TechTogether Boston 2019 to Hackcon 2019: Grace’s Story
Grace Yeung, Director of Marketing at TechTogether Boston, tells of her story of going from a recent first-time hackathon attendee to representing one of Boston’s largest hackathons at Hackcon VII 2019 and what she has learned every step of the way.
Attending Hackcon 2019: A Major Milestone
This weekend, I had the incredible opportunity to attend MLH Hackcon VII, a conference for hacker community leaders. Nearly 500 hackathon organizers from around the world convened at Pocono Springs Camp in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania to engage in speaker panels, workshops, and peer discussions surrounding topics such as fostering diversity & inclusion at hackathons, building relationships with hackathon sponsors/partners, and even marketing a hackathon. For me, this wasn’t just another “conference”. This signified another major milestone for me because just six months ago, I was a first-time hackathon attendee. Now, I am the Director of Marketing for TechTogether Boston 2020 and just came back home from Hackcon 2019, the place that I conquered my fears and conducted my first speaking engagement, connected and learned from a tight-knit community of hundreds of hackathon organizers, and fueled the inner fire within me to continue my work with Boston’s Largest All-Female, Femme, and Non-Binary Hackathon.
Who Am I and How Did I Get Here?
I am currently a rising junior at Northeastern University majoring in Business with a Marketing concentration and a Computer Science minor. Now, I didn’t start off that way. When I entered college, my heart was set on my Business major with an Entrepreneurship concentration and little to no interest in technology. Growing up in a family of entrepreneurs, I always had an entrepreneurial spirit burning within me but I never explored possibilities in tech because I was intimidated by the male-dominated tech industry, one with a glass ceiling that I thought I could never break. What I didn’t realize as a college freshman was that although the tech industry is far from achieving optimal levels of gender diversity (amongst other kinds of diversity), it is one that I could face with a supportive community of women and non-binary individuals standing with me every step of the way. How did I arrive at this brand new perspective, you might ask? Well, I attended my first hackathon, TechTogether Boston (TTB), in March 2019 and honestly, it changed my life.
TechTogether Boston 2019: The Hackathon that Started It All
Writing this article, I am reflecting on my year and I remember the day that my life changed like it was yesterday. On January 14th, 2019, I stumbled on the TechTogether Boston Facebook event page while casually scrolling through my Facebook feed. Seeing that it was a gender-focused hackathon for women, femme, and non-binary individuals of all skill levels hosted at Boston University, I was attracted to it as an opportunity to network with creative and driven technical women and non-binary people, see what projects they were creating, how I could learn from them, apply these learnings in a business context, and enhance my technical skillset.
My experience at TechTogether Boston exceeded my expectations in ALL of these aspects, as I was surrounded by almost 600 women and non-binary high school students, undergrad/graduate students, and industry professionals who exuberated fierce persistence and passion for creating social impact through innovative technology, along with a desire to empower each other in their personal and professional journeys in tech.
This was exactly the event that I needed in order to realize that I love gender-focused initiatives, especially gender-focused hackathons, as a force for a future where the tech workforce is diverse and reflective of the people that it aims to serve with their products and services. Moreover, this hackathon showed me that women can truly be empowered leaders in tech and that hackathons are just one of the many initiatives that is removing barriers in the technology pipeline. (Check out my Medium article about female leadership in the technology industry here to see more of the research that has been done on this topic.) Ultimately, TechTogether Boston changed the trajectory of my life. I left the 36-hour hackathon with newfound energy, eagerness, and curiosity surrounding the area of tech and how it can be a force for social good. So afterwards, I immersed myself in my Web Development class, enrolled in a summer section of Fundamentals of Computer Science I (Fundies I), went to local Boston tech meetups and workshops, applied to tech-related internships, and applied to be an organizer for TTB 2020. Fast forward to now, I loved and aced both my Web Development and Fundies I classes, networked with seasoned tech professionals at tech events, earned a six-month Product Management internship at GE Lighting, and was granted the position of Director of Marketing for TechTogether Boston 2020! The fact that I accomplished all of this within six months is mind-blowing to me and the greatest part is that this is just the beginning!
