The third annual D.C. hackathon for women in tech is taking place Aug. 8 -- part of a much larger effort to diversify the IT ranks.
The 2014 Tech Lady Hackathon was held at Google’s D.C. office. (Leah Bannon / Instagram)
The first all-woman hackathon in Washington, D.C., was a grassroots effort. Organizers sent out individual emails and requests to friends, and had no idea what kind of response they would get.
It ended up being a big one. A hundred women showed up that Saturday in December 2013 for the Tech Lady Hackathon. All the sessions filled to capacity.
The following year, the event filled up in a day, as more than 150 women with open laptops and inquiring minds crowding Google’s D.C. office on July 26, 2014.
Today, more than 1,000 women are on the Tech Lady Hackathon’s listserv, said Leah Bannon, founder of the event and a product manager for more than a year at the General Services Administration’s 18F digital services lab.
The third annual hackathon will be held Aug. 8 at Impact Hub DC. This year, for the first time, the training sessions will be folded into Code for DC's twice-monthly meet-ups, also at Impact Hub DC.
“What I’m planning to do is start integrating some of the main lessons and components that made [the hackathons] successful for women into Code for DC,” Bannon said.
This is likely the last hackathon Bannon will organize in D.C. for a while, however: She told FCW she is transferring to 18F's San Francisco office in August. Bannon has two-and-a-half years left on her term with 18F. She says she is hoping to get more ideas while she's in Silicon Valley, and has not ruled out returning to D.C. afterwards.
Bannon started the Tech Lady Hackathon in D.C., she said, because she so often found herself as the only woman at area tech meet-ups.
The fact some women who attended the hackathons as curious novices are now employed developers, she said, “is something I still can’t talk about without getting goose bumps.”
A gateway to tech
Federal agencies don’t have to look far to find training and development opportunities for women in Washington. Developers who are passionate about passing the torch and teaching what they know are contributing to a thriving community of women coders in government's backyard.
One of the key aspects of the Tech Lady Hackathon is that you don’t have to be an expert programmer to participate. The workshops involve the basics of programming languages such as Python and Rails, as well as HTML and CSS.
“[TS1] Offering training at a tech event sends a very important message that different skills and beginners are welcome, which is not always the case for hackathons,” explained Bannon, who said the sessions often serve as a “gateway drug” to getting them more involved in other area tech events.
She knows firsthand what it’s like to be new to tech. She earned her master’s degree in communication in 2012 from Johns Hopkins University and was working as a social media specialist after graduate school. Bannon had been interested in Wikipedia and its web design, but she started thinking seriously about coding when she managed a website and became more involved with all of its different aspects. She’d look at a tweet and want it to have the perfectly embedded image. She began teaching herself HTML to improve the site when it “looked a little off.”
The transition from communications to coding came naturally to Bannon, but it still took work. Lots of work.
“It’s like any other language. It’s memorization. You have to constantly be using it and applying it,” she said.
‘We’ve got to stick together’
One Saturday morning in 2013, [TS2] four friends huddled around a kitchen table on their computers at web developer Shannon Turner’s place, learning the basics of Python. Bannon credits that day as a springboard for helping to take her interest in programming to the next level.
These lessons around the kitchen table were the genesis of Turner’s Hear Me Code courses, a series of free coding classes for women that teach the basics of real-world programming applications and provide an environment where women can feel comfortable asking questions without judgment.
Since the courses launched in September 2013, Turner has taught some 1,200 women how to code -- according to the website, 85 percent of them were beginners. Most students are in their 20s and 30s. Hear Me Code offers courses at different levels, but she says Lesson 1 is truly for people learning to code from scratch.
“I know it’s making a difference,” she said. “There are women getting jobs in the industry. That to me makes everything so rewarding.”
Like many programmers, Turner first became interested in tech at a young age through video games. Less typically, her grandmother loved to play video games too.
“We were breaking stereotypes,” Turner said, laughing. As they played, she’d think of ways she could change the game.
“I would draw out on paper what I wanted to do. Grandma said, ‘you’ve got to get good at computers to do that.’”
Turner pursued a political science major instead, but she always carried a torch for programming. She just didn’t realize at first how it could fit with her goal of making a difference.
“I didn’t see the connection," she said. "How can I tie this to something I love doing? It was too early. Now it’s obvious the connection and how much of an impact you can make with technology.”
Turner’s web projects focus on civic tech and social justice issues. With the help of coders at the Tech Lady Hackathon and Code for Progress she developed Buscando, a website connecting individuals and families to resources and organizations that are helping undocumented and unaccompanied immigrant minors get food, clothing, education and medical care. She most recently worked on Let’s Go!, a website where users can search all museums in any given location by category.
Even though she could probably make a lot of money with Hear Me Code, she insists on keeping the classes free. If it makes coding more accessible, it’s worth it to her.
“I would go to the tech events and I’d be intimidated because I was the only woman in the room. I realized it wasn’t just me. We all had the shared experiences of being talked down to and not taken seriously,” Turner said. “Why don’t I create the community that I wish I had? For that to be accessible, it has to be free.”
Hear Me Code holds classes on the weekends, but students are expected to practice every day. There are weekly practice nights every Thursday and extra exercises throughout the week. Turner said you really have to immerse yourself in code in order to learn and the classroom environment gives you the space to ask questions.
It’s in part because she feels she didn’t have a mentor in tech that she’s eager to help others.
“We’ve got to stick together,” said Turner. “I realized you don’t have to be an expert to help other people. If you show up, that’s half the battle. You just have to stick it out and problem solve.”
One of Turner’s first students brought that strategy to government. Leah Bannon organized the first Women in Tech and Data training day and hackathon for government workers at 18F in the GSA headquarters on Nov. 7, 2014. She had two goals: to work on several 18F projects and offer a series of training sessions on advanced open-source technology, user-centered design, and Github and open source basics.
Although the event was open to everyone, it was particularly geared toward women who work in government or are interested in working in government. 18F ran the event with help from a handful of women at the U.S. Digital Service.
Bannon’s advice to entry-level women hoping to get their foot in the door in federal IT is to be really good at tech first and foremost, and take advantage of networking and training meet-ups in the city.
“It’s complicated. It’s not something completely solved yet. I wish there was a little bit more of an opportunity for us to bring in more entry-level people,” Bannon said.
But she is optimistic that agencies are working toward creating avenues for people at different levels of skillsets to get those two- to four-year government appointments.
Meanwhile, there are opportunities for women in tech in D.C. to boost their knowledge and make connections thanks to a vibrant group willing to support each other.
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