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  • ashleyholmes

TechTogether Boston 2019

I attended my first ever hackathon in April. I had the honor of mentoring participants and speaking on a panel at the TechTogether Boston hackathon. Now in its second year, TechTogether Boston (initially called SheHacks, but rebranded this year for inclusivity) is Boston’s (and one of the world’s) largest all-female-and-non-binary hackathons. The event’s mission is to end the gender gap in technology.

In 2018, only 20% of hackathon participants identified as women. TechTogether’s aim is to increase this percentage by creating an inclusive environment to empower more people who are underrepresented in the tech industry and people with non-technical backgrounds. The event helps attendees to either get introduced to the world of technology or harness existing skills to create projects of their own with support of the technology community, industry, and individuals.

Although any woman or non-binary person could register as a hacker, the hackathon was mainly geared toward introducing high school students with little to no exposure to the tech industry, and college students who are looking to improve upon their tech skills. There were students there not just from Boston, but across the country, and even the globe! I spoke to a sophomore high school student who came all the way from India for this event.

This event was held over one weekend at Boston University’s Agganis Arena, and consisted of awesome tech, food, swag, workshops, panels, and mini-events, where hackers were able to learn from distinguished speakers, inspiring mentors, and peers. There were 20 sponsored challenges by companies such as Wayfair, Atlassian, Microsoft, Google, Dell, RedHat, IBM, MathWorks, and more, as well as 13 TechTogether challenges. Sponsored challenges included topics like “Best Use of Open Source Data for Social Good,” “Best Hack for Housing Inequality,” and “Mental Health Issues Hack.” Many of these companies gave away internships (or interviews for full-time positions) to the winning teams as prizes. TechTogether challenges included topics like “Climate Change Environmental Sustainability Challenge,” “Health Issues Hack,” and “Best Hack for Boston.”

The panel I spoke on was called LGTBQ in Tech, where I shared my experiences both as a woman and an out lesbian in the tech world. Joining me on the panel was Lindsay Ladd (Founder and Chief Executive Officer of EmpirEqual), Lindsey Christensen (Chief Marketing Officer at thoughtbot), and Michelle Parsons (Product Owner at Spotify), moderated by Gefen Skolnick (Venture Partner at Contrary Capital). We talked about the following topics:

  • Our various pathways into the tech world,

  • Tips we had for being the stand-out junior member on a team,

  • Our experiences in workplace diversity and inclusion practices at different companies,

  • How to gauge if a company is inclusive to people of color and queer folk before working there,

  • Personal challenges we’ve faced in being out in the workplace or in professional settings,

  • The best way to professionally communicate with someone being insensitive to your experience as a POC or queer person,

  • What non-marginalized people can do to uplift and support POC and queer folk in the work environment, and

  • Advice for aspiring young individuals looking to break into tech.

Personally, my path into tech was very nonlinear. As a mathematics major in undergrad, we were required to take one coding class. I took a course in MATLAB and found that I absolutely loved coding for the same reason that I loved math: that frustration of working on a problem for so long, which eventually gives way to the exciting and fulfilling feeling of accomplishment when you figure out the answer (or when you get the code to do what you want it to). I loved coding so much that I decided to minor in computer science. My school’s computer science department was very small, and I was the only girl in every class beyond the introductory ones required for math majors. There was also only one female professor in the entire department.

Although I had planned to be a high school math teacher since I was 12 years old, I ended up pivoting after completing student teaching in my second-to-last semester. I decided to go to graduate school for systems science with a concentration in healthcare systems. In grad school was the first time I even heard the word ‘hackathon,’ but I still didn’t really know what it was. All I knew was that my technical skills were rudimentary at best, and after my experiences being the only girl in my program in undergrad, I was hesitant and ultimately way too intimidated to ever attend a hackathon. I thought I wouldn’t be good enough to contribute, or that I would get largely ignored or dismissed by the “real” (mostly male) coders, the same way I was in undergrad.

When I first learned about TechTogether Boston through the Out In Tech non-profit, I was thrilled! A hackathon specific to women and non-binary folks that also promotes inclusion of people with non-technical backgrounds sounded like something I could have used all of those years ago. I jumped at the opportunity to be a mentor, as well as speak on a panel about being LGBTQ in the tech industry.

When I first started out in my career in academia, I was scared to reveal that I was queer to my co-workers or bosses, for fear of discrimination (or worse). Eventually I realized that I don’t want to work for a company that is not tolerant of, and does not have resources for, the LGBTQ community. Coming from academia, where “bringing your whole self to work” was not encouraged, I had no idea that companies like athenahealth existed. I truly appreciate that not only did athena have the diversity council, Women’s Leadership Forum, and athenaProud, but they also promoted inclusion in the broader industry in multiple ways. One way they did this is by sponsoring Fenway Health (the nation’s leading LGBTQ clinic. Another way was by designing an EHR that supports transgender patient care, including adding fields for self-reported name and gender identity while simultaneously supporting billing under a patients’ sex assigned at birth and birth name.

When I shared this with the hackers who attended my panel, several high school and college students came up to me after the panel to ask questions about career advice or what coding languages to learn, and to say how incredibly important our inclusive EHR is. One such student was nearly in (happy) tears, thanking me for our work. I have never been more proud or happy to work at athenahealth.

This hackathon was arguably the most rewarding experience of my professional career thus far, and I can’t wait to see TechTogether continue to grow. With 700 hackers last year for the first annual hackathon, and 1,200 this year, there is clearly a high demand. TechTogether welcomes mentors of all genders, and I hope some of you will consider applying for next year’s event!

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