Inspiring Women to Join the Maker Community Through Hackathon Participation

On October 14th, I had the great honor of leading my first workshop at Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC 2015) titled “Inspiring Women to Join the Maker Community Through Hackathon Participation”, a topic that I am very passionate about.

Why am I passionate about the topic? It is very simple!

  • I attended my first hackathon earlier this year and, wow, what an amazing experience. I truly had a blast especially since it busted the 5 myths that I had about hackathons. But sadly, I know many still share my preconceived notion of a hackathon and are totally missing out. As a result, given how enriching the entire hackathon experience is, it is now my mission to encourage others to take part.

  • The Maker community is a great inclusive community. It includes individuals from very diverse backgrounds including but not limited to metal workers, wood workers, 3D printing specialists, computer scientists, computer engineers, designers, and artists. Even though the community is diverse, there is definitely one common trait that unites them, which is the “inventor” mentality. They all want to ‘make’ things instead of simply ‘consume’ things. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

  • As a woman in the tech industry, reducing the gender gap within the industry is very important to me. Why? Simply because diversity leads to greater innovation. Besides, there are at least 10 benefits of hackathon participation. So, I am compelled to do my part in encouraging more women to take advantage of these benefits. Really, there are absolutely no reasons for them not to.

Intel(r) IoT Hackathon LA

Having a passion about a topic without taking actions is not good enough. Fortunately, I work for Intel Corporation, a company that strongly supports the Maker community through organizing and sponsoring many hackathons around the world. In addition, Intel works aggressively toward closing the gender gap within the industry through numerous initiatives. But, in reality, achieving true gender balance at hackathons is not a straightforward task. So, how can we truly inspire women to join the Maker community through hackathon participation? How can we really make a difference?

Personally, I don’t have all the answers. However, if I learned anything from hackathons, it is that we, as a community, can inspire each other and can collectively solve any problem more effectively and more efficiently than one can do individually. So, I figured there is nowhere better to start this conversation than through a workshop at the biggest gathering of women in technology (GHC 2015).

My goal as I was preparing for the workshop was to make sure that the workshop would be very interactive. I wanted to inspire the attendees by sharing my experience and thoughts about the topic and, most importantly, learn about their views.

But, before I share what I learned from my workshop session at GHC 2015, let me break down the hackathon experience into steps in order to exhibit how we can influence each one in order to increase women’s participation. The steps are as follows:

  1. Finding out about a hackathon and having the courage to register
  2. Showing up at the event
  3. Attending available workshops
  4. Forming a team and coming up with a project idea
  5. Hacking
  6. Demoing the project to a panel of judges and to the attendees

The workshop was absolutely one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career. As I was waiting on stage for the session to begin, I was truly anxious and slightly terrified since I’ve never given a non-technical talk before. But as soon as the session began, I completely forgot that I was even giving a presentation. I simply felt like I was having a discussion with my friends – around 200 of them.

The outcome was really encouraging because we didn’t simply inspire each other, but I was also able to refine my call-to-action list for inspiring women to participate in hackathons. Here is the updated list.

1- Sharing stories and experiences about hackathons.
Everything new or unfamiliar is scary and hackathon participation is not an exception. By a show of hands, it wasn’t surprising at all to learn that most of my workshop attendees shared the same 5 myths that I had about hackathons. However, it was truly encouraging to see that by simply sharing my experience and answering their questions, they got motivated and intrigued enough to consider participating in one. It was great to see the ladies lined up after the session to confirm their newfound interest and to ask additional questions. But the highlight of the session for me was when, mid-session, I was asked, “how can I organize a hackathon?” At that point, I had the biggest smile possible and I paused for 20 seconds, not thinking about the answer but for simply telling myself “OMG, I did it! She doesn’t just want to attend a hackathon; she actually wants to organize it. YAY!” So, yes, sharing stories and experiences about hackathons are definitely motivating. (Benefit: influencing step 1 of the hackathon experience)

2- Practicing uncomfortable tasks in a comfortable environment can increase the likelihood of performing those tasks in new environments.
Can you imagine, or do you remember, approaching people in a room full of strangers in order to form a team? How about voicing out project ideas to a team of strangers or presenting a project in front of a packed room? Those tasks can be very intimidating to a newbie, don’t you think? Well, the workshop attendees agreed that those are the scariest steps of a hackathon. As a result, I ran a 15-minute mockup hackathon. It simply required forming a team, coming up with a project idea, and then presenting the idea to the attendees. I am very happy to report that based on the feedback from the participants, practicing those 3 simple tasks was so much fun and beneficial in preparation of the real deal. (Benefit: influencing steps 4 and 6 of the hackathon experience)

3- Providing workshops or hosting meetups prior to the big day.
One of my primary goals during the workshop was to highlight that the main goal of hackathon participation is to learn. However, I learned during our discussion that many women face at the workplace constant bias against their technical skill. As a result, they’d rather avoid such unnecessary bias during their free time. Therefore, providing workshops or hosting meetups prior to the big day can go a long way. They can boost self-confidence and encourage participation. However, if pre-event activities are not an option, perhaps clear promotion of available workshops during the hackathons including expected level of expertise can be a good alternative. (Benefit: influencing steps 1, 2, 3, and 5 of the hackathon experience)

4- Extending the logistics of a hackathon.
After sharing the awesomeness of hackathon participation based on the number of hackathons that I attended, I was asked, “How many hackathons have you attended where childcare was provided?” Ouch, that was a tough question to answer because the answer is zero. My immediate thought then was, “that’s going to be very hard to sell” but I will certainly give it a try now. Providing childcare is a clear and obvious indicator that the event organizers are strongly supporting and encouraging the participation of women. Therefore, regardless if the service is needed or not, simply providing it would be encouraging enough for many women to sign up. In addition, it may be the only solution for others to participate. So, it is definitely worth considering. (Benefit: influencing steps 1 and 2 of the hackathon experience)

Surely, the workshop at GHC 2015 was a great starting point but there are still much to learn and much to do. So, let’s expand the conversation.

Did you agree with any of the listed call-to-action items? Are there additional items to add to the list? Also, have you ever attended a hackathon? If yes, what triggered you to show up and how was your experience? If you didn’t attended a hackathon yet, why not? Post a comment below and let us know your experience.



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