Bringing Blockchain to Grace Hopper

Attending Grace Hopper Celebration has always been on my professional bucket list. Having worked in the technology industry for over a decade, this event has something of a reputation for those of us who regularly use #womenintech on Twitter and, generally, face little to no wait for our gender specific restroom in our offices. Unlike the rest of the technology industry, women dominate Grace Hopper. This is our home. So, I was surprised, when attending this year as the Executive Director of the Sovrin Foundation, that I still felt a bit of an outsider.

When Marta Piekarska, Director of Ecosystem at Hyperledger asked me to join her panel on diversity—with Lexy Prodoromos from Bloq and Artiona Bogo from SAP and moderated by Dev Bharel—I immediately said yes. Gathering this caliber of women in technology, especially in blockchain, doesn’t happen everyday. The panel was titled “Fulfilling the Broken Promise of Internet with Diversity in Mind,” and I was thrilled to take part in the discussion.

Arriving at the conference, I picked up my badge and was overwhelmed by the scene. Over 15,000 technology professionals were there, mostly women, bringing their insights, interests, and experience to share with one another. As I’ve written about before—women of a certain age are at a unique juncture in time where we can build on the hard-work of our mother’s generation and help mentor the technology leaders of tomorrow. But as I immersed myself in the diversity of backgrounds and fields of work of the attendees at Grace Hopper Celebration, I began to realize that there are still relatively few women in my sector of technology.

Where’s the blockchain?

Searching “blockchain” in the 2018 agenda comes up with just three listings—one of which was the panel where I was already speaking. In the hundreds of hours of programming and lectures for this innovative group of technology industry leaders, there were only three opportunities in the schedule that even had ‘blockchain’ in the description.

This blockchain world I’ve been living in for the past five years was like a distant planet for most of the attendees—or worse, Pluto. I kept waiting for people to ask if I was really a planet or if blockchain was just an “orbiting mass”.

But if I could have spoken with every developer, coder, and project manager in Houston last week, I would have said this: blockchain is not bitcoin. You have to see beyond its application to cryptocurrencies, which has obscured its true value. And yes, blockchain isn’t a buzzword that can be used to solve all of our problems; but, in the right settings, it can get pretty close.

Looking at Identity

Just look at how distributed ledger technology tackles the problem of Identity. Currently, all types of enterprises, governments, and organizations use centralized databases used to house troves of personal identifying information like social security numbers and dates of birth. Hackers are attracted large databases like bears to honey— and these databases are aptly referred to as ‘honeypots’ for this reason. If these honeypots are compromised, as they frequently are, millions of people suffer.

Blockchain completely upends this. In the instance of identity, blockchain is used to keep a public ledger and distributes data across nodes running the network. Personal identifying information can be encrypted and protected with key pairings, one set of which is stored on a ledger the other in a digital wallet. Instead of a honeypot, data goes into its own safety deposit box, stored in what is basically a decentralized bank vault that is filled with millions of other safety deposit boxes, each with its own special key pairing. This process combines many of the fields of work of those attending Grace Hopper—cybersecurity specialists, data programmers and software developers.

This represents a revolution in digital identity, how we use the internet and should not be left to the fringes at one of the major yearly tech conferences. Blockchain makes it possible to finally make obsolete the expensive, inefficient, and insecure identity verification at checkout—or for any service that requires ID. Imagine a world where no-one stores your data—they just need to verify who you are on the ledger. That’s… big. Even bigger, think what blockchain technology can do for the billion people on the planet without any official ID. Think about what that means for property rights, international and emergency aid, refugees. And it’s all beyond the control of any one organization or government; it’s controlled by you.

Awesome Event Overall 

To be honest, I can see how hard it can be to see all of this when the word ‘blockchain’ is literally chained to a cryptocurrency, and buried under a mix of unthinking media hype and stock market skepticism. But as thoughtful, inclusive and informative as the 2018 programming was, I genuinely hope the organizers of next year’s Grace Hopper Celebration will make an effort to run more sessions on blockchain. This is the future, and women in technology need to seize the moment.

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