TechTogether
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TechTogether

Hacka-What??? Conquering My Fears and Attending My First Hackathon

Like most remote students, my calendar has become an extension of my body during this past year. I sometimes feel it has a life of its own, and deadlines appear out of nowhere. “TechTogether Boston” was written on my calendar for about three weeks. This was the first hackathon I had ever signed up for, so you can imagine my anxiety building up every single day for those three weeks leading up to the event.

Friday, November 6th, arrived, and, unfortunately for me, I had no work due for the following week — I couldn’t come up with any excuses not to attend even if I tried. Don’t get me wrong, the idea of participating in a hackathon and putting myself out of my comfort zone was so exciting, but the anxiety was getting the best out of me. My lack of experience with hackathons made me think I’d be placed in a group with very talented people who knew what they were doing. This thought alone almost made me spend my weekend catching up with Love Island — oh my bad, I meant to say getting ahead on my physics homework. Anyway, I pushed myself to go to the opening ceremony and the first team formation event. Fiona Whittington, Co-Founder and Executive Director of TechTogether, was hosting the latter and said she would begin placing us into groups, starting with those who had their cameras on.

Oh no. Like many students who receive online classes, I have become used to never turning on my camera. This is mostly attributed to the fact that I’ve been religiously wearing pj’s and a messy bun for almost eight months. And when I say messy bun, I really mean messy. If anyone reading this has mastered the art of the cute messy bun, I’m impressed. However, the fear of
not having a group was enough to make me quickly change out of my pj’s, ignore the lost cause that was my hair, and turn on my camera. Fiona invited those with their cameras on to present themselves. My anxiety grew when one of the first girls to present herself said she had an idea for the hack she wanted to work on and sounded confident. Oh god, I was right! People are so prepared for this event, and I’m not going to contribute at all to my group. The “Leave meeting” button was looking at me and I was looking right back at it as the internal struggle between my interest in participating in an event like this and my absolute conviction that I would be the weakest link in the group grew.

My internal fight was interrupted when I heard my name being called by Fiona, who asked me to present myself — in front of 50 people, might I add. There’s no going back now. I’m sure I stuttered when I introduced myself, and I honestly can’t remember what I said, but surely no one was impressed with my presentation. Fiona cleverly proposed to place me in a team with other beginners looking to gain some experience. I quickly agreed and felt my heart rate finally stabilizing. I blew the situation out of proportion because soon after, I realized I had been placed in a fantastic group.

After Fiona sent our group to a breakout room, the four of us started to talk and get to know each other. Madi, who is only in 9th grade, impressed me with her maturity and ease in expressing her ideas (and she turned out to be the one with the most experience with HTML of the group). From the first conversation I had with Naila, a sophomore at Amherst College, I knew she would be very dependable and overall a great team worker. Rachel, who works at a cancer institute, revealed that she thought she was shy. On the contrary, she is an excellent communicator, both orally and in writing. I was lucky to fall into a group of women filled with these virtues. These three girls made me feel very empowered, and I quickly forgot my fears when first coming into the event.

It didn’t take long for an idea to emerge from the conversation. Rachel stated that she felt disconnected from her peers at work and wished there was something to help her with her work-life balance. I timidly took advantage of what she shared to propose an idea for an app that could solve this problem. The idea began to mature with the contributions and increasing enthusiasm from each of my colleagues. Our meeting ended that night, but the next day had more pleasant surprises in store.

The workshops I attended throughout the weekend were fantastic and professional. I honestly can’t believe I was getting so much free insight from the industry I want to work in. I got up early to listen to Etienne Fang, who traveled the world asking women what the phrase “Having it all” meant for them. What struck me most was the variety of responses she had gathered. Some of the women Etienne interviewed said having it all meant having the ability to take care of their children or family; others expressed that not having children was the best decision they could’ve ever made. As a future computer engineer, my main takeaway from her workshop is that we should consider this great variety of responses when designing products inclusively.

I also attended Abigayle Peterson’s workshop on how she developed Magnify, an app to help people deal with their mental health problems. It was incredibly inspiring to learn that she created the app because she struggled with mental health issues during high school. Such achievements made me think that she was a college graduate with a lot of professional technical experience. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that she was a year younger than me. I attended over 12 workshops and activities throughout the weekend because I couldn’t get enough.

My anxiety seemed to ease with every workshop I attended. I had the misconception that hackathons focused heavily on just the coding and prizes, but these workshops taught me otherwise. You can do of the experience what you like, and you can get out as much or as little from it as you want. If you do not feel ready to participate fully in the hackathon, that is fine! You are not required to form a team or turn in a hack. You can simply attend the workshops you’re interested in and learn how the event works.

On the afternoon of day two, our team met again, and this time the collective enthusiasm produced concrete and speedy results. We named the app, developed a logo, and defined the functionality of the app. We divided the work into two groups, Naila and I would work on the prototype, and Madi and Rachel would work on coding the website and the written work. The amount of work to be done turned out to be larger than expected, and only persistence and mutual support allowed us to finish it that same night so we could turn it in early the next morning.

The expectations of four women who had never participated in a hackathon were relatively low in terms of winning a prize. Other groups were still asking questions to the mentors and perfecting their final product on day three. This made me assume that we had turned in the project too early and that the chances of winning an award were close to zero. On Sunday, in the afternoon, the impossible happened. We watched the award ceremony mainly to see what other people had worked on. I came into the first and last events of the weekend with no expectations, and as it turns out, our hack was announced on the live stream as the winner of the Best Productivity Hack award!

Our prototype for HelpBay

Thank you, TechTogether, for the opportunity to participate in a hackathon where individuals who identify as females, femme, or non-binary can express their love for tech and feel not only safe but incredibly empowered. I invite all individuals, especially those who ever thought about participating in these events but chose not to because of fear of leaving their comfort zones, to attend the next TechTogether hackathon. I guarantee that the experience will be unforgettable, whether you have a lot of experience or absolutely none. I’m now counting the days to participate in TechTogether New York with my little sister, who was inspired by Madi and decided to sign up with me. Naturally, she is a bit insecure about her experience with coding.

I hope to show my sister that working and collaborating with a team of many different backgrounds and experience levels is what hackathons are all about. Everyone is there to learn and grow, just like you.

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