Hackathon models that draw in women

May 9, 2014 at 9:15 am 6 comments

I had some off-blog responses to my post about women in hackathons.  Here are a couple of them:

These both look interesting and successful, in terms of drawing more women in.  I’m still left with questions.  Why do a large-number-of-hours hackfest/stitchfest at all?  The Brown article does give a reason: to build community.  I do believe that a sleepless all-nighter experience can build community.  Are there other, maybe better ways?

Are these replicable models?  Both of these examples are at Ivy League institutions.  Both of these efforts had significant corporate sponsorship.  The Brown hackathon had a professional engineer to work with almost every student group.  Can other schools duplicate that draw?  There are interventions that are easier at an Ivy League institution.  The Harvard CS50 experience is absolutely amazing, but will Facebook sponsor pizza party coding sessions for every school in the US, and is Microsoft willing to host every school at the NERD Center?  I know I’m at Georgia Tech, so I need to watch for being painted with the same brush.  Not everything we do is easily replicated elsewhere.  We explicitly design for replicability and measure it.

Maybe there is value in hackathons, and maybe it can even play a role in improving diversity in computing.  Microsoft and Code.org are supporting hackathons for women. If we’re going to do this, we should articulate the desired value and role, design for it, and test to see if it’s happening.  I’d rather not believe that hackathons are simply there, part of the new computing culture, and now we can only learn how to make them as not-awful as possible.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Andromeda  |  May 9, 2014 at 9:23 am

    As someone who pulled all of 3 all-nighters in college, and one of those under protest…I’d like to see evidence before believing that sleepless all-nighters build (inclusive) community. One of my most dominant memories of why I didn’t want to be a CS major is that it seemed to have this social requirement of sleeping all day and staying up all night in a windowless basement CS lab, eating Fritos, drinking Mountain Dew, and generally eschewing sunlight. And…no. Just no.

    I note that that fitting that social mold has absolutely nothing to do with debugging skills, or algorithmic insights, or logical sophistication, et cetera. It clearly built a strong community among the people who were in that windowless basement computer lab…but I think only after selecting out everyone who didn’t want to treat their bodies that badly. Or who liked interacting with the parts of the world that are awake during the day.

    (And of course, now that I teach adults and I have childcare concerns, I am even more allergic to all-nighters…)

  • 2. Bonnie  |  May 9, 2014 at 9:29 am

    The CCSCNE conference has always sponsored a large programming contest. This year, in addition to the contest, they also ran a hackathon. I don’t know if they attracted more women to the hackathon or not – I should ask. However, I personally think that the hackathon model holds more promise for attracting women than traditional programming contests. I am in the cohort of women who majored in computer science when there were a lot of women in computer science – about 40% of the CS majors at my undergrad school were women. In those days, programming was more of a social experience since we had to go to the computer center to access a computer. in the week or so before a large project was due, the computer center very much had that hackathon feel, with pizza and frantic coding. Personal computers came along just 3 or 4 years later, and the experience of being a computer science major dramatically shifted. I think the hackathons, weirdly, are a way to bring back that intensely social experience of computing.

  • 3. kurteiselt  |  May 9, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    We’ve run two 48-hour hackathons (www.thinkglobalhacklocal.com), and in both cases the percentage of women hackers has exceeded the percentage of women in our computer science program (the most recent hackathon included roughly 35% women, but women make up only 25% of our undergrad CS enrollment). We can’t draw any conclusions based on two data points, but I think our hackers of both genders are drawn to the idea that they can give back to the larger community using their hard-earned computing skills. In post-hackathon anonymous surveys, almost all of our hackers say they would do it again. But I gather we do things differently than many other hackathons. We are completely non-competitive (no prizes, no job interviews at stake), we encourage our hackers to go home and sleep in their own beds if they’re so inclined (most do so on the first night, fewer do so on the second night), and the beneficiaries of our efforts are all non-profit/non-commercial organizations. The 48-hour format gives everyone an opportunity to apply their talents to real world problems in a fun, supportive environment with no grade at stake and no long-term commitment. (Our students have lots of long-term commitments weighing on them already.) And if our students would rather apply their computing skills to a real world problem WITH a long-term commitment, we have ways to make that happen too (e.g. capstone project course). Oh, and we feed our hackers well. And it helps to have some corporate support (thank you Microsoft for money and people!!) to keep the machinery rolling. So are hackathons evil? Maybe all those others are, but ours aren’t. Expensive to run, but not evil. ;)

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  May 10, 2014 at 10:08 am

      Glad to hear that your hackathon went so well, Kurt! It does sound like it’s expensive to do them well.

      I want to call you on one point: I didn’t say hackathons are evil. We in CS Ed too often use binary judgments (a point that I wrote about in a Blog@CACM post). I’m not a fan of first-person shooters, but I see that lots of people are. Building them engages and motivates a segment of our student population. I’m a big fan of doing things that engage and motivate a broader range of students. I’m not convinced that hackathons are a good (or maybe, a cost effective) way of doing that, but I certainly don’t mean to suggest that hackathons are evil.

      • 5. kurteiselt  |  May 10, 2014 at 11:50 am

        I know you well enough to know that you don’t think they’re evil. But some of your readers do. :) And to be honest, I agree with them in some cases. Part of our motivation for organizing our hackathon variant was to provide an alternative to the ones that we thought were evil. (OK, maybe evil is too strong a word. I’ve been known to exaggerate a point to make the point. It’s a teaching trick.)

  • 6. egan  |  May 23, 2014 at 5:17 pm

    Has anyone run/heard of an all-day Hackathon (e.g. 8 am – 8pm each day over a weekend) or are those not “allowed” to be called “Hackathons” and should be called “Workshops” or some other name? I have never attended a Hackathon, but I am interested in seeing what they are like (tried to attend the Microsoft-sponsored women’s Hackathon, but was not able to due to being related to a Microsoft employee — a policy I wish they would reconsider and perhaps change (i.e. I don’t about being eligible for prizes). I agree with an earlier poster — all-nighters do not agree with me. I don’t generally have the luxury of sleeping in all day to recover from them.


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