Running an Inclusive Hackathon

How to get better representation at your hackathon

Tess Rinearson
Dec 29, 2013 · 5 min read

So you’re running a hackathon, huh? Good for you. Hackathons can teach students things they wouldn’t learn in a classroom and even transform communities. They’re also a tremendous amount of work—so, thank you. Right off the bat, you’re doing good work.

But, like much of tech, hackathons suffer from a lack of diversity. And, if you’re going to pour so much effort into organizing a hackathon, don’t you want everyone to show up?

Here are some ideas on making hackathons appeal to everyone.

HackMIT 2013

Encourage beginners.

Be explicit that no experience is necessary. Run workshops and tech talks before the event to help give beginners useful skills. Encourage older students to team up with younger students. Provide mentors who can answer questions—and let participants know that those mentors are there.

Penn alumnus Sam Riggs and yours truly at PennApps 2013f. Photo by Adi Dahiya

Broaden your judging panel and your set of mentors.

If you’re going to have judges at your hackathon, be sure to invite judges with a broad range of backgrounds. Beyond women and people of color, this can also mean doing things like inviting designers as well as engineers to judge.

The same goes for mentors—give beginners role models who they can identify with.

Create a variety of prizes.

A huge jackpot prize is great, but it’s even better to have a wide variety of prizes, including some that are accessible to beginners. Consider creating prizes for best design, most useful, funniest, or other categories that don’t require great technical experience. If you’re running a college event, you might want to have a prize for “Best Hack from an All-Freshman Team.” Sponsor prizes—that is, prizes that sponsors award for hacks using a specific API—can also be helpful here.

PennApps 2013f

Go beyond pizza.

No one wants to eat nothing but pizza for an entire weekend. But people who don’t revel in the geek stereotype are even less enthusiastic about it. Get healthier, more diverse meal options. Your attendees might follow suit.

Additionally, make sure that you have non-alcoholic drinks available. This shouldn’t be a problem at a college or high school hackathon, but I’ve seen other events which have leaned heavily on booze.

Encourage good hygiene.

If your event is longer than 24 hours, see if you can open the gym showers to hackers. Put a handful of toothbrushes in the bathroom. Signal that this is a place for people to be clean and approachable.

Have women host other women.

If you have a hackathon on the longer side, and students from your institution are “hosting” visiting hackers for the night, make sure that visiting women can stay with women. It can be a little scary to stay with a man who’s a stranger, so make sure there are enough female hosts.

Put a code of conduct in place.

You can do everything you can to make hackathon inclusive and safe, but there’s no guarantee that inappropriate things won’t happen.

A code of conduct, or anti-harassment policy, gives you the teeth you need to remove anyone who makes other hackers uncomfortable. It’s also a strong, preemptive reminder that bad behavior won’t be tolerated.

PennApps 2013f.

Be careful with your calendar.

Is your event the same weekend as that big women’s tech conference? Sorority recruitment? If you’re running a high school event, does it conflict with the girls’ soccer tournament? The orchestra concert?

No one wants their hackathon to conflict with another big event, but be especially mindful of events that draw a disproportionate number of women or minorities.

Reach out to affinity groups.

Try reaching out to your school’s groups for women or minorities in engineering. For example, a lot of schools have a group specifically for women in computer science. The leaders of these groups can help provide outreach to their members, and can also give feedback on the way you’re marketing your hackathon.

Also try reaching out to the Greek system—anecdotally, I’ve found a high correlation between women in the hackathon community and women in the Greek system.

Recruiting through affinity groups can be an especially powerful form of outreach—people can often get their friends to go, and for new hackers it’s helpful to know that other people with similar experiences will be at an event.

Make diversity visible.

Make sure that your promotional materials show a diverse range of characters. Help potential participants visualize themselves at your hackathon.

Watch the language you use.

The words “ninja” and “rockstar” tend to attract men. Even the word “hack” can be gendered. As a self-proclaimed hacker, this breaks my heart—but I have heard young women say that they shied away from hackathons because they assumed they would be aggressive events about breaking into systems.

Consider using words like “make” instead, or if you do want to keep using the word “hack,” be explicit about what a hackathon really is.

Emphasize creativity, individuality and teamwork.

Make sure that participants know that they can work on solving problems that are important to them. Make sure that participants realize the breadth of skill that’s required to have a successful hackathon. A good hack needs a backend person, a frontend person, someone with an eye for design—and all these people need to be able to communicate with each other! Hackathons are definitely not about being anti-social.

Now, some credit where credit is due: Thanks to Amy Quispe for her excellent post on how she ran an inclusive hackathon, and also to the National Center for Women and Information Technology for their list of ways to make computing competitions appeal to young women. Thank you also to every hackathon organizer who has asked in the past weeks about running inclusive events—you are doing something truly wonderful and I’m so grateful for your effort!

Hackers and Hacking

Sleepless weekend passion projects and the people who do…

Hackers and Hacking

Sleepless weekend passion projects and the people who do them.

Tess Rinearson

Written by

VP of Engineering, Tendermint Core. (Previously: @Chain, @Medium.)

Hackers and Hacking

Sleepless weekend passion projects and the people who do them.