Notes from Last Night’s Ottawa Girl Geek Dinner (May 11, 2011)

Geek girl dinner ottawa

The Ottawa chapter of Geek Girl Dinners took place last night at Vittoria Trattoria in ByWard Market. Although I am not a geek girl, I was present as the representative of Shopify, who sponsored the event with some prizes (the winners of the raffle took home a much-coveted Shopify T-shirt and six months’ worth of free online store) and to get in touch with Ottawa’s women techies and designers. There were about 50 people present, filling the Vittoria Trattoria’s upstairs room.

The Geek Girl Dinners are get-togethers of women in business, tech and design over dinner, where they can get to meet their peers, share ideas and hear presentations delivered by women with some particular expertise on a given topic. They usually have a theme, and last night’s was entrepreneurship. Here’s their description of the theme:

Have you ever thought, “Why work for somebody else when I can work for myself?”

Easier said than done, but anything’s possible! From flowers to clothing, to writing and painting, entrepreneurship opens the doors to anyone with a dream and a passion.

On Wednesday May 11th, please join us for an interactive discussion about the entrepreneurial journey of three Ottawa women who have turned their business dreams into realities.

If you’re a woman in the Ottawa area with geeky tendencies and you’re looking to meet others like you, have a nice meal and see some interesting presentations, you should keep an eye on the Geek Girl Dinners Ottawa site, watch for their hashtag on Twitter (#ggdottawa) and come out to one of their events!

My thanks to the organizers, Kelly Rusk, Veronica Giggey, Melany Gallant and Samantha Hartley for putting on a great event!

My Notes

I took notes and photos during last night’s presentations and present them below. If there are any inaccuracies, they’re mine; I was furiously scribbling them into a Moleskine as they were delivered. Free free to copy them and use them however you wish!

Vivian Cheng, Blend Creations

Screenshot of the Blend Creations site

Vivian’s Bio

Vivian Cheng is an industrial designer and one-half of the creative force behind Blend Creations. She and her husband, Eric Jean-Louis (a graphic designer) combine their divergent design approaches to create a contemporary jewelry line that is clean and modern in aesthetic, yet also blends their respective cultures in East meeting West.

Vivian Cheng makes her presentation

Presentation Notes

  • Trained as an industrial designer
  • "Didn’t want a ‘real’ job" after graduation
  • Started company in September 2005 with her husband, Eric
  • It was a bare-bones site, especially by today’s standards, hand-coded with PayPal buttons and a very basic shopping cart
  • She sells her jewellery almost exclusively online
  • Online store tips:
    • Look at other online stores and learn from them
    • Find out who your competition is
    • Take a look at Etsy and find out whether it’s for you, and why (or why not)
    • Etsy started after Blend Creations, and they decided not to go with it because they didn’t want to be a "stall" in a sea of thousands of stores; they wanted to be their own store
  • Their jewellery is a blend of modern and traditional, industrial and organic — steel with mahjong tiles, bamboo or coral
  • The jewellery is handmade, by them
  • They bootstrapped the business with less that $5000
  • The mandate:
    • Eric, then a full-time graphic designer, would continue at his job and pitch in
    • If the business went well, they’d continue on this path
    • If it didn’t, she’s have to get that ‘real’ job
  • If 2006, they were contacted by Real Simple magazine to have their jewellery featured on a full page
  • Had they tried to take out a full page ad in Real Simple, it would’ve cost about $60K
  • Real Simple found out about them via a design blog
  • To be featured on the page, they had to offer a special deal on a necklace to Real Simple readers
  • Real Simple asked "Can you handle 1,000 orders?"; the only answer was "Yes!"
    • (She was 7 months pregnant at the time)
  • The money resulting from the Real Simple deal allowed them to buy better equipment: a CNC router [here’s a link one that routs wood] and a laser cutter
    • "We could cut circles now!"
  • They continued with magazine ads
    • Good, but during a recession, they’re not as effective
    • Magazine ads have a 4-month lead time
    • Problematic in 2008, during the econopocalypse
    • Generated only a handful of sales, what with the belt-tightening
  • During the economic crisis of ’08, the US was hit hard, and 98% of their customers were American
  • They had to refocus and hit more local markets
  • They couldn’t just do print ads
  • Their first foray into social media was Facebook
    • Their first activity on Facebook: a giveaway
    • She tries to say something on Facebook every day
  • They have a monthly give-away on their blog
    • Facebook’s rules make it difficult to do a monthly giveaway on their site
  • She initially didn’t "get" Twitter (they’re @blendcreations)
    • Discovered that Twitter is all about the interactions
    • She even designed jewellery specifically for their Twitter followers (such as one shaped like an @ sign; jewellery with your Twitter handle on it)
    • Her husband, Eric, doesn’t get the appeal of "The Twitters"
  • The thing about any design is that people either love it or hate it
    • The important thing is to get people talking about it, love or hate
    • If you offer a service, make it a service so good that people talk about it
    • If you offer a product, keep innovating with it
  • "With social media, you have to do something, even if it’s small"
    • "Blogs are the new magazines"
    • They’re the source of many customers
  • Their customer breakdown by region:
    • 60% US
    • 40% Canada and the rest of the world (mostly Canada)
  • Why did I go into jewellery?
    • "I’m an industrial designer, we’re trained to make things"
    • Went with jewellery because of higher perceived value
    • That can be a problem in hard times
  • She and her husband’s design backgrounds let them "do it all":
    • Product design
    • Product photos
    • Ads
    • Site design

