Best of Systers

My First Hackathon and I was a winner!

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I am a second-year graduate student studying Computer Science at Mills College, a small liberal arts institution located in the SF Bay Area. Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to attend the 2015 EmpowHERment Summit hosted by Qualcomm in San Diego, CA. This summit is a unique experience where students from all over the U.S. are invited to attend professional workshops, network with fellow STEM students, and participate in a 24-hour hackathon to come up with technical solutions for six non-profit organizations.

As a career-changer coming from a non-technical background in Sociology and Business, my path to Computer Science has been unconventional and often intimidating. With just one year of programming under my belt, I feared that my inexperience would dictate my first hackathon, and it was then that I decided that I may not be the most technical person at this summit, but I would try my best to be the most prepared. Flying into San Diego, my luggage was a bit heavier than it needed to be. I had a binder of research materials, school textbooks, markers, my tablet, and a whiteboard. I even installed software on my laptop that I thought may be useful. I wanted to make the most of this experience.

After meeting several other participants, I was feeling more and more anxious and out of place. Here I was, a noob coder from a small liberal arts school, in a sea of talented students from Duke, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Harvey Mudd, and so on. If I hadn’t known the imposter syndrome before, I certainly was feeling it then. But everyone I met was extremely kind, helpful, and eager to connect with me. I learned so much just from speaking and interacting with the people there. Despite my nerves and doubts about belonging to this special cohort, I knew that these new friendships were already going to be highlight of my trip.

After a full day of technical workshops and professional speakers, it was time. As we entered the Qualcomm hackathon space, I could not help but feel excited for the next impending 24 hours. There were bean bag chairs, snacks galore, and my personal favorite, coffee–on tap. We broke into groups of four and my team was assigned to work with the non-profit organization PinkThink. PinkThink is a budding company that is focused on improving STEM involvement among young girls age 8-14. Their latest product is a programmable LED bracelet, and they wanted a platform where girls could share their code and connect with one another.

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My team spent a good amount of time planning and conceptualizing our project. We wanted to incorporate story-telling and gamification in the form of “Code Stories” that would appeal to the younger crowd. Users would complete code challenges in order to advance, and the stories themselves would interact with the bracelet. For example, our heroine character needed to use her Laser Vision superpower, so users would learn how to code their bracelet to flash red LED “lasers”. In addition, we created a Mentorship Program where experienced coders could mentor younger girls and have the opportunity to utilize their creativity to create their own Code Stories. The great thing about my team is that we all had different strengths and we worked incredibly well together — always supportive, in good communication, thinking positively, and working hard. Since the demo was going to be a large part of our project, I was responsible for story development and graphic design. Being over-prepared definitely paid off when the tablet and stylus that I packed proved to be our team’s secret weapon in bringing our demo to life.

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It’s funny how quickly time passes when you are surrounded by determined and equally caffeinated people. Many of us took turns taking naps and breaks, and I even was able to squeeze in an early morning shower back at the hotel. Before I knew it, the sun was rising, and we were preparing to present our project. When the judgment results were in, we were so ecstatic to hear that we had won “Best PinkThink Project”, but even more surprising was that shortly after, we were also announced “Judge’s Favorite” for our innovative ideas and creative platform. I remember being so happy and proud of my team, and also proud of myself for exceeding my own expectations. From feeling like a nervous and underqualified imposter, to winning two awards at my first hackathon – I never knew I could transform so much in one weekend.

But despite the euphoria during the judgment results, my favorite part of the weekend was actually the five or so minutes after we presented our demo. I had just told my teammates that I was so grateful to them for letting me be on their team despite my lack of experience. They suddenly got firm with me, and said, “No, you contributed just as much, if not more. Anyone can build a technical website. But your ideas and design skills really helped lead us in this direction and that’s why our project is so unique.” With those words, I was finally able to put to rest my self-doubt about belonging in Computer Science. My non-technical experiences were not handicaps, but assets. I am studying at a small liberal arts college and I can hang with the big leagues. I may not have the best programming skills yet, but I have good ideas and I am a great team member. I’ll forever be grateful for this opportunity to grow personally and to affirm my decision to go into the tech world.

At the end of the summit, there was a large poster where participants were able to write about what they are now EmpowHERed to do. I came up with this quote, which perfectly summarizes all the amazing opportunities that the 2015 Qualcomm EmpowHERment Summit has given me:

“Do not be afraid. Inexperience just means that there is more to experience.”

 

Faye Cheng