When Faye Cheng first arrived at her first ever hackathon, she was nervous.
“I only had about a semester and a half of programming under my belt, and I was very intimidated,” Faye recalls.
But by the end of the hackathon, part of Qualcomm Women’s Summit held in July 2015, Faye and her team walked away with the Judge’s Choice and Best in Category awards.
The summit, which gathered 117 female college students studying engineering, featured two days of networking mixers, workshops and a hackathon. About half of the participants were Qualcomm interns.
Mission-driven organizations bring young women in technology together
Several nonprofits, including the Anita Borg Institute, as well as two university partners came together to inspire the young women in technology to become “super-heroines” and “disrupt the male-dominated tech environment as we know it today.” Attendees chose from a variety of hack projects to solve real-world problems for the participating nonprofits.
“Hackathons are a great way for students to gain hands-on experience,” says Courtney Lach, staffing specialist at Qualcomm Incorporated, and project lead for the Summit. “They have to come up with an idea and use their skills, and of course, there are bugs along the way. It’s kind of like a mini internship.”
Faye, a Mills College student who pivoted to computer science from sociology, business and design, chose to code for PinkThink, a web and mobile platform that makes STEM education accessible to girls between 8 and 14 years old. PinkThink creates colorful, “codeable” bracelets that connect to other devices and respond to the wearer’s body and ambient temperatures.
Faye and her team were tasked with building a front-end development platform for PinkThink, incorporating a gamified, Arduino-based development model that encourages girls to collaborate and upload codes to the bracelet.
Collaboration and mentorship help tackle the imposter syndrome as an early age
As she faced her first ever hack project, Faye experienced something many women engineers have felt before her — the imposter syndrome.
“I felt like an imposter of imposters,” she remembers. “Here I was surrounded by all these amazing women in tech, and I felt like I just didn’t belong.”
But she overcame that initial fear, embracing the opportunity to dive in and learn all she could from her fellow participants as well as women technologists — several representing Qualcomm —who had volunteered to coach and mentor the summit attendees.
“This was one of my first exposures to real tech employees, and it was great because they were very approachable, helpful and knowledgeable,” Faye says.
And though she had her doubts that her previous coding experience (or lack thereof) could prove a hindrance to her team, the opposite turned out to be true.
“We all had different strengths. I spent a lot of time thinking about where our idea would go, how our demo pitch could be improved and creating a really interactive and visually-pleasing design,” Faye recalls.
“I didn’t expect to win, but when we came out with two awards, I went to my teammates and thanked them for the opportunity,” she remembers. “They actually thanked me and told me I contributed just as much. My background in sociology and design were some of the biggest assets to my team. It was really cool to see that.”
Young female engineers respond to impactful projects
Qualcomm’s Courtney Lach believes that the hackathon at the Women’s Summit was so successful because the participants were eager to see how their work could make a genuine difference for the nonprofits they were coding for.
“Typically at hackathons you see this lull around 3 or 4 a.m., but that wasn’t the case because they were taking it really seriously. They knew their work could really have a lasting impact,” Courtney explains.
For Faye, the whole experience boosted her confidence, personally and professionally. She is still in touch with her teammates from the hackathon, and today, she’s a more resourceful engineer who is excited about and committed to her career in computer science.
“This event really changed my outlook and attitude in general, and showed me that I shouldn’t be afraid of new experiences,” Faye says. “My advice to anyone who might be intimidated by hackathons is that the main focus isn’t just a project. It’s about how much you can bring to the table and how you adopt and embrace the idea.”
Image credit: Qualcomm