The report references a March study from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) that found a small group of accounts – known as the “dirty dozen” – is responsible for more than 73% of anti-vaccine content across social media platforms, including Facebook. That report recently drew attention from the White House, and Joe Biden has condemned Facebook and other tech companies for failing to take action.

Facebook banned misinformation about vaccines from the platform in February of 2021, but critics say many posts slip through the platform’s filters and reach audiences of millions without being removed.

It also has introduced a number of rules relating to Covid-19 specifically, banning posts that question the severity of the disease, deny its existence, or argue that the vaccine has more risks than the virus. Still, the Real Oversight Board found that often such content has been able to remain on the platform and even make its way into the most-shared posts.

According to the Real Oversight Board’s report, a large share of the misinformation about the Covid vaccines comes from a few prolific accounts, and continues to be among the platform’s best performing and most widely shared content. It analyzed the top 10 posts on each weekday over the last quarter and found the majority of those originated from just five identified “superspreaders” of misinformation.

“When it comes to Covid disinformation, the vast majority of content comes from an extremely small group of highly visible users, making it far easier to combat it than Facebook admits,” the board said, concluding that Facebook is “continuing to profit from hate and deadly disinformation”.

The group has called on Facebook to remove the users from the platform or alter its algorithm to disable engagement with the offending accounts. Facebook did not immediately respond to request for comment, but has stated in the past it has removed more than 18m pieces of Covid misinformation.

Congress has also taken note of the spread of vaccine misinformation on Facebook and other platforms, with the Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar introducing a bill that would target platforms whose algorithms promotes health misinformation related to an “existing public health emergency”.

The bill, called the Health Misinformation Act, would remove protections provided by the internet law Section 230, which prevent platforms from being sued over content posted by their users in such cases.

“For far too long, online platforms have not done enough to protect the health of Americans,” Klobuchar said in a statement on the bill. “These are some of the biggest, richest companies in the world, and they must do more to prevent the spread of deadly vaccine misinformation.”

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