First Hackathon and Hackathon Firsts

Posted on Mar 27, 2013 in Events, Musings and Insights

Note: This is a personal piece from our Content Creator, Lindsay Oliver, with additional input from one of the EveryoneHacks winners, Wendy Fong.

EveryoneHacks was the first hackathon that I actively participated in. Seriously.

I’ve been around them plenty of times in the past few years, but only from the sidelines, in passing at my local hackerspace, or as the girlfriend-in-tow (not the most legitimate feeling). While I’ve always looked at the tools and ideas that come out of hackathons as incredibly powerful and positive, I have never felt as if participation was open to me. Hackathons are male dominated, and the barrier to entry in terms of technical skill is high. There was no room for someone with an education and writing background, even though I deeply felt I could contribute in a meaningful way.

I’m not the only one who has felt unwelcome in the hacker community. It’s a boy’s club, sometimes by design, but most often by ignorance. I did not have the overtly hostile experience that other marginalized populations have had to deal with. To my knowledge, I’ve never been purposefully, knowingly excluded because of who and what I am. I am lucky in that respect.

However, in some ways the ignorant marginalization is the most insidious. It’s difficult to point to one specific instance of discrimination or exclusion because it is so embedded within the system of geek social hierarchy, especially in issues of empathy:

Here goes: geeks, technical people, programmers, engineers, etc. – are highly logical individuals, and it’s totally normal to start thinking about ourselves in terms of logical systems, because the way we interact with the world on a daily basis is distinctly different from the rest of the population. I, too, often encounter communities or aspects of pop culture that are totally foreign to me as a result of my logical orientation, although I think this is an experience that isn’t unique to geeky folks; everybody runs into individuals that they just don’t “get”. But here’s the thing a lot of geeky people seem to forget as they bond more and more tightly to their identity as logical individuals: geeks are still, first and foremost, human, and as a result, will still experience human emotions on a regular basis, even if they’re interpreted through a logical filter. In my experience, geeky folks have just as many emotional responses as a non-geeky individual in any given circumstance, but the geeky folks are a lot more likely to be totally clueless about the fact that it’s actually a human emotion that’s driving what seems to them like a highly logical argument.

Geek Feminism: Issues of Empathy

This, and issues with social fallacies, are key contributing factors why feminine-identified, minority, and marginalized groups feel unsafe in technical environments such as hackerspaces and hackathons. Part of being excluded is not even being considered in the first place.


Fast forward a year to my role with Geeks Without Bounds. We’ve been developing a hackathon series called EveryoneHacks (check out the Storify from the SFO event) that directly addresses safe space, learning while doing, and inclusion. The initial event had a massive turnout of feminine-identified peoples, students and youth, and the LGBTQ communities.

It was absolutely glorious. I co-led a teacher’s roundtable with participation from students at a local middle school, documented team projects, facilitated discussions and felt absolutely at home. We were purposeful in our framing of participation, and the demographics, activities, and tools produced reflected that diversity of thought and spirit of inclusion. There was an understanding by everyone involved that their input and experience mattered.

When Wendy Fong (GroupSail member and winner of the trip to DigiDem’s Gender-Based Violence Hackathon) was asked what it was like working in a female/queer friendly tech environment, she perfectly summarized what safe space – to contribute and disagree – feels like:

Our team made an iOS mobile app, GroupSail. It’s a collaborative learning tool for students and teachers. I did the design, while the rest of the group built the front and back-end. Being a teacher, the UX part of it was an unexpected bonus. I’ve had lots of varying group dynamics in my classroom and felt confident that my input contributed to the viability of the product. […] I was impressed by the number of women who participated – 80%. It really changes the energy. Speaking from my own experience, even when my group didn’t all agree, we listened and iterated well. It’s coming from a place of trust and respect that may be somewhat rare at these bigger tech events.

This is the spirit of collaboration that we aim for in EveryoneHacks and other technology events. We seek engagement with technology for all populations so that the created tools have the most value for the most people possible. In that spirit, Willow has created an amazing repository of hackathon best practices to facilitate more events that will predicate their success on radical inclusion.

Experiencing a hackathon that was geared towards those in the margins of the technology community has done more to motivate me than all the exclusion ever did. Having a taste of full participation is my driving factor for bringing EveryoneHacks to the rest of the world. Get ready. We’re coming.