I spent the weekend at a Hackathon. I mean fortunately I didn’t spend the entire weekend there, unlike the participants who actually in fact did spend the weekend trying to produce some decent code, taking catnaps on the floor in between work sessions. No, I am much too old to do any productive work this way, but I did spend a lot of time there talking to some very smart young people who were trying to solve interesting problems and competing to win prizes. My employer Red Hat was one of the sponsors of the event, called Tech Together, and from our standpoint it was a great success — we have signed up I believe five interns for this summer, possibly more, and we learned a lot about how to make the event more successful for us in the future.
The interesting thing about this particular Hackathon is that