Leveling the Playing Field Through Hackathons
Leveling the Playing Field Through Hackathons

Hackathons, or marathon software and hardware product development events, often serve as a launching pad for aspiring engineers. As hackathons have become more widespread across college campuses, they play an increasingly important role in diversifying traditionally male-dominated industries, such as technology and engineering. As HackPrinceton’s co-directors, Erica Wu and Elizabeth Tian set the vision and the tone of the event, leading a large team of 40 organizers to coordinate the 36-hour hackathon.

Hackathons are oftentimes instrumental events for beginner hackers and traditionally underrepresented groups in engineering. Wu shared her firsthand experience with hackathons: “When I first became interested in computer science, I had a lot of friends who said, ‘Wow, this is so easy! I’ve been coding since high school’ or ‘I’ve been coding since middle school.’ I felt like it would be really difficult for me to build a career out of it because I felt so behind.” It wasn’t until Wu attended HackPrinceton and HackRU, a hackathon at Rutgers, and learned how to build her own project that she felt confident in her ability to study computer science. Wu believes hackathons level the playing field and allow people from different backgrounds to come together and learn for a weekend. “Hackathons show people that no matter who you are, you’re able to build something really cool,” Wu said.

HackPrinceton Spring 2017 is being designed with these aims of increasing diversity and inclusion. “At HackPrinceton, we want to create an experience that’s super comfortable, so that if a female hacker wants to come and build something, she feels comfortable and has the resources she needs to learn and to build,” Tian said. In the spirit of creating a more welcoming atmosphere, Tian and Wu are trying to change what people think of when they hear “hackathon.” “Instead of imagining these guys sitting in a room hacking away the entire night, we want people to think of something that is more comfortable, fresher and open,” Tian said. “We really try to encourage and facilitate first-timers; we’re looking for people from all backgrounds.”

This underlying aim of inclusivity touches all aspects of HackPrinceton, from more resources dedicated to beginners to nontraditional color schemes for the website and marketing materials. “The first thing we did when we sat down [to plan the next hackathon] is ask ourselves how we can make our website more inviting to people of all backgrounds,” Wu said. Rather than using dark and “edgy” colors and stereotypical “techy” imagery, Wu and Tian opted for pastels, pinks and blues, colors that are not typically associated with technology and hackers. The co-directors also have teams focused on the first-time hacker experience, who are compiling project ideas and tips to get the most out of a hackathon. The theme of this spring’s HackPrinceton event is “spring forward,” an apt title for a new era of hackathons dedicated to moving toward diversity and inclusion.

Applications for HackPrinceton Spring 2017 are still open for Princeton students. Learn more about the event at hackprinceton.com. Stay tuned for updates on HackPrinceton events and winners!  

— Peter Chen ‘19
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Director or the plutonium refinement in Yonkers.