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Beyond Leaning In: My Year of Hackathons

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Eighty percent of success is showing up. San Francisco-based designer and educator explains how showing up to one hackathon changed her life.
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Eighty percent of success is showing up. I’d heard the Woody Allen quote throughout my career and scoffed, “That’s IT? What’s the challenge in THAT?”I think back to this quote as I analyze this past year and all the new tech experiences that have come about by showing up. My current incarnation as a co-founder of a startup, urbanwander.org, almost didn’t happen because of not showing up. A collaborative humanitarian project in Haiti almost didn’t happen because of not showing up. Being on a juried panel to review awe-inspiring civic minded projects almost didn’t happen because of not showing up. Woody was right: It was showing up to one hackathon that changed my life.

At the start of the year I signed up for EveryoneHacks, sponsored by the humanitarian tech organization Geeks Without Bounds. This weekend hackathon’s theme was education, and the event was geared towards women and LGBTQ communities. An hour before, I almost talked myself out of going. Why? Was I not technical enough? No, I worked as a designer and had taught digital arts and interaction at City College of San Francisco for several years. The naysayer voice inside tried to talk me into leaving it to the coders. I was a little nervous, but something about the specific audience was too exciting a lure. A preliminary web search calmed my fears. The term hackathon can be traced back to 1999. Hackathons gained traction in the mid-late 2000s, when companies started holding their own hacks to build quickly and incubate ideas. Projects that were started at hackathons and went on to become successes include PhoneGap, GroupMe and Zaarly. I also liked the idea of quick iterations and sprints. With little to no expectations, I kissed my dog goodbye for the weekend, strapped on my laptop bag, and headed to the unknown.

Where the Ladies At

As a hackathon newbie, Geeks Without Bounds made the atmosphere inclusive for all.

I was impressed by the proportion of women who participated--80% ! It really changed the energy. Even when my group didn’t agree, we listened and worked well together. We were coming from a place of trust and respect that may be somewhat rare at these bigger tech events, especially for women.

What did I do? I joined a team of three other women programmers who were interested in building a collaborative learning tool for students and teachers. In two days, the iOS mobile app, GroupSail, was born. I did the visual design, while the rest of the group built the front- and back-end. Having a teaching background helped the user experience part of the app. I’ve had lots of varying group dynamics in my classroom and felt confident that my input contributed to the viability of the product. It wasn’t just the coders doing the heavy lifting!

And The Winner Is

GroupSail placed first at EveryoneHacks. The win was completely unexpected since it was a first-time experience for every member of my team. We were elated. Team GroupSail presented the app at the HP Women in Tech conference, where we received mentoring and encouragement from the audience of predominantly female CTOs and CEOs.

Another invaluable prize was the chance to join an international team of developers and designers at an upcoming hackathon in Port-Au-Prince. A hackathon in...Haiti? I didn’t know what to expect. I knew little of the infrastructure of the country and even less about how technology played a role, if at all. But I was truly humbled and excited to have been chosen by the sponsoring organization, Digital Democracy, to participate. I often work with nonprofits in my freelance career, so this opportunity really spoke to me. At that point my prime expectation was to contribute my skills to help KOFAVIV, the grassroots women’s organization located in Port-au-Prince.

I’d been brought in as a visual designer, but ended up spending a lot of time with the KOFAVIV agents, the women who were the end users. Working with the women from the organization was my favorite experience of the trip. It was tremendously important to get their opinions and feedback as the process iterated. We collaborated on lots of design sessions, creating prototypes of login screens and map views. I wanted to take the technology out of the equation, so we went nuts with markers and paper. I enjoyed the democratic process of sharing icon designs and then having the women vote for their favorite ones. I wanted to work directly with Haitians and not in a vacuum, to really get into the needs and usability issues.

Our team built an application based on the organization’s database and Open Street maps. Ultimately it will be used by the KOFAVIV Call Center to aid victims phoning into the hotline, helping locate services (like emergency care) in and outside the Port-au-Prince area. It was launched, appropriately enough, on International Women’s Day.

Ask and You Shall Receive

Upon my return from Haiti, I really noticed the popularity of hackathons. The assorted themes ranged from gaming to bioscience to social and civic-minded projects. The DiscoverSF hackathon, sponsored by the San Francisco Mayor’s office, focused on exploration of the city’s diverse neighborhoods. This was the perfect place to pitch an idea that was being kicking around: an app that encourages discovery of off-the-beaten-track urban spaces.

We were three designers who needed programmers to help us build the project. DiscoverSF seemed like the perfect spot to make a pitch. Immediately after the initial pitches we found ourselves becoming a team of 10! That weekend we built the first prototype for our app, SF POPOS. Our hard-working group of developers and designers were able to incorporate geo-triggers that highlighted privately owned, public open spaces (POPOS). It placed first at the hackathon. The top prize was the ability to build out our idea in a tech coworking space in the SOMA area of San Francisco. A start-up was born!

Turning the Table

With a couple of hackathons under my belt, I had the distinguished honor of being a judge at the National Day of Civic Hacking. For one weekend, citizens, programmers, designers and idea people gathered across US cities to collaborate and problem solve. This collective and energizing event brought projects that ranged from rural farming solutions to challenges that face blighted neighborhoods. I love the quote from their website: “National Day of Civic Hacking will provide citizens an opportunity to do what is most quintessentially American: roll up our sleeves, get involved and work together to improve our society.”

My Day of Civic Hacking was hosted at San Francisco State University. Most of the groups were comprised of students working alongside area experts from local government and other non-profits. I was most impressed by the passion and dedication the groups showed. They really listened and analyzed the problem, then used available data sets and area experts to inform their iterations. It was also great to see a diversity of genders and nationalities. I enjoyed the presentations and sharing my own experiences with the groups.

Of course there were other hackathons that were not as inclusive or productive. I abruptly left one where the vibe was, “We’re here to win cash.” But even showing up at those reminded me that there are indeed opportunities everywhere, often when we least expect it. Hackathons have allowed me to go beyond leaning in, to fully fall into the fold by collaborating and building. It’s an excellent entree for women in technology. All you have to do is show up and the rest will follow.

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