Hackathons Are Cool Again, Especially For Women In Tech

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01.12.2016

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What happened November 20th?


Facebook hosted an 18 hour hackathon in the Pacific Northwest student hackathon centered on women in tech. About 70 students arrived with their laptops and pillows in hand, ready to hack. I came off a 12 hour flight from Taipei to jump right in as a mentor from Women Who Code to provide support to these young women. Ari from the Oculus team kicked off the evening with general guidance and encouragement to build greatness. The winners built a peer-to-peer community library system, and they’ll now advance to the Global Facebook Hackathon Challenge at Facebook Headquarters.




Why a hackathon? Isn’t this so last year?


Facebook wants to promote diversity in the tech industry and we all know that women are still a minority in the industry. And the truth is, it takes people to really come together on-site, not just online, to make this happen. By facing some of these challenges together - you have to meet people you don’t know, talk and connect on a project plan, and then work together as a team to build a viable prototype - hackathons allow attendees to stretch beyond the skills that they think they know in a safe and supportive environment. Hackathons also pushes the person to think about how to integrate the soft skills in product development, like storytelling, and user experience, to ultimately create the best complete project.




What lessons did we learn from this student hackathon?


So many, but here are our top two:
Having a theme creates structure and focus for attendees.
Creating communication channels ahead of time to facilitate feedback and ideas can help answer questions and prepare attendees to hit the ground running from the start.




What are some myths we should all strive to debunk about hackathons?


Participants must be experienced devs and know what they’re doing

Noobs can benefit greatly by riding a steep learning curve that can push them to learn on the fly and still build great products; mentors and your teammates are also there to help beginners

Coders are most important members in your team

Creative members add tons of value by helping to flesh out the idea into a connected story arc and to provide that exceptional user experience

If you don’t have an idea, don’t bother

Hackathons are a great place to build brainstorming skills; there are always more ideas to build than skills and teams

It’s vaporware, and there’s no tangible return

No one has ever regretted coming up with amazing ideas. Hackathons provide a channel to test those theories into realities. Sometimes, there has to be a million failures to hit success, but the process must be in place to support that to happen

You must finish the product at the event

It’s normal to end a demo/presentation with specific future steps you want to take, don’t worry about building every feature on the first go




And finally, what are the most important tips to have a successful women in tech hackathon event?


Create a collaborative not competitive environment - it’s not always about winning or getting a cash prize. It’s really never about the money.

Create a clear communication channel to coordinate ahead of time to address questions

Create a community platform to share fun posts and offer tips and prizes to engage the attendees

Mentors are a must to help guide hackers to form teams and to help start the brainstorm sessions, as well as to provide technical support during the product development phase

Empathy and listening skills are a must to practice by the organizers and mentors at these events - pay especially close attention to the questions and doubts from the hackers and share similar success and failure stories to connect with one another


Do not be afraid to organize more hackathons, especially those that are focused on diversity and women in tech! The demand is there and we should all be involved to answer the call. Women Who Code Seattle is proud to partner with Facebook to support this effort. We look forward to seeing hackers unite at future events!

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