Hackathon Organizing & Community Building: a Q&A with Katie House, HackHer413 Director
We sit down with Katie House, the director of HackHer413 2019, to learn about her experience with organizing a hackathon and the impact it had on her community. Join us as Katie shares her tips and tricks for creating a stellar organizing team and successful hackathon while also showing us how organizing has expanded her network and made her lifelong friends!
Question 0: Before we get started, we’d love to give our readers more information about you and your accomplishments.
I am a Master’s student at UMass Amherst studying Computer Science and concentrating in Data Science. I grew up in the Boston Area and did my undergrad at Northeastern University, where I studied Industrial Engineering. Hopefully when I graduate I’ll be working full-time as a data scientist! In my spare time, I love experimenting with recipes and making baked goods — my specialties are pies and cookies! Last year, I won two awards at SheHacks Boston. It was my first hackathon and one of my inspirations for starting HackHer413!
Question 1: What was your inspiration and motivation behind starting an all-female and non-binary hackathon at UMass Amherst? Did you see a need for it on campus or was it more of a personal project that you wanted to share with others?
My first day at UMass Amherst as a Computer Science Master’s student was a challenging one. Walking into a Machine Learning class at UMass, I looked up and realized I was one of the only women in a room of over 200 men. I felt immediately uncomfortable, out-of-place, and incapable. Computer science is an intimidating field for anyone, especially underrepresented populations. If computer science and technology were more accessible to everyone, the field would be overall a more inclusive, progressive, and innovative space.
I created HackHer413 to provide a positive space that fosters learning, exploration, and growth in the otherwise intimidating field. All-women and non-binary student hackathons not only open doors for women and non-binary students, but also retain them in the field. Hopefully, someday, women and non-binary students will make up a more equal portion of the industry and will no longer worry about being accepted by their peers. I not only saw the need for an all-women and non-binary hackathon at UMass but at any college campus, especially campuses that also have another co-ed hackathon. Both types of hackathons bring so much to the table and really make a positive impact on the community.
Question 2: As you moved forward with creating HackHer413, what challenges in planning did you run into that you hadn’t foreseen or that was more difficult than anticipated?
Navigating the different offices in the university definitely presented a challenge. As with any large university, certain tasks require contacting specific offices within the university. Finding the right contacts was a challenge for the first year of the event, but we hope to have less of a problem in future years.
Question 3: How did you overcome difficult obstacles and approach potentially out-of-your-comfortable-zone experiences, like pitching to investors/sponsors or asking faculty/organizations for help?
Pitching does not come naturally to me. When I first had the idea of HackHer413, I remember calling most of my family and friends to sell them the idea. I thought, if I can sell this idea to them, maybe I can sell it to a broader audience. One aspect that helped to pitch the hackathon was being prepared for questions. Before I met with the dean, I wrote a proposal that was over 6 pages of details about why HackHer413 would be successful. I think making that proposal helped show, not just tell, my commitment to the event. Once I pitched the idea to many people, it came more naturally. Practice really does make perfect.
Question 4: How did you recruit your team? What takeaways can you share about what is needed for a productive and unified team? How did you cultivate a team of complementary members to expand your idea into areas you didn’t have experience with?
When I started the hackathon, I asked one of my good friends, Shreya Sharma, to help me as the assistant director. Having a good friend as an assistant director was very helpful because hackathon planning became so much fun. We recruited our team by reaching out to the Women in Computer Science club at UMass. Then, we did several phone interviews with each of the candidates about why they would like to be on the team.
I think one of the big things we looked for in the team was passion. We knew that the hackathon would be a time commitment and stressful at times, but we thought if the candidate showed passion about Women in Computer Science, any amount of work would not seem too bad. We also looked for positivity. I believe that positivity is contagious, and can help a team through the most stressful times.
To help with areas that I did not have experience with, we looked for team members from other majors. One of our team members, Risa Kim, is a finance major at UMass and did an awesome job handling all of our expenses. I think it’s important to have a team of different majors and backgrounds because hackathon planning requires a cross-functional and multifaceted team.
Question 5: How did creating this event expand your sense of community within your school and your greater network?
Before HackHer413, I could only count my friends at UMass Amherst on one hand. Throughout the planning process, I have met and befriended so many amazing students, staff, and industry mentors. The other organizers have become like a second family to me and I am so proud of every one of them and cannot wait to be lifelong friends. It is incredible how these events bring people together in such a unique and empowering way.
Question 6: Throughout the course of planning and organizing HackHer413, did you uncover any unexpected connections? As in, did someone help you in ways you wouldn’t expect?