Vivian Cheng makes her presentation

Hana Abaza, Wedding Republic

Screenshot of Wedding Republic site

Hana’s Bio

Hana Abaza is the co-founder and CEO of Wedding Republic, an Ottawa based start up allowing couples to set up an online, cash, wedding registry in a way that works for them and their guests. With an incredibly diverse background, Hana has pulled together her broad skill set in order to navigate the start up world. When she’s not in front of her laptop with armed with a large cup of coffee, she can usually be found teaching a kickboxing class. Self described as slightly ‘type a’ with a dose of ADD, although some say it’s just an unrelenting curiosity.

Hanna Abaza makes her presentation

Presentation Notes

  • Wedding Republic is a cash gift registry for people getting married
  • A couple getting married may want stuff, but sometimes, they’d much rather have the cash
  • The idea came to her and her business partner in 2008 while they were watching the Superbowl
    • James (her business partner) has a sister who was getting married
    • Always a stressful situation
    • Online registries for gifts were still few and far between
    • There was no way to register online to give a cash gift
    • The original idea was for a big general wedding registry; it got refined over time
  • Questions you need to ask when starting an entrepreneurial project:
    • Who is your target market? Who will use your product?
    • Does your product fulfill a need? Or a want?
    • What are the current alternatives to your product exist? What are the options?
      • What are the pain points for these alternatives and options
  • They talked to all sorts of people: couples, couples getting married, wedding guests to get more info
  • They hired a developer and were able to take advantage of government programs to help fund the project
  • Advice:
    • Surround yourself with the right people; people who are smarter than you are
    • You can’t do it on your own; make sure you have a support system
  • Wedding Republic went beta in February 2010
  • It was a stressful time
    • Once you’ve opened to the public, you get feedback, opinions, suggestions, complaints about issues
    • But opening to the public gives you a customer validation process
  • You have to listen to your customers, but:
    • You have to know what to ignore
    • You have to know what to take to heart
    • Focus on what you’re good at, and don’t get derailed by customer feedback
  • They were contacted by Saatchi and Saatchi
    • Someone at Saatchi and Saatchi saw their site
    • They were intrigued by the idea of Wedding Republic and invited them for a meeting in their Toronto office
    • They offered to do a rebrand
    • On big companies working with small companies:
      • They may be bigger than you, but once you’re working together, you’re on par
      • Meet as equals. Don’t bed over backwards just to please them
  • There’s a lot of back-and-forth between Saatchi and Saatchi and the developers; she "translates" between the two
  • Relaunched in January 2011
  • More advice:
    • Keep yourself in check (having a business partner will help)
    • Execute! Many people don’t think they can do something, so they don’t try.
  • One challenge with this business: few (if any) repeat customers
    • Considering expanding the concept to baby registries
  • How they make money:
    • The couple getting married doesn’t pay anything
    • The guests pay a transaction fee
    • That’s not bad, considering the 7% markup for registries at The Bay
    • People pay for services that save effort: "I’d gladly pay $5 to not leave my couch"
  • Possibility of expanding outside North America:
    • Looking at it, but wedding customs vary all over the world
    • For example, in China, cash gifts come in red envelopes. Can’t do that with a cash registry.

