Tech Lady Hackathon: 'A really open community for women'


The third annual Tech Lady Hackathon drew 157 attendees in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 8.

It’s 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning in downtown Washington, D.C. On the third floor of 419 7th St. N.W. in Chinatown, bright sunlight streams through large windows. More than 150 women sit at round tables inside the Impact Hub co-working space, staring intently at their Apple laptops. The website on their screens is techlady.hackpad, where the projects of the day are listed.

The women huddled around their computers -- mostly in their 20s and 30s, clad in t-shirts, jeans, and sweaters -- are the 141 registered and 16 walk-in participants in the 3rd annual Tech Lady Hackathon -- a day of collaborative programming organized by women for women on civic-minded projects.

Two sessions are happening at the same time. In the main space, Shannon Turner of Hear Me Code is brainstorming ideas with her group on how to redesign her website and later implement changes. In an adjacent classroom, a workshop on data visualization is being taught.

Some of the hackers are experienced developers looking to network. Others are here to learn. It’s a diverse group of women with many different levels of experience in web development.

Anissa Jones, 27, works for the help desk at the Environmental Protection Agency. She decided to attend the hackathon because she is learning the Python programming language.

“It’s hard to find resources and mentorship.” Jones adds, “I wanted to be around people and see if I can find people who have similar interests as me.”

Jennifer Stark, 35, is new to programming. A faculty assistant at the University of Maryland Neuroimaging Center, Stark is in the midst of a career change and is looking to work in web development and consulting. She said she hopes the hackathon will give her an opportunity to have “the option to contribute in a meaningful way to projects.”

Grace Turke-Martinez, 27, works on the data and analytics team for a political consulting firm. She is currently learning Python, which she hopes to use at work. This is her second Tech Lady Hackathon.

“It’s a really open community for women, especially people like me who are still sort of entering in more junior levels in technology. So it’s a really great open space where there are a lot of free resources and you get to know some great people,” Turke-Martinez says.

Leah Bannon, a product manager for 18F, is hosting the Tech Lady Hackathon for the third time in three years. She says she initially had trouble finding a space that could accommodate the large group, but just a couple weeks before the big day everything came together. Impact Hub DC had space available for $1300. Bannon said Capitol One helped sponsored the event.

Among the other projects on the agenda are learning API programming -- a way for applications to talk to each other. Another is finding and cleaning data, then visualizing and mapping it for the Rebuilding Re-entry program, a program that helps improve outcomes for men and women with criminal records in the D.C. and Baltimore areas.

Kavya Sukumar, 30, leads a workshop on making data, research and or code reusable with Autotune, a Vox Media application.

Sukumar was a developer for six years before switching to journalism three years ago. She is now in a 10-month fellowship program with Vox Media that puts developers into newsrooms. Her workshop shows how to make apps reusable.  

“Usually what happens is, you write an app and you get requests in newsrooms to make more,” says Sukumar. Her workshop aims to answer the question: “How do you make it easy to develop in the first place so you can make more of these things?”

Sukumar grew up in India, where more than 100 languages are spoken, and says coding is a part of the culture, just one more language taught at an early age. “I learned to code in the third grade because … we learn coding like it’s math. You don’t learn math to become a mathematician because it’s a basic skill. It’s the same deal with code. You learn to code because it’s a basic skill.”

It’s a different experience for American kids, who usually learn coding on their own in high school because it’s not part of the standard curriculum.

Kelsey Botne, 30, works for EdTech and has been in the tech sector for a year working in services.

“When I was growing up, I absolutely did not have that experience,” says Botne. “It wasn’t a thing I knew. The opportunity just wasn’t there.”

With the level of interest for the Tech Lady Hackathon increasing each year since its start in 2013, women in the D.C. area are seizing the opportunity to increase their programming skills.

“I thought it was something to look into and also not something that I ever really knew I could do when I was entering the workforce. It just wasn’t at all on my radar. So it’s nice to see that all of these things exist now,” Botne says.

Sukumar says the community aspect of the hackathon drew her to the event as well. “Working as a developer, civic tech is a natural extension of what we do. It just made sense to come here.”

This is the last hackathon Bannon will run in D.C. because she is transferring to 18F's San Francisco office this month. But on Saturday she was passing the torch by leading a session on how to run the next one.

About the Author

Bianca Spinosa is an Editorial Fellow at FCW.

Spinosa covers a variety of federal technology news for FCW including workforce development, women in tech, and the intersection of start-ups and agencies. Prior to joining FCW, she was a TV journalist for more than six years, reporting local news in Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Spinosa is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Writing at George Mason University, where she also teaches composition. She earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia.

Click here for previous articles by Spinosa, or connect with her on Twitter: @BSpinosa.


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