The Hackcon Experience

Where student hackathon organizers figure out how to take over the world

“Why were you in New York City?” said the nice woman sitting next to me on my flight from JFK to AUS.

I just explained what a hackathon was to the couple on the plane. I’ve never given the explanation with such a big smile in my face. Hackcon was the reason why. I knew from the start when Dave Fontenot sent me a Facebook message with a link to that it was going to be something pretty awesome. I didn’t know it was going to be this awesome though. I was jealous of the students going to school so close to New York City and hoped that plane tickets would not be too expensive. I ended up buying my tickets that week. There’s always something special about getting to meet fellow student doers, makers, hackers, and organizers that you’ve had sparse contact with from across the country, but this was something much greater than that.

This weekend was great for many reasons, but I believe one of the main reasons was because I saw in person that the university hackathon community is more than just alive and well. It is exploding in all of the best ways possible. On multiple occasions there were stories of how hackathons had changed organizers and fellow hackers lives. It was also seen when most of the people in the room raised their hands when asked whether they had gotten a job due to a hackathon. University hackathons are not just events; they are a movement. I’ve never seen so many passionate, caring, and helpful people in the same room. Their dedication to the movement was displayed in so many ways. At the end of Hackcon we all sat in a circle, thanks to Dina Lamdany from ADI at Columbia, and we spoke on our values. It was amazing to hear the passion different organizers had when speaking about what their brand and hackathon’s values were. I loved the way that people would surround Jared Zoneraich to help him work on the organization of his first high school hackathon, HackBCA. It was heard in the claps for Dan Schlosser from ADI when he said they turned DevFest from a 250 to an 800 student event at Columbia, where the Computer Science department is only about 320 undergraduate students. It was seen in the many tweets on how great the “Running an inclusive hackathon” presentation and discussion was, which was led by Amalia Hawkins, Tess Rinearson, Katie Siegel, and myself. During any given moment during Hackcon, moments like these were happening around the room.

I’m the only female on the organizing team for HackTX, on the McCombs’ Entrepreneur in Residence team, and one of two on the Technology Entrepreneurship Society leadership team. I am typically a part of a small minority of females if not the only female in the room at other related events. I don’t get to be surrounded by college aged women, especially ones that also organize hackathons. This weekend that changed. I stayed in a loft with about 16 other women and one bathroom in Williamsburg. You can say we all really bonded. Hackcon had over 25% female attendance. I’ve always had hope in an increase of female participation in the hackathon scene, but what I saw at Hackcon helped me strongly believe that it is in the near future. Hack@Brown was founded by Molly Long and Mackenzie Clark. In 2014, 35% of Hack@Brown’s attendees identified as female and 73% attendees said it was their first hackathon, which was due to the organizing team’s understanding of great design, word choice, mentorship, and an emphasis on learning, not prizes. There’s also the HackMIT team which is leading the way as a large organizing team that is about half female. There’s Dina Lamdany and the rest of the ADI team who is obviously killing it in the best way possible at Columbia with events like Cookies and Coding and DevFest that have helped create an incredible learning environment for student developers.

A group of 300 student hackers were asked, “What do you want for the hacking community in 2014?”

I was so humbled and thankful to get to lead a talk and discussion about increasing participation of minority groups at hackathons with the amazing Amalia Hawkins, Tess Rinearson, and Katie Siegel. I have so much respect for these women that I can barely put it into words. They’ve seen some of the worst times for women in tech community in the past few years yet they still power fearlessly on. I hope little girls across the country can somehow hear their stories. We need more role models like my fellow presenters.

Presenting “Running an inclusive hackathon” — From Parsons Code Club Instagram:

One hackathon that I cannot wait to see happen is Bitcamp at the University of Maryland. Their founding team is the product of all our experiences as hackathon organizers. They are truly a diverse team. Their fantastic design and language is based on a typical camp like experience. Merit badges are included. It is going to take them far regardless of how their first hackathon turns out.

It felt amazing to sit around new, like-minded friends just discussing every aspect of our community. I felt like everyone really took fellow organizer’s opinions into consideration in all of our discussions. Typically, I like to move off of a topic after talking about it for 7 hours in a day, but it was addicting. There were also discussions on topics ranging from the history of hackathons, organizational management, mentorship, judging, sponsor relations, building a community within our communities, helping out new hackathon participants, and much more in side conversations.

Looking back on this weekend, I get warm feelings in my heart. We discussed tough subjects and sensitive topics yet we still all managed to be mature, innovative, and solution oriented. Last week I finally realized that finding students committed to a common goal is rare. We all know that planning these events is not a simple task. Like John Britton from Github said, we juggle dealing with attendees, organizers, the venue or in most cases the university, sponsors, mentors, recruiters, members of the field, press, vendors, and the rest of the world. I feel that few people really understand what that is like. We are not professionals. We are students who are expected to be in class 12 to 18 hours a week and doing homework for even longer. Some of us are also working on or for companies on the side. We are definitely not like most college students. We are the top tier of students. Some of the few people that understand this were at Hackcon; because of this we will be stronger and our hackathons will be even stronger, more inclusive, and will go above and beyond.

(Organizers: If you want to really explore in the future, let’s have it in Austin. I can help. I’ve got a perfect location in mind: Yes, that’s the POTUS with the most-est at Capital Factory.)