How A 17-Year-Old Girl Won a Hackathon
And What It Means for Women in Tech
At this past weekend’s TVnext Hack event, a loose consortium of geeks, hackers, and businessmen from the television and technology industries gathered in a high-rise Boston office building to compete for cash and prizes by inventing and building technologies that add to the experience of watching television.
Several hacks won prizes from sponsor companies, while five of the best scored “best in breed” prizes (view the full list). Out of those, one was chosen as the grand prize winner on Monday at the TVnext Summit: Twivo, a clever hack that lets you watch DVR-ed television programs without worrying about your “second screen” ruining the show when you check Twitter only to see the show’s ending given away. Simply enter the name of the show, and Twivo (short for “Twitter for TiVo”) will block all mentions of it from your Twitter feed, while also syncing your Twitter feed so that tweets show up when they would have during the show’s original airing.
Twivo was created by the only female participant at the event — and the only minor. Unless memory fails, the only other females in attendance, that I saw anyway, were an organizer, two camerawomen, a caterer, three judges, and a participant’s wife.
The question of how to interest more women in technology fields is one of the most important questions facing us today, for many reasons. The internet, of course, is rife with opinion about What Has To Happen in order for more girls to get into programming, for more women to speak at tech conferences, and for how to make guys not be jerks to them when they do enter these fields or show up at these conferences.
Nevermind all that for now. Let’s focus on how one teenage girl, Jennie Lamere, defeated a room full of smart, motivated, experienced, full-grown men. This would seem to be instructive to the greater argument about women in technology, and besides, it has the added bonus of being based in fact rather than opinion.
If you remember one thing from this article, it should be that the father of this prize-winning girl hacker (Paul Lamere, director of developer community for The Echo Nest, which publishes Evolver.fm) did not, as one might suspect, force, cajole, or otherwise convince his daughter to take up hacking.
Instead, he took her hiking.
“My dad goes to a hackathon a few times a year,” Jennie Lamere told Evolver.fm. “When I was growing up, I wasn’t interested in the technical side of his hacks [such as Boil The Frog and Infinite Jukebox], but rather the musical side. His hacks were a topic of our weekly hikes. He would tell me all about his latest project, which just seemed like pure magic to me. Then, one hike, my Dad asked me for an idea for a hack using the Songkick API. He told me some of his ideas, but I came up with my own, that would eventually turn into Jennie’s Ultimate Roadtrip. Just by chance, I was already in Boston the day of that particular hackathon, so I ended up spending a good portion of the day at the hackathon and helped my dad out with the limited HTML I knew.”
Jennie Lamere was 15 on that fateful hike. In the past two years, she has attended five hackathons, and now, she’s building her hacks on her own, including the grand-prize-winning Twivo, relying on her father only for “occasional help in debugging a thorny problem here or there,” according to Paul.
It’s also worth pointing out that Jennie Lamere’s evolution from hiker to hacker involved lots of fun and collaboration, and no parental pressure — and that it happened outside of a traditional classroom environment, though she learned some computer skills there too.
“Hackathons can be really fun — there’s lots of energy, creativity, learning and fun,” says Paul. “Jennie says she’s learned more about programming by attending hackathons than she has from her AP computer science class.”
Jennie agrees, which is something that programming educators might want to take into account.
“I don’t think any high school classes could prepare someone fully for a hackathon,” says Jennie. “I’ve been lucky that my dad has been able to teach me a lot, but I also learn a lot through friends, and sites like StackOverflow. The three computer classes have given a solid foundation as a programmer, but I find myself learning a completely new concept — like a new language — every hackathon. I think between the three hackathons I’ve attended this year, and the year-long AP Computer Science class, I’ve learned exponentially more at hackathons.”
We asked what advice she might have for other girls who want to enter these hackathons, since they’re such great learning environments, and because so much of our social, cultural, business, and technological future depends on more women building new technologies. (Even if you don’t buy all of that, which I do, you must at least concede that we’ll get better stuff if the whole human population is involved in building it, rather than just half.)
“Babysteps are the key,” says Jennie. “I’ve attended five hackathons, but have only done one solo project. My first two hackathons, I didn’t do any work beyond the UI. Then, I worked with a friend with a similar knowledge on two hackathons, where I did about half the work. Finally, this weekend I ventured out on my own, and worked on my own. I’ve been interested in coding for about three years now, and though I still have much to learn, I feel as though I have been able to do a lot. By teaming up with friends, I was able to slowly learn how to make my own hacks.”
When she said that, she had already won several prizes for Twivo, including the Best Use of Sync-To-Broadcast and company prizes from Klout and Mashery (two iPads, a Roku, an Apple TV, a backpack, and a Siftio).
“I was hoping to walk away with an iPad, so my expectations were more than exceeded,” she said. “The best part is the feeling of accomplishment and knowing that I made a hack that people reacted positively to.”
That was before the video of her demonstration aired to all the attendees of TVnext Summit, after which she won the grand $2,500 prize and wound up carrying an oversized check through the streets of Boston with her justifiably proud dad.
“This is a terrific story, and proof that young girls are an untapped resource of innovation,” said Change The Ratio co-founder Rachel Sklar, when we told her the news. “More and more role models in the space are showing girls like Jennie (who is now one herself!) that this is a place for them, and for their talents. And now organizations like Girls Who Code are providing the infrastructure to get there. The floodgates have opened — the ratio is changing.”
However, she points out that “women in tech” stories are also simply “tech stories.” Good point.
“It’s also important to note that Jennie’s idea is a completely universal, gender-neutral one — the classic entrepreneurial story of identifying a pain point and then solving for it. She had an idea and made it happen. And, thanks to greater accessibilty of technology and more and more infrastructure around the innovation process, we will be seeing more and more Jennies as we move forward. In the meantime, I am stoked to use Jennie’s invention to enjoy Mad Men at my own pace.”
Spoiler alert: So are we.
Photo: Paul Lamere