Hanna Abaza makes her presentation

Amy Yee, Eventbots

Screenshot of the Eventbots site

Amy’s Bio

Amy Yee is an entrepreneur and strategy consultant specializing in technology, engagement and collaboration at start-up and high growth companies. Among a wide variety of projects, Amy is currently the CEO at the second company she has co-founded: EventBots – an award-winning technology solution for public engagement. Amy has a Bachelor’s of Electrical Engineering from Carleton University.

Amy Yee makes her presentation

  • Eventbots are devices that can record video or photo messages at events
  • [Showed video of people who recorded messages at the Mesh conference]
  • Think of it as being similar to the "Speakers Corner" at CityTV in Toronto
  • How they got started:
    • They had friends who were getting married
    • Had heard of some Toronto-based service where they set up devices where people could record messages
    • Her husband was an industrial designer: "I could build that"
    • He built the machine, she turned it into a business
  • The current, sleeker version is version 2
  • The first version was bulkier and made of wood
  • The device has to fit into their car, a Mini Cooper
  • They’ve taken the eventbot to events in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal
    • They can only serve areas within a reasonable drive of Ottawa
  • The sales process is online
  • Even if an eventbot gets only 5 video recordings at an event, there’s still always one that stands out as head and shoulders abover the others
  • Their current eventbot was so slick that a Japanese ambassador insisted that the device was from Japan
  • People call them "iPodzillas"
  • Advice:
    • Don’t fear change; change is a competitive advantage
    • Don’t worry if you have to modify your idea
    • Bet on the team, not the idea
    • Community support is important!

Amy Yee making her presentation

This article also appears in The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.


Ignite Your Career: Women in IT Panel Discussion

This article originally appeared in Canadian Developer Connection.

This Week’s Webcast: Women in IT

Ignite Your CareerAnd at long last, we’ve arrived at the sixth of the six-episode Ignite Your Career webcast series. This webcast, which takes place this Tuesday, April 7th at 12:00 noon Eastern, has the title Women in IT Panel Discussion.

Here’s the abstract:

Come and join your peers and a panel of leaders from across the country to discuss issues relating to women in the Canadian ICT industry. This panel discussion will help answer your questions and provide you with insight on the challenges and opportunities faced by women in the ICT industry.

The panelists are:

elisabeth_vanderveldt Elisabeth Vanderveldt
Elisabeth is co-founder of multi-award winning Conamex International, a Microsoft Gold Certified Excellence partner. An international board member of IAMCP Elisabeth is also the global chair Community and Corporate Citizenship and is the founder of the international Women in Leadership and Technology group.

betty_johnson Betty Johnson
Betty has been working in technical support for 10 years and is a Microsoft certified professional. She works at Métis Nation of Alberta as their Desktop Support Analyst with responsibilities in managing networks and servers. She started off as a nutritionist but proved a point that women in any age group can make a great impact in IT.

caterina_sanders Caterina Sanders
As Director, User Experience, Caterina acts on behalf of end-users to make certain that Habañero solutions exceed their needs and expectations. Drawing on her wide variety of business and technical experience, Caterina manages the user experience team, provides UE leadership for all projects, and conducts project business analysis and project management.

shann_mcgrail Shann McGrail
Shann McGrail is a Business Director reporting to the President of Microsoft Canada. In this role, she is responsible for readiness, communication and business execution for the Canadian subsidiary. Shann has worked in the technology industry for the past 18 years.

