November 16, 2019

Hacking the hackathon: Tips for women coders

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Attending your first hackathon can be daunting. You overhear the team next to you talk about how they’ve won 10 hackathons, or another individual boast about how they’ve been coding since age 8. You start to feel impostor syndrome settle in.

That was me during my first hackathon. My 24 hours of hard work had culminated in sleep deprivation and a half-working app. Mortified, I decided not to present. But as I watched the rest of the teams pitch their hacks one by one, my jaw dropped. Many of them were bug-ridden and incomplete. Instead of feeling like I had wasted 24 hours, I left that day grinning. I felt like I had learned an insider’s secret: Your hack does not have to work completely — it just has to appear to be bug-free for the demo. After all, it is a hack.

For a long time, I’d shied away from hackathons. Like many women in tech, I experienced the confidence gap. At many of the competitions I attended, I was often one of a handful of women in the room. And in any industry where you’re a minority, there’s bound to be doubt — from people who may question your abilities because you don’t fit into the stereotype, or from your inner self. Typically in academia or industry for engineering disciplines, the women to men ratio is 1 to 5, but at hackathons, the ratio can be as extreme as 1 to 15. Statistics show that women participate in an average of 2.36 hackathons; men attend an average of 4.28. This has serious implications for career growth and exposure to opportunities.

As this gender bias in competitive coding persists, we find ourselves stuck in the classic “chicken and egg” dilemma. With fewer hackathons under their belts, women are not exposed to the same opportunities. The stereotype of male coders persists. This leads to an unwelcoming environment that makes women less inclined to participate in hackathons. To address this problem, we must start a dialogue that not only acknowledges the gender gap at hackathons but also helps women feel prepared to tackle the social dynamics of competitive coding. The confidence gap and the social expectations of what a coder should look like are hurdles that can be overcome with the right perspective.

There are many articles out there on how to succeed at hackathons, but over the years I’ve learned that women face a set of challenges that may rarely cross the minds of their male counterparts. So here are 4 tips I’ve picked up from my time at hackathons that I hope will help more women feel greater confidence to navigate competitive creation:

1. Build a team of allies

Team building is one of the most important steps because it can make or break your hackathon experience. Avoid joining a team solely on the basis of a great idea. A great idea can be alluring at first, but ideas pivot all the time, and great ideas don’t always guarantee flawless execution. Instead, prioritize finding a team that will amplify your good qualities and support your growth. Allies are people who listen to your ideas — even when you aren’t the loudest voice in the room — and who work together to think of a solution instead of taking all the credit or attributing blame.

2. Know your worth

It can be exhausting as a minority in a field to constantly feel the need to establish credibility. A lot of times people look at a woman’s success and assume that the men on the team did all the work. So, at one point I started attending a few hackathons on my own to prove I was qualified. But it soon dawned on me that working alone went against everything that made a hackathon fun for me in the first place. There are always going to be people who doubt you, who attribute your success to luck or someone else’s hard work, but it is not your job to prove to them you are worthy. However, it is up to you to know your worth.

3. Let go of perfectionism

It’s a common misconception that your hack needs to be complete and production-ready. During a hackathon, you’ll see most teams come up with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), a product that has just enough features to give a sense of its capabilities. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see teams setting up their environment ahead of time, leveraging libraries, using mock data, or even hardcoding. This may be difficult for people with perfectionist tendencies to grasp, as they are accustomed to building for completeness. This is particularly true for women, who are more likely to strive for perfection. While perfectionism is a positive quality for detail-oriented tasks, speed and efficiency are everything when you’re in a timed competition.

4. Take part in the presentation

So, you’ve spent all night building your hack. Now, it’s time for the presentation. Your 24 hours of work will boil down to the 2-3 minutes you have to showcase your hack. Try to take an active role in presenting — after all, you should own up to your work! If you’re nervous about public speaking, you can offer to demo the app while another team member speaks. In pitching your product, get creative to make sure it stands out. Weave in a personal story or even an interactive activity with the audience. After all, the judges will have listened to countless pitches by the time it’s your turn.

The bottom line

The lack of female representation in technical roles and events is both institutional and systemic. It’s not a problem that can be solved overnight. However, we can start overturning stereotypes by encouraging more women to compete at hackathons. We can close the confidence gap by sharing best practices within the community, building allies, and then showing the world our great ideas. As coders and builders, we have a great responsibility to build products that serve society and the people around us. As more women participate in hackathons, we can build a future where the builders of technology mirror its users.

Alice Chang is currently a Senior Software Engineer at LinkedIn. She has worked on LinkedIn’s hiring platform, marketing technologies, and enterprise search. She is a Hackday Master at LinkedIn and has participated in over 10 hackathons and won 6. Outside of LinkedIn, she won the DeveloperWeek Hackathon in San Francisco and participated in Amazon’s intern hackathon and HackNY. She is passionate about software development and diversity in tech. Prior to working at LinkedIn she interned at Amazon and worked as a robotics mentor for an all-girls First Lego League team at the Chapin School in New York City.