I had the privilege of participating in Pearl Hacks this weekend! Pearl Hacks was a hackathon for college and high school women hosted at UNC Chapel Hill. If you haven’t heard about hackathons before, well, they’re basically weekend-long coding sessions. Participants form small teams and stay up all night coding in order to create something: usually a mobile app, a website, or some other piece of software. Then, judges award prizes to teams whose creations they like the best. Hackathons are a great way to learn new technologies, become better at coding, and network with brilliant people.
Women in Technology
What sets Pearl Hacks apart from other hackathons is that it was for young women specifically. It’s part of a larger movement to increase diversity in technology, which, as of now, is overwhelmingly male. A large part of the problem is that few high school and college women even consider studying computer science. The percentage of computer science majors being pursued by women has actually decreased in the last 20 years. The statistics are similar or worse in industry, in which very few full-time software-writing/coding positions are held by women. Pearl Hacks is part of what will change these numbers. The most rewarding aspect of the weekend, for me, was seeing young women program for the first time and discover a whole new career possibility. At the end of the weekend, one of the high school students on my team, who had never seen code in her life before the hackathon, exclaimed, “It was awesome seeing an idea become a reality!” I think Pearl Hacks has opened many young women’s eyes to the fact that this is what it means to work in technology: to constantly be turning ideas into realities. Here’s a shot of the Pearl Hackers at the opening ceremony:
— Meghan Horton (@meghan_horton) March 22, 2014
Education and Mentorship
Pearl Hacks was also amazing for its richness as a learning environment. Everybody who participated learned something new. The ratio of mentors to participants was huge, so participants could seek out all the help and support they needed as they were learning new technologies. I can’t rave enough about the mentors who I worked with. A mentor from MongoDB gave my team a detailed walk-through for how to install and begin using MongoDB; a mentor from Smashing Boxes stayed up all night with us helping us learn how to use Node.js and integrate it with MongoDB; and Poornima Vijayashanker, founding engineer at Mint.com, founder of Femgineer, and founder of BizeeBee, walked me through how to set up a simple Ruby on Rails app. I’m extremely grateful to them and to the other mentors and volunteers who made Pearl Hacks possible.
My team created a simple guestbook-like web application using MongoDB and Node.js. We demo’d it as a bulletin board called FemSTEM onto which participants could post about how mentors they met over the weekend had inspired them to pursue STEM interests. Because the technologies we used were totally new to all of us, I’m still kind of amazed that we managed to finish our project by submission time. Plus, not only did we get our project finished in time… we won a prize! We were given the award for the best usage of MongoDB. This was a huge honor!
I say from the bottom of my heart that I feel empowered and inspired after this experience, and I’m sure many or all the other Pearl Hacks participants would say the same. Amazing hackathon!