As with all the other Ignite Your Career webcasts, this one isn’t tied to any particular vendor or technology, Yes, this webcast is presented by Microsoft and CIPS, but whether you never touch Microsoft tech or tools or use the entire Microsoft stack, we think you’ll find a lot of useful career-building information in Ignite Your Career.

Don’t forget: it costs nothing to catch an Ignite Your Career webcast. It’s free of charge; all you have to do is register to listen to the Women in IT Panel Discussion with your Windows Live ID (which you can also get for free).

Listen to Previous Ignite Your Career Webcasts on Demand

If you missed any of our earlier Ignite Your Career webcasts or want to hear any of them again, you’re in luck. We’ve got them archived, and you can listen to them – free of charge, of course – with your Windows Live ID. The previous webcasts are:

  • Industry Insights and Trends
    The nature of technology is one of continual change; a fact of life for professionals in the ICT industry. As a result, you need to be on top of what is happening in the industry in order to position yourself and your organization to benefit from these trends. This panel discussion will arm you with the information you need from experts in the ICT industry in order to stay on top of your game.
    Speakers: Joel Semeniuk, Jeff Kempiners, Jay Payette and Paul Swinwood.
  • Discovering Your Trusted Resources
    Building a set of information sources and connecting with the community at-large are critical to your success in the ICT industry. This session brings successful community, technology, and information leaders together to share their experiences in discovering these resources. Our experts will help you learn how to identify credible sources and find the right tools, links and techniques to keep you up to date in a world of constant change.
    Speakers: Michael J. Sikorsky, Richard Campbell, and John Bristowe.
  • How to Establish and Maintain a Healthy Work/Life Balance
    With mobile technologies and our always-on culture, it’s imperative to establish and maintain a balance between work and life. If your only time to manage change in your environment is after hours, how can you maintain a healthy balance without burning out? How do you manage change so that you can develop your career and spend time with loved ones? This panel discussion will connect you to individuals who strive to establish and maintain this balance.
    Speakers: Mack Male, Cameron McKay, Paul Gossen, Mark Blevis.
  • How to Become a Great Leader
    Being a great manager does not by default also mean you are a great leader. For some people, being a leader comes intuitively, for others it is something that requires both self awareness and leading by example. This session will focus on what a panel of Managers/Leaders has done in order to further their development of leader qualities. Topics in this area are wide ranging and based on webcast participation will include such as goal setting, importance of goal alignment, motivation techniques, nurturing trust, developing listening skills and coaching team members. Be sure to listen in and join the conversation with this panel of experts for what should be a very interesting wrap up to the Manager series.
    Speakers: Stuart Crawford, Dana Epp, Barry Gervin, Greg Lane.
  • Building, Managing and Strengthening Your Team
    One measure of success for a Manager is the result your team is capable of achieving. How to build a productive team while working with the resources at your disposal can be a challenge at times. Amongst other things, you need to overcome previous history, identify team dynamics and foster a productive work environment. This session will bring together real world managers who have found the right balance for their teams and share their insight on what worked for them. Listen in and ask them questions about what they have done to create a healthy and productive team environment.
    Speakers: Kevin Brice, Steven “Doc” List, Vicki Mains, Peter John McFarlane, Shaun Walker.

It’s Ada Lovelace Day!


It’s a special day in the blogosphere today: it’s Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to bring attention to women excelling in technology.

Whether you’re venturing into a career, a scene or even a room full of people, it’s always nice to find people like you. This is especially true if you’re in the minority; you wouldn’t believe the number of people who’ve walked up to me and said “You’re an accordion player too? I was beginning to think that I was the last one left!” It’s a reassuring feeling.

Recent research by psychologist Penelope Lockwood suggests that women need to see female role models more than men need to see male ones. This leads to a chicken-and-egg-style problem in the tech world: it’s perceived as a “sausage party” (that is, a gathering of mostly men), which in turn turns women away, which in turn keeps it a sausage party.

