Being Brave with My Vision: How I Learned to Take the Prize in Any Hackathon

Lesbians Who Tech
Apr 25, 2017 · 9 min read

This post comes from Denise Duffy (she/her), a student in our second cohort of Lesbians Who Tech Edie Windsor Coding Scholars. Denise is currently enrolled in Dev Bootcamp Full-Stack Web Development Immersive in San Francisco, and will be looking for a new position when she graduates in Summer 2017.

While enrolled in DBC, Denise attended the 4th Annual Lesbians Who Tech Summit in San Francisco and participated in the official hackathon hosted by BlackRock. There, she earned an unexpected invitation to participate in an internal hackathon at BlackRock. She shares her experiences in this blog post.

Lesbians Who Tech is now accepting donations to support our 2017 scholars. Donate today: bit.ly/LWTEdie (campaign ends May 18th.) Individual and corporate donations are tax-deductible. If you are a LGBTQ women or gender nonconforming person and you would like to attend a coding bootcamp, apply for the Lesbians Who Tech Edie Windsor Coding Scholarship by April 30th: bit.ly/EDIESCHOLARAPPLY

Starting Out: Not Pitch Perfect

Saturday February 25th, 9:30 am – I’m in this stunning corporate setting at the BlackRock San Francisco office on Howard Street, going around to each table at the Hackathon, trying to find someone to collaborate with for the day.

As I pitched my idea — use 3D immersion technology as a diversity training tool — the question I most got was “How are you going to demo this?” (In every hackathon, one must demo a prototype.) I had no answer.

I said maybe I would spend the day researching and using my iPhone to make videos to explain it. I tried – and none of my lesbian peeps would join me for the day, hacking on this idea. It made my heart sink. These hackers were the people I felt most understood by, yet I couldn’t persuade anyone to work with me.

I had a choice: join another group or spend the day working on this idea alone. As someone who loves collaboration, this was a deep dilemma.

Denise Duffy at BlackRock San Francisco office, February 2017.

My answer came from my soul. I decided that I was valid enough to stay on this problem. My experience as a lesbian who techs is that sometimes I must work without obvious support, and I decided I would work through this. I committed to spending the day rethinking diversity and inclusion training.

What happened next could only be described as magic: The sponsors of the hackathon, BlackRock, came over to me to explain that everyone had broken off into conference rooms to work with their teams. I described what I wanted to work on for the day — and instead of making me feel ostracized, Kirsty Craig, a BlackRock VP, said it was an incredible idea, that I should continue with it.

Little did I know, they would become my greatest allies in this process. My confidence began to change.

Hackathons: The real way to connect with employers.

The amazing thing about hackathons is that you get to do work. There is no better place for prospective employers to really see how you tick. It’s public, it’s pressurized, and it involves a presentation. I think it’s the best Lesbians Who Tech conference opportunity to really showcase who you are.

As it turns out, working solo on this project allowed space for the BlackRock mentors to jump in, giving me a chance to show that I was innately collaborative.

When I explained that I didn’t have any 3D device to play with, Alexis McKeown, a Director at BlackRock (and an equipment guru) said she had a Microsoft HoloLens in the drawer of her desk. She went and got it. When I realized that it would only be programmable with a Windows 10 machine, the team went and found one. They made sure the HoloLens was up and running, and taught me the basics.

Suddenly, the idea started to attract other people (breaking out a cool Microsoft HoloLens seemed to do the trick). Another Lesbians Who Tech participant, Angela Watts, arrived at the hackathon and joined me. Fay Salwin (of the BlackRock subsidiary Future Advisor) began playing with the HoloLens as well.

Denise and teammates during the BlackRock Hackathon at the 4th Annual Lesbians Who Tech San Francisco Summit.

As my team played with the new technology, I knew I still needed to lead. Since the moment I woke up that morning, sleep deprived from dancing the night away, I knew the idea would drive how the tool would be used. What I didn’t know is that BlackRock would be watching, and it would lead to a golden opportunity.

The idea — Scalable Diversity Training.

I was struck with one of the Lesbians Who Tech breakout panels the day before: How to Push for Change at Your Company, Hosted by Target, and moderated by Dom Brassey. One of the panelists remarked, “I have my day job AND my gay job; it’s exhausting.” They wanted their fellow employees to have exposure and acceptance of who they are but didn’t want to have to constantly be asked to do this. They were too busy with their other work.

So the idea came to me: How would it be if we could have holograms of some of our most amazing and diverse employees? What if you were in a chair sitting across from someone like Fay, a trans woman coder? How would it feel to look at her in real space? What if you sat in silence for a minute and looked into her eyes–would your feelings change? What if you heard her story? What if you did something fun at the end, like danced with her, or answered her poignant questions? How can we use this as a low-pressure training tool to understand unconscious bias? If we do this training would we feel more comfortable the next time a trans or non-binary person comes in for a BlackRock interview?