Most definitely. There were several occasions where a casual conversation about the event led to support or even sponsorship by an individual. One piece of advice I would give is to carry branded information about the event with you at all times. You never know who you will run into that may like to help out with the event.
Question 7: How did you manage your teams and keep them and yourself organized? What advice would you give to other organizers to help them stay on top of all the details that come with creating and hosting a hackathon?
Organization is key to these events. I think that having one centralized place (avoiding various stand-alone documents) for important information such as sponsorship, expenses, and logistics is absolutely crucial for event planning. It is important that every team member to know where to find and edit information. We used Airtable for our organization needs, which worked pretty well. Although, we may be looking for more user-friendly systems for next year. I think in general, it is helpful to keep things as simple, thorough, and standardized as possible.
Question 8: What kept you sane through all of the trials and tribulations of planning HackHer413? How did you balance your life and find time to take care of yourself?
My friends, amazing partner, planning team, family, and cat all helped keep me sane throughout. At times hackathon planning was stressful and it is easy to feel like everything is falling apart. To feel better, I tried to think of the bigger picture. I thought of the students we could potentially impact. I focused on envisioning everyone in February working, learning, and having fun together. That vision kept me going. And by the day of the event, all of the hard work, the stressful times, and the long nights were worth it.
Question 9: How did you approach diversity and inclusion at HackHer413? Did you have any particular strategy for ensuring that your outreach was reaching marginalized groups and encouraging their participation?
One thing that I think is important is to have a diverse planning team. Our planning team ranged in age, ethnicity, nationality, major, and many other factors. When coming up with ideas from the event, I thought it was great to have all voices in the team heard and valued. We also reached out to many student organizations that focused on diversity and inclusion to promote the event.
We tried to add as many details as possible to promote inclusion on all levels. For example, having a spot in the name tag where a participant can write their pronouns, having plenty of gender-neutral bathrooms, asking participants about any disabilities, and being careful with wording as to not exclude any groups. However, there is always room for improvement and we have already made some notes for next year to support making the hackathon even more inclusive to everyone.
Question 10: Having successfully held HackHer413 2019, what experiences while running the event was the most fun/inspiring and what were the most challenging? What advice can you give to other organizers to help them avoid mishaps and conflicts during their hackathons?
I had so much fun going from room to room and meeting all of the hackers, mentors, and sponsors. It is humbling to see your work come to fruition and the entire weekend I was so unbelievably overjoyed. One thing that was challenging was how quickly everything seemed to go by. The advice I would give to organizers is to do as much as possible ahead of time for setup, planning, printing, and logistics. Pretend like you have no time on the day of the event. Time will fly faster than it ever has, and it really helps to be as prepared as possible. That way, you can take time to enjoy the event you have worked so hard to create.
Question 11: What resources did you use at your school and in your community to begin to turn your idea for HackHer413 into reality? What resources do you wish you could have had?
I received so much amazing support from the university. When I initially came up with the idea, I had a meeting with the dean of the College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS), Dean Laura Haas. She was so enthusiastic about the idea, she asked one of the new Directors of Diversity, Erika Dawsen-Head, to help us succeed. I could not have done this without help from the dean, Erika, and the rest of the CICS staff who were unbelievably supportive every step of the way.
I could also have not done this without the support of the HackUMass team. HackUMass is an extremely successful hackathon that brings in 1000 students every year. Their knowledge, passion, and helpfulness gave us on-campus resources and contacts necessary to move forward from the ideation to the planning stage, to the ultimate day-of success.
One resource that would have been really nice is a more formalized how-to guide to running a hackathon at UMass. But, we’re hoping to come up with one for next year!
Question 12: Do you have plans for a HackHer413 2020? If so, what lessons will you take from your experiences this year into the next? What would you do differently or how has your vision changed or grown?
We are so excited to start thinking about HackHer413 2020! The event this year was such a success, we hope to keep it similar for next year, but with some improvements so that we can make next year better than ever.
Some things we are thinking for next year include: adding functionalities in Dashboard, the web app we share with HackUMass, to make the judging process more efficient. We will also rework our sponsorship package and rework some minor details that will help improve the event. We are also hoping to get started on food planning earlier in the year, in order to secure good food and snack sponsors.
Question 13: How has planning HackHer413 affected your personal and professional life?
Planning HackHer413 has made me so many amazing contacts, friends, and professional connections, it is hard to think of what my life was without it. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have had this experience and to have met so many amazing people because of it.
Thank you to Katie House for taking the time to answer our questions! This article is a part of our Hackathon Organizer Series. If you enjoyed what you read, follow TechTogether on Medium and subscribe to our mailing list below!