“Good luck and happy coding,” were the last words the speaker said to the crowd in Irvine Auditorium. Just then, I looked up at the eager faces of the competitors in the PennApps hackathon and realized for the first time that I was one of the only females in the room.
Early Friday evening, I ducked into the side door of Irvine Auditorium to see the opening ceremonies for the 2013 PennApps hackathon. A few heads turned but drifted right back in place. Already, competitors typed away on laptops wedged uncomfortably between seats, and the subdued chattering between teammates went completely undisturbed as I found a place to sit.
I was there to follow a team of competitors for the next couple of days — one of the few all-girls teams in the competition.
The team consisted of Bianca Pham and Debbie Ly, Engineering juniors, and Riddhi Sanwal, an Engineering sophomore. Pham introduced Sanwal to Ly and the three decided to form a team for this year’s competition.
The team stood out from the beginning without even mention of their genders: they were first-time competitors, beginner coders and one person short of the standard four-member team.
Within the first few hours of hacking, a male competitor stopped and asked the girls if they were lost — but as they tell me this story, chatting about other first night oddities such as impromptu salsa dancing, they are laughing, smiling and exuding a humble confidence unaffected by others’ opinions.
“It’s about not being intimidated,” said Sanwal. “One of the most amazing things [about this competition] is getting to be an image to aspiring girls who think they could never do it.”
Their idea was to create a sort of virtual bulletin board, or as Pham describes it, a more aesthetically pleasing way to view events and read fliers, saving paper and going against the wordy, linear format found in Facebook events. Their bulletin board would be in the form of a website.
The team’s first night was normal, for hacker standards — a 4 a.m. bedtime and 8 a.m. wake up call was nothing out of the ordinary for the sleepless, time-defying community that settled within the Engineering Quad.
“It was representative of the tech community in general — no cubicles, throwing around ideas, no set structure, [it was] almost like a rejection of stereotypical corporate structure,” said Sanwal.
On the second day the team was feeling calm and confident about their progress — taking some time out of their hacking to shower. Contrary to what I first expected, we were not surrounded by frustrated hackers pulling out their hair or being busy to make conversation. There was a tangible spirit of camaraderie instead.
“There’s not a sense of superiority. Experienced people [from other teams] help you, and they are happy to do it,” said Ly.
Later that night, the team hit a few unexpected bumps that caused them to stay up hacking until 7 a.m. on Sunday. At one point, four mentors from PennApps were at their side with Insomnia cookies trying to make important improvements and debug whatever was going wrong.
The team was able to finish its project by the 10 a.m. deadline. The final product garnered the interest of companies such as Yahoo and placed in the top 40 teams during the final demo in the Palestra on Sunday afternoon. Surprised because of their lack of experience compared to other competitors, they ended the weekend exhausted, but happy.
Pham described her first taste of the hackathon as a “roller coaster,” but she was quick to point out the beauty of the entire experience, marveling that it was the only place you could really learn how to translate ideas into real life.
“It’s just amazing to look back at the beginning with how many doubts we had and then end this with some recognition and a product that really pleases people,” said Pham.
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