Want to dive into a new industry? Go to a hackathon.

TL;DR: This is a recap of my personal experience at EthDenver and a call-to-action for more community strategists, writers and creative women to get involved with blockchain.

Despite having been in or around the tech industry for 7 years, I had never been a hackathon participant before last weekend, when I attended the fantastic EthDenver event.

In retrospect, it’s pretty surprising that it took me the better part of a decade to actually take part in a hackathon. After all, I’ve been physically present in many over the years — attending the panels, indulging in the brand-sponsored libations, and even helping to host a few of them when I worked at London’s Google Campus for Entrepreneurs several years ago.

That said, it’s probably completely unsurprising to most “non-technical” tech industry folks that I hadn’t actually bitten the bullet.

Saddled with the limitations of my own perspective, I had mistakenly decided that the best place for me as a non-technical person would be as a volunteer, a helper, a background person.

What could I, as a community/content/strategy person, really bring to the table amongst a crowd of extremely talented coders and designers?

It turns out, a lot. (And more on that later.)

More importantly, I wasn’t asking myself a key question:

“What can I learn through this experience?”

It’s taken me all of my adult life so far to come to grips with a basic, fundamental truth: staying safely inside my professional comfort zone means that I’m limiting my own personal growth.

I have no objection to challenging myself in my personal life (I’ve lived in no less than 4 cities and 3 countries in the last decade), but I wasn’t applying that same forced discomfort to my professional life.

Letting that sink in was step one. (And realizing I should have paid more attention to this advice a long time ago.)

Step two was figuring out what I could throw myself into.

A woman on a (social change) mission

Having recently finished a two-year stint working with the amazing team at Montfort, the possibilities for next steps in my career lay before me. I knew one thing was clear: I wanted to affect change.

Working with clients like the UK Green Party, CDP, The Science-Based Targets Initiative, Amnesty International, the UN’s Principles for Responsible Investment were experiences that gave me an invaluable perspective on what the global community needs to do to successfully navigate the challenges we face.

Also, having now accrued the experience of working in an agency model, in-house at a few tech startups, and for a federal government, I also knew I wanted to be back in the heart of the tech industry where I could move fast (but maybe not try to break things.)

Blockchain believer

My blockchain “aha!” moment came just a few months ago, when I took the time to read beyond the scandalous Bitcoin headlines. Everything changed when I took the time to finally dig into what blockchain — and more importantly, Ethereum — was poised to disrupt. I was floored at how many use cases the technology has outside of just finances.

After I finished my unsuccessful search for the Bitcoin that had been given to me at an event four years ago, I swallowed my late-to-the-party pride and made two decisions:

  1. I would commit myself to deep learning in this area.
  2. I wanted to get involved as soon as possible.

As fate would have it, a few days later I saw a tweet encouraging more women to apply for a ‘kick ass, inclusive blockchain event’. It had been retweeted by Jazmin Hupp, a rad entrepreneur and leader that I admire, and someone who quite obviously puts herself in uncomfortable situations with regularity (and talks about it candidly, too.)

That was what I needed to give me a kick in the pants. I listened to the universe, and I applied for the diversity scholarship with the awesome folks at Maiden.global, an organisation seeking to create diverse leaders in the blockchain space. Not only were they extremely encouraging, but they also paid for me to get there! (In fact, I applaud the entire event for being very welcoming to LGBTQ+ folks like me. More of this everywhere, please!)

Holy sh*t — This Hackathon means business

I arrived in Denver full of energy, ideas and a newfound confidence to assert myself in technical spaces.

Community professionals, writers, marketers and content strategists are sorely needed in blockchain, whether or not everyone understands or respects their importance, and I knew in my heart that I was bringing a bounty of valuable perspective to the event.

I also realised that the majority of people were there get something very technical done in a hurry, and so I faced a challenge.

Would I be able to find the right person or team to not only feel useful, but also to have the learning experience I was looking for?

The short answer is: yes.

After wandering around the first day exploring the amazing talks and having validating conversations with passionate people, I found the perfect teammate!

Like me, he was there mainly to learn, but also wanted to work on shipping an actual project. Plus, we brought totally different skill sets and perspectives to the table. I had found the synergy I was looking for.

Keep it simple, stupid

While a lot of the teams around us were waist-deep in advanced technical projects, we knew that ours would be a little different, and we focused on what we could feasibly create that we didn’t already see in the world.

We settled on a community-building idea that we called BlockChange.

The premise of BlockChange is quite simple:

  • Bring a basic understanding of blockchain technology to marginalized communities in a way that speaks to them.
  • Create a community hub for activists and non-technical changemakers to connect with each other, learn from each other and get inspired about the uses of blockchain.
  • Provide a directory of current key blockchain projects across areas like human rights, criminal justice, environmental justice, homelessness, LGBTQ+ rights, etc.
  • Provide resources and facilitation of discussion

We also wanted to help encourage people to bring this newfound knowledge rapidly into their communities by providing easy-to-understand teaching materials.

Blockchain for change

(We created a prototype and a short presentation, if you’re interested in learning a bit more!)

We hypothesised several different ways of incentivizing learning and teaching with a token model, but ultimately, that wasn’t the most important thing. The important thing was us doing the research. We realized that not only is there a lack of education out there for non-technical changemakers in the blockchain space, but also there is a plethora of amazing projects that aren’t reaching the attention of people who would benefit from them most.

The research validated our project idea, but it also validated the need to see this happening in the real world.

(So if you’re working on this or want to team up IRL, let’s talk!)

Wrapping up + moving forward

After a successful and totally inspiring event, my three main takeaways from EthDenver are as follows:

  1. Don’t be so damned scared to be a newbie. // Everyone is a newbie at some point. Yes, you’re going to sound stupid sometimes. No, they won’t think you don’t deserve to be here. (And if they do, screw ‘em.)
  2. Realize your own power. // Stop doubting yourself. It doesn’t matter whether you’re technical or non-technical, male/female/non-binary, young or old — we all enter into uncomfortable situations with a feeling of not being good enough. (Fellow women, I’m specifically looking at you.) Challenge other people’s ideas with the expertise you bring to the table. But also…
  3. Listen. // Listen, listen, listen. Ask questions. Listen some more. Ditch unconscious biases. Listen to people you might not agree with. Approach the person you wouldn’t normally approach. Talk to someone who you feel might have a stereotype about you in their head. Absorb as much information as you can from the amazing mish-mash of minds that are thrown together for a powerful weekend.

I walked away from EthDenver not only ready to dive into a totally new industry, but also with interviews, great new friends and a front-row seat to some truly rad projects.

All because I decided to get a little uncomfortable.

Want to get in touch?

Find me here:

Twitter: @mandy_reeder

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/amandareeder/

AngelList: https://angel.co/amanda-reeder

P.S. If you’re going to Lesbians Who Tech in San Francisco this week, I will be there! Do say hello.