Fast Forward Six Months to Hackcon 2019
As I previously mentioned, I attended Hackcon VII this weekend. There, I met some of my fellow TechTogether Boston organizers for the first time. What was so special about meeting them was that even though we had never met in person, we have been working together for the past four months via Slack and Google Hangouts. Hundreds of online messages exchanged online doesn’t guarantee that you will get along in person but there was an instant connection when we all met, like we had known each other for years (Lisa, Melissa, Priya, and Frances, this one’s for you!) In fact, within the span of a weekend, I cried my eyes out on the shoulder of my hackathon’s Executive Director, borrowed every camp essential I forgot to pack from my teammates, received a heart-warming postcard from another teammate, and was even sent off at the airport by my Executive Director and an organizer from the Boston Hacks team. It’s mind-boggling that a hackathon has led me to meet some of the most supportive people in my life but I wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, Hackcon not only brought me closer to my TTB teammates, but it also allowed me to meet a greater community of hackathon organizers who care deeply about hosting events that enhance the confidence, community, and commitment of aspiring young creators in the tech space. I engaged and learned from hackathon organizers who came from far and wide; from Texas to California to Canada and even Slovakia! Just as important as the people I met is what I learned from them; everything I learned about myself and hackathon planning is important because I will apply it to planning TechTogether Boston 2020 and my future career.
So What Did You Learn at Hackcon 2019?
- Don’t be afraid to take an opportunity to lead & teach others, regardless of if you feel like an unprepared imposter. You never know where it might lead you!
In my experience, you never feel fully ready to take a big risk but that’s the beauty of jumping into new experiences. You can never be 100% prepared for everything and even so, I always keep this quote from Mel Robbins in the back of my mind:
“You need to recognize that the risk of moving toward your dreams is much lower than the slow, everyday punishment you inflict on yourself by suppressing your dream.” — Mel Robbins
Truth be told, I was NEVER ready to organize a hackathon; after all, I had just recently attended my first hackathon and was a business marketing major with very little programming experience. Regardless of the voice in my head calling me an imposter, I applied anyways because I knew it was a chance for me to chase my dream of advancing myself in tech and giving back to the community that had already provided me with so much knowledge, wisdom, passion, and support. Ever since, I have taken every opportunity that has presented itself to me, using all the mental strength within me to fight against imposter syndrome.
I am so proud to say that at Hackcon, I stood in front of a stage of nearly 500 organizers and then conducted a large-scale discussion about best practices for marketing a hackathon, led my cabin mates in fun bonding activities as a bunk counselor (Team Erlang for the win), and struck up riveting and insightful conversations with complete strangers turned into friends. I even found the courage to ask Swift, the CEO of MLH, to take a picture with some of my fellow TTB organizers & Boston Hacks organizers. Priya, TTB Co-Director of Operations, and I also picked his mind about everything hackathon related and now, we know more about using survey data to improve hackers’ experiences and even what kind of conditioner he uses! In every one of these cases, an uncontrollable mix of excitement and anxiety filled my body but from all the chances I took, I learned more about myself and even had an unexpected impact on those who I interacted with, being dubbed with the title of “marketing girl” by my peers (I love that title and am 100% happy to own it).
PS: If you missed my discussion, “How to Successfully Market a Hackathon”, check out my handout from it and let me know if you’d like to chat further about innovative digital marketing strategies!
2. Being a hackathon organizer is more than planning a large-scale event and more than a job title on your resume. It is a way to join a rising movement in tech.
From the short time that I have been a hackathon organizer and from attending Hackcon, I realized two things. One is that being a hackathon organizer is more than an event-planning job role. It enables you to be part of a movement to enact positive social change in the world of technology by creating spaces for people to heavily engage their creativity and technical skills on impactful projects, while building their inner confidence and perseverance. Hackathon organizers also have the opportunity to fundamentally change lives for young people who may not know what career path they would like to traverse post-graduation or even if they want a career change. This is the way that TechTogether Boston has completely changed my life; it has helped me realize that a career in the tech industry is possible for me and that this career can have IMPACT on the world.