The solution is make sure that we’re recognizing the women in technology, which is why we have Ada Lovelace Day. Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron and is widely considered to be the first programmer, having written a system of symbol-manipulating rules for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. She is also crediting as having foreseen that computing devices would do far more than crunching numbers – while Babbage thought of his machine as a mechanical calculator, Lovelace suggested that “the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent”.

To celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, I thought I’d give a shout out to some Accordion City (that is, Toronto) area women in technology whom I know and have seen in the past couple of months. Take a bow and be recognized!

  • Sandy Kemsley: A regular on the Toronto tech scene with a career spanning over 20 years, she has forgotten more about BPM than I will ever learn.
  • Leigh Honeywell: She might just have the most-booked calendar in Toronto, what with her co-founding HacklabTO, working at the local Symantec office and finishing her degree at U of T.
  • Sacha Chua: Toronto’s most energetic and enthusiastic technology evangelist.
  • Qixing Zheng: My coworker! She’s the User Experierience Developer Advisor (Microsoft Canada’s first, in fact) and one of the hardest-working people on the Developer and Platform Evangelism team. She blogs at the Canadian UX Blog.
  • Kate Gregory: Microsoft Regional Director for Toronto, has forgotten more programming languages than I will ever learn, and the first non-Microsoftie to welcome me to The Empire at the Professional Developers Conference back in October.
  • Amber Macarthur: Tech news videoblogger extraordinaire!
  • Leila Boujnane: Founder and CEO of Idee, who make the coolest visual search.
  • Estelle Havva: The reality check at DemoCamp (she was the one who always asked presenters the question: “What’s your business model?”, promoter of Canadian tech at the National Reasearch Council and can do more pushups than almost anyone at DemoCamp.
  • Kaitlyn McLachlan: Creator of AskItOnline, the best survey web application I’ve seen.
  • Juan Musleh: I met her at the excellent CUSEC conference, where she was the Sponsorship Director.
  • Linda Wang: I also met her at CUSEC, where she was the co-chair and did some great work.
  • Jaclyn Konzelmann: I met her recently in a meeting with the organizers of the CUTC conference (and I owe her a couple of email replies).

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!


Multi-Processor Computing in 1924

My friend Miss Fipi Lele, who provides me with a lot of pictures for my blogs, pointed me to this photo on Shorpy, “The 100-Year-Old Photo Blog”. It depicts “multi-processor computing”, circa 1924:

Old-school computing room (preview size)
Click the photo to see it on its original site, Shorpy, at full size.

The caption for the photo at Shorpy is:

November 24, 1924. Washington, D.C. “Bonus Bureau, Computing Division. Many clerks figure the amount of the bonus each veteran is entitled to.”

Before the age of electronic computers, the term computer referred to someone whose profession was performing mathematical calculations by hand.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the profession’s origins (see the entry Human Computer):

The approach was taken for astronomical and other complex calculations. Perhaps the first example of organized human computing was by the Frenchman Alexis Claude Clairaut (1713–1765), when he divided the computation to determine timing of the return of Halley’s Comet with two colleagues, Joseph-Jérôme Le Lepart and Nicole-Reine Étable. For some men being a computer was a temporary position until they moved on to greater advancements. For women the occupation was generally closed, but this changed in the late nineteenth century with Edward Charles Pickering. His group was at times termed “Pickering’s Harem.” Many of the women astronomers from this era are computers with possibly the best known being Henrietta Swan Leavitt. Florence Cushman was one of the Harvard University computers from 1888 onward. Among her best known works for him was A Catalogue of 16,300 Stars Observed with the 12-inch Meridian Photometer. She also worked with Annie Jump Cannon. That said as a female computer she normally earned half of what a male counterpart would.

The Indian mathematician Radhanath Sikdar was employed as a “computer” for the Great Trigonometric Survey of India in 1840. It was he who first identified and calculated the height of the world’s highest mountain, later called Mount Everest.