During the hackathon, taking a page out of Amazon’s playbook, I wrote a press release on how BlackRock would be on the leading edge of diversity training using this. This gave my team a vision to stick to. The sentiment began to spread–that diversity training could be as fun and dynamic as diversity actually is. BlackRock could scale this and the experience of sitting with someone like Kay could be shared thousands of times by incoming employees.

How to Win a Hackathon.

You need a great idea, a great presentation, and an effective demo.

In the first 30 seconds of your presentation, let everyone know what you are doing right away. Let them know why it’s revolutionary. Let them know how it matters. Give them a “wow” moment.

In our final presentation, Kay was wearing the HoloLens. We showed a video of me sitting in HoloLens 2D space as a hypothetical training. (I couldn’t make holograms; this requires a studio with 106 cameras and some complex object mapping) but as the Whitney Houston music came on I could show a female hologram dancing in the HoloLens.

A monitor was set up see what Kay was seeing. I explained how that was what I am going for. Armed with my Dev Bootcamp shirt which read, “Make Beautiful and Meaningful Things,” I was able to puff my chest out and be confident that what we spent the day on mattered.

Winning a Hackathon — Make the most of the potential next steps.

What happened next was the greatest technology opportunity of my life. BlackRock loved the idea and what we presented. They shared that their Women’s Initiative Network (WIN) was putting together an all-female team for their internal hackathon, and asked me and my “Augmented Diversity” idea to be a part of it.

Denise Duffy (In Deb Bootcamp “Make Beautiful and Meaningful Things” T-shirt) with BlackRock internal hackathon team.

I was thrilled to be asked, but I was also torn.

As anyone who is enrolled in any coding bootcamp knows, you barely have time to blow your nose, much less take 3 days off for another hackathon.

I explained my experience with the Lesbians Who Tech / BlackRock hackathon, and the idea I had developed–which is parallel to Dev Bootcamp’s diversity and inclusion mission–and the leadership team gave me permission to defer my next phase of study (Dev Bootcamp on-site immersion consists of three 3-week phases) and jump into the BlackRock experience. I am very grateful for this.

At BlackRock, I met with Birgit Boykin, Director of Inclusion and Diversity, and she was inspired by the idea of Augmented Reality. I also realized that the numerous BlackRock people who were at the hackathon (judges, mentors, or helpers), were all talented people who generously gave their time and energy to make this Hackathon an outstanding experience. From Managing Directors to knee-deep Coders, this family was “all in”.

I was impressed that what might be thought of as a traditional financial company was a group committed to innovation and creativity with the Lesbians Who Tech community.

BlackRock Pride Photo during Lesbians Who Tech Summit Hackathon in San Francisco.

Hackathons upon Bootcamps! Enjoy the Journey.

The three days I got to spend with BlackRock with our Augmented Diversity team were profound. I got to feel the power of being in a high-quality space with high-performing professionals. Pooja Venugopal and Jyotsana Walia (in her first week at BlackRock) helped with the coding. Gathered for the video demo were testimonials from a veteran portfolio manager, data scientists, and software engineers. Each had their own diversity story and inclusion goals.

As longtime BlackRock CEO Larry Fink explained, “We need diversity in our skills and our minds; this does not change our principles but emboldens our principles.”

In the end, my amazing VR team did not win the BlackRock internal hackathon. But we did succeed at many things:

  1. We changed some minds about how diversity and inclusion can be a business case. (BlackRock’s clients demand that BlackRock be a leader in this field.)
  2. Our team won the Bounty award from the Women’s Initiative Network at BlackRock – AND we were featured in a two-and-a-half minute video for the company’s global leadership conference.
  3. Also, our journey allowed us collaborate in way fun ways. We marched down 3rd Street to the offices of Unity so their experts could teach us the nuances in their software. We also got in touch with (and brainstormed with) folks at Microsoft.
  4. On top of all of this, I got to go to BlackRock’s OUT Network meeting where I saw how they were rallying and including their own LGBTQ employees.
Image from BlackRock immersive training prototype using Microsoft HoloLens.
Behind-the-scenes snapshot from production of BlackRock global leadership conference video.

What sticks with me about this experience is the connections I made. Simply, this process has given me great references at BlackRock which I might just need after I finish Dev Bootcamp. Most profoundly, I have new friends, and a commitment to Fay Salwin that I will send her my resume the second I graduate Dev Bootcamp.

I want to thank Edie Windsor, for never letting me give up, Lesbians Who Tech, for their bold vision on how we are unique people who can change the world with technology, and BlackRock for letting me participate in their outstanding culture. I will never be the same.


Lesbians Who Tech is now accepting donations to support our 2017 scholars. Donate today: bit.ly/LWTEdie (campaign ends May 18th.) Individual and corporate donations are tax-deductible. If you are a LGBTQ women or gender nonconforming person and you would like to attend a coding bootcamp, apply for the Lesbians Who Tech Edie Windsor Coding Scholarship by April 30th: bit.ly/EDIESCHOLARAPPLY

Video: The Lesbians Who Tech Edie Windsor Coding Scholarship Fund

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Lesbians Who Tech is a community of queer women in and around tech (and the people who love them).

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