Hacking Diversity

by Michael Szul on

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If you've been paying any attention to my Twitter feed, the podcast, or even the blog, you probably know that I've been working hard since November (along with teammates from work) to put together a hackathon specifically serving underrepresented groups in software engineering, including women, African-Americans, Latinos/Latinas, and LGBTQ individuals. The event passed this previous Saturday with lower-than-I-would-have-liked attendance, but high quality speakers, excellent group collaboration, some happy winners, and was overall a pretty great event.

As mentioned on the web site, we had speakers Shauna Keating, Ace Callwood, and Richard L. Taylor Jr.. Richard is a fellow Microsoft MVP, and somebody that I had met in November at the Philadelphia Community Connect. I hit it off with him enough that when I started thinking of speakers for the hackathon, I reach out to him personally and offered him a slot, if he was available. He was nice enough to agree to do a lunch-and-learn about Xamarin, and when his company--SentryOne--found out about the event, they offered to sponsor our nitro-pressed coffee and snacks. If you're interested, you can find all of the speakers' talks on YouTube.

The event itself was open to local area professionals and college students alike, but college students clearly dominated attendance. My biggest concern going in was the potential for party-crashers. I had a few people reach out to me negatively because the event was "serving" underrepresented groups--meaning straight, white men need not apply. To be clear, we weren't preventing straight, white men from attending, just from participating in the hackathon itself. Also, since it was open to LGBTQ individuals and those with disabilities (whether cognitive or physical), if a white male showed up, it wasn't like we were going to quiz him on his sexuality to make sure he could participate. It was basically the honor system. Still, we had some push-back. Several people had some snide comments; a few others were angry. Luckily, none of them showed up.

I went into the event worried that the data science problem was too easy, so I worked the week before to make it harder. I might have made it too hard for most, but both teams that finished and submitted work for the data science problem description did end up tackling what I thought they would.

The highlight for me was the chatbot competition. If you know me (or read this blog), you know that I'm all in on chatbots. It's one of the reasons I put it in the competition. Only one team lasted until the end, and submitted a chatbot solution. This team of four young ladies (minority college students) had zero experience building a chatbot coming in, and knew nothing of the Microsoft Bot Framework. They stayed all day, asked a bunch of question, tinkered with a lot code and code samples, and designed a great solution for medical student self-care. The judges were impressed enough that they not only awarded this team top prize for the chatbot problem, but also decided that they were the top team overall.

Renee Teate from Becoming a Data Scientist was one of the judges, and snapped some great pictures of winners, but also held a late day AMA about data science with several of the interested students.

At the end of the day, my fretting over attendance numbers, or the people who quit early, really meant nothing. The goal of the hackathon was to show underrepresented groups in software engineering that they belong in technology; that they can succeed. When I look at the photos of the winners, or I think of the other attendees that submitted finished code, or just stuck around to the end, and took a pizza home, I see that we accomplished what we set out to do. I mean, we held a hackathon that was supposed to encourage minority participation in an industry, and our overall winners were a group of four young women from minority backgrounds who went from zero to chatbot in a single day.

I can't think of anything else that would spell success better than that photo.