WHACK, a "woman-centric" hackathon, gathered 80 undergraduate students in October to build projects for three Boston-area nonprofits.

Photo by Chris Aho, courtesy of Major League Hacking

Bye-Bye 'Brogrammers.' These Hackathons Are All About Inclusivity

At Major League Hacking’s whirlwind weekend events, the entry requirements are simple: an innovative spirit and an interest in tech are all you need.

At her first hackathon, Grace Hu, now a senior at Wellesley College, scanned the room and noticed she was on the event’s only all-female team. She shrugged it off and returned to playing around with virtual reality headsets. But as the computer science and math double major signed up for more hackathons, the persistent gender divide she saw every weekend irked her. “It can be a really isolating experience when you’re the only girl on a team,” Hu says. “It can get to you at a certain point: ‘Why am I the only person doing this that looks like me?’”

To right that imbalance, Hu and a classmate put on a woman-centric hackathon in October, where two-thirds of the participants were female. “We made this our kind of hackathon,” says Hu. Hosted over 48 long hours at Wellesley in Massachusetts, WHACK (for Wellesley Hacks) brought together 80 undergrads, largely from Boston-area colleges, to build projects for three nonprofits: UpLift, which combats sexual harassment; Partners in Health, which ships medical supplies to developing countries; and Wellesley’s Office of Disability, which makes the campus more accessible to those with a physical handicap. Faced with real problems that technology might solve, the participants got right to work. Since the event, their projects have been integrated into the nonprofits’ operations, extending the weekend’s impact, adds co-organizer Amanda Foun.

Conferences like WHACK are possible because of the support they receive from Major League Hacking (MLH), the official collegiate association that sponsors the 30-hour programming sprees. Think of them as the NCAA of computer coding. Every year, MLH sponsors 220 events across the globe. (During the first weekend of October, while the girls at WHACK tapped at their keyboards in Massachusetts, MLH hosted five other hackathons simultaneously in cities from San Diego to Baltimore.) Unlike professional hackathons, where attendees show up with a broad skill set, the league places mentors at each of the college meetups to offer instruction. In total, MLH teaches computer science skills to 65,000 students annually. The goal is to broaden tech’s availability, opening participation to amateur developers and minority groups underrepresented in tech.

“We help create events where student programmers, designers and makers can develop their technical skills and passions,” says MLH’s CEO Mike Swift, who co-founded the association in 2013. “Whether that’s making websites and mobile apps or self-driving cars, we offer the venue and the community to learn how to do those things and reach those goals.”

Hackathons usually begin with a pitch session, where a handful of attendees float their ideas, attracting others to work on their teams. The events adopt a freeform, build-what-you-wish structure, a far cry from how most computer science classes are taught. And for many participants, that’s liberating. In university classrooms, students “get a lecture from a professor or a grad student. The curriculum is mostly out of books,” says Swift. Walking into an MLH event, on the other hand, you might see someone building an Android app to design carpool routes, while someone else is making a device to translate sign language.

MLH goes to extra lengths to welcome first-time hackers, making a special effort to reach out to female engineering societies, women-in-tech conferences and other minority groups. The organization also offers scholarships for people who can’t afford the travel costs on their own. Once there, attendees can dive into hour-long workshops about, say, Javascript or the principles of user design. As they’re laboring over their projects, mentors circle the room to help troubleshoot error messages or offer lessons in connecting to the hardware.

Without the league’s support, it would be a challenge to put on a hackathon alone, says Hu. To get ready for WHACK, for instance, MLH blasted the event details to their contacts, supplied technical hardware, lined up a squad of mentors and judges and handled logistics like food delivery. The MLH liaison on-site was like “having 10 extra hands,” she says.

The WHACK hackathon was supported by the collegiate association Major League Hacking. Photo by Chris Aho, courtesy of Major League Hacking

For women in the room at WHACK, the diversity was a welcome change, says Hu. “When you hear about ‘brogrammer’ culture, caffeine shots and not sleeping for a day, there’s a lot to be intimidated by. That can often scare away minorities in tech, which includes females,” she says. By targeting the conference to girls, WHACK sent a message that women belong at hackathons. “It puts more focus on the project itself, rather than the kind of environment that I’m working in,” she adds.

At this year’s WHACK, as twinkling Christmas lights dangled from a “W” at the front of the student center, teams of four and five hammered away, sometimes doing so as late as 4 a.m., to come up with tech-driven solutions for the nonprofits. One group built a social media plug-in, using IBM’s Sentiment Analysis, to detect whether a message would be considered online harassment. Another group linked vaccine delivery with texting, so an SMS would trigger a shipment. One team, all first-time rookies, used a Pebble Smartwatch to build a hack that would warn students with disabilities about any nearby hazards, such as a steep slope. They took home the top prize.

For Hu, that’s indicative of just how open MLH-sponsored hackathons truly are. “You don’t have to have advanced skills to attend and build really cool things in a few days,” she says. “As long believe in yourself, there’s always something cool that you can get out of one weekend.”

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This article is part of the What’s Possible series produced by NationSwell and Comcast NBCUniversal, which shines a light on changemakers who are creating opportunities to help people and communities thrive in a 21st-century world. These social entrepreneurs and their future-forward ideas represent what’s possible when people come together to create solutions that connect, educate and empower others and move America forward.

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at chris@nationswell.com.