Meggie Mahnken and Hackbright: Standing at the Intersection of Feminism and Tech

Meggie Mahnken and Hackbright: Standing at the Intersection of Feminism and Tech

Written by WWCode HQ With Thanks to Meggie Mahnken

Member Reflections

Meggie Mahnken, Sr. Director of Education at Hackbright Academy recently gave a talk at the Women Who Code CONNECT Tech Conference entitled Cryptography for Engineers. In this interview, she discusses the relationship between Hackbright and WWCode, as well as her reactions to the conference and her hopes for the future of the industry.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you came to be with Hackbright?
I've been programming Python and JavaScript for about five years, and coding (and helping others to learn) is what I was meant to do with my life. When I'm not programming, you can usually find me in a ballet class – I love dancing and do as much ballet as I can fit in at various dance schools in the Bay Area.

I first came to Hackbright as a student – I attended their third ever cohort back in 2013. I immediately loved the community and learning atmosphere at Hackbright. After graduation, I was lucky enough to be brought on as a Hacker in Residence. Having graduated college with a degree in Gender and Women's Studies, Hackbright's place at the intersection of feminism and tech really attracted me. I helped Hackbright build internal tools for about two years and then switched to the Education Team, making my way up to the Instructor position.

As Senior Director of Education, I now hire and train other education staff, oversee and guide curriculum development, and work on the leadership team. We've added so much to the curriculum and the program overall since my time as a student at Hackbright. I'm proud of how far we've come.  

How did the partnership between Hackbright and WWCode come together?
The first time Hackbright and Women Who Code collaborated was when one of Hackbright's founders recognized the critical work of WWCode and reached out to provide a space for the WWCode Algorithms Meetup.

What is the significance of this partnership? Can you share some good results?
Women Who Code and Hackbright have interwoven paths for a long time. Our missions and program participants overlap significantly.

I originally heard about Hackbright through a Women Who Code lightning talk event – I've encountered many Hackbright students with a similar story. On the flip side, we encourage our students and grads to participate in the WWCode community, especially after graduation. With the skills they learn at Hackbright, many are eager to give back to the Bay Area Women in Tech community that helped them get to where they are, and so you'll find many Hackbright alumnae at WWCode Project Night helping other women get their start in the coding world.

The best possible outcome is when women who find Hackbright or other educational opportunities through Women Who Code successfully attain roles in tech and then go back to usher in the next group of women who need that same level of support, encouragement, and confidence building, to succeed.

What did you think of the WWCode CONNECT Conference? Any stand out moments?
I was completely blown away by the quality and tone of the speakers at this conference. While I wasn't able to attend all the talks that I wanted to, by reviewing the social media highlights afterward, I ended up following so many awesome women in tech on Twitter from whom I'm sure I will continue to draw inspiration and advice in the future.

One stand out moment was getting to talk to another educator while I was behind Hackbright's table in the expo area – it's always so cathartic and meaningful to talk to someone who understands the unique challenges and rewards of teaching computer programming to newcomers.

Can you tell us about your talk at CONNECT?
I gave a talk centered on practical Cryptography for working engineers. My main focus was breaking down the concept of public key cryptography, a technology that provides the foundation for many important web protocols today, including HTTPS and SSH, as well as blockchain technologies. It was humbling to speak to such a broadly knowledgeable and curious audience at this conference. They asked great questions and we had some fun with the demos that I had prepared. In the future, I hope to do a follow-up talk that focuses specifically on how public key cryptography is used in blockchain technologies.

What do you think is the importance of Women Who Code?
Organizations like Women Who Code and Hackbright both represent, and grew out of, a very important historical moment for women living in the Bay Area in the last 10 years or so.

Women Who Code encapsulates the fervor of modern women who have, or are aspiring to, technical careers. WWCode provides a different and powerful space for women's experiences, ideas, and goals to be recognized and amplified. It is unknowable what tech will be like as women, and other under-represented groups, continue to [re]claim their place in this exciting, rewarding, and intellectually-stimulating industry.

It would also be foolish to think there is a silver bullet that could magic that future into existence in the short term. The only way forward is to build spaces where women and other under-represented groups can grow and succeed, where they can help each other, and most importantly, pursue their passions. Ideally, that would also be within workplaces, but I believe there will always be a need for external spaces like Women Who Code as well.