The second thing I have learned is that no matter where your hackathon is located or if your team works remotely almost the entire time leading up to the hackathon, there is a huge community of hackathon organizers who will support you every step of the way. At Hackcon, I stood alongside hundreds of community leaders all seeking to improve the experiences that hackers, mentors, volunteers, and sponsors had at their hackathons, which was so inspiring. We are all connected with each other on every social platform imaginable and I have no shortage of hackathon organizers to consult with any hackathon-related or other random school/life questions. Speaking of social platforms, don’t doubt the power of LinkedIn. Even if you connect with someone you have never met in real life, you could meet them in person and it’s a glorious moment when that does happen (shout out to my awesome LinkedIn friends, Christopher Gu and Luis Ocampo from PickHacks).
3. Diversity and inclusion is important but they are only buzzwords if you don’t actively work towards implementing D & I strategies.
On the topic of being a hackathon organizer, there was a huge buzzword that I heard repeatedly at Hackcon 2019, from the Ladies Storms Hackathons campfire discussion to the various workshops and talks. It was diversity and inclusion (okay, two words). Almost every hackathon organizer had diversity and inclusion at the forefront of their mind in terms of planning their hackathon, which truly excites me because as an organizer for a gender-focused hackathon, this is a cause that is close to my heart and one that I have researched extensively. In 2018, only 20% of hackathon participants identified as women, an issue that TechTogether is actively working towards solving. We NEED more diversity in the technology workforce and hackathons can certainly be a force to drive more diversity in STEM.
Although, speaking about the topic is just the first step; action is the next and most important step. For hackathon organizers to actually enact change, we must create safe and inclusive spaces for diverse hackathon attendees. Fortunately, I attended an incredible workshop at Hackcon hosted by Charmaine Lee, Co-Founder of UBC Hacks, who compiled many effective strategies from her workshop that hackathon organizers (and even club/event organizers) can implement to foster diversity and create inclusive spaces. Check it out here to learn more about how you can create the best experience for hackers of all identities!
4. Be a sponge and soak up knowledge everywhere you go! Spread that knowledge far and wide too.
Finally, I learned how valuable it is to learn from fellow organizers in the hackathon space. Sharing practices that have worked well for some teams, what strategies have not worked, and how hackathon organizers can support one another is critical for our continued success in the hackathon community. In the spirit of supporting the hackathon organizing community and sharing my learnings, I want to mention and thank some other incredible hackathon organizers and community leaders who I learned from at Hackcon 2019.
Sumaiya Tabassum from TechTogether New York, your discussion about Continuous Leadership taught me about what it means to be a leader of impact in college and beyond. As a fellow TechTogether hackathon organizer, you inspire me! Read her discussion guide here.
Cameron Akker from HackHarvard, thanks for sharing an incredibly helpful and effective sales framework for hackathon organizers to communicate with sponsors/partners and hope you enjoyed my fire monologue.
Conner Pinson from VandyHacks, thank you for sharing your strategies on attracting non-STEM majors to hackathons. As a fellow non-STEM major, I really appreciate the work that your hackathon has done to create this space for us non-STEM majors.
Anita Tse from nwHacks, the incredible organization of your hackathon’s documentation is mind-blowing and I could not be happier that you shared it with everyone at Hackcon. If you are a hackathon organizer reading this, check out Anita’s Medium article about her team’s use of Notion as a documentation tool (you’ll thank me later).
Lastly, Sarah Greisdorf, previously an organizer with TechTogether Boston and current Director of Boston Hacks, is a superstar female role model (to hackers and entrepreneurs alike) and her lightning talk about “Utilizing Your Off Season” as a hackathon organizer is helpful to any hackathon organizer, be sure to check it out here!
I hope that all of these resources provide actionable insights and strategies to every hackathon organizer reading this and if you’re not a hackathon organizer, you should consider attending, mentoring, or sponsoring your local hackathon. Lastly, TechTogether Boston 2020 is happening from January 31st to February 2nd at Boston University’s Agganis Arena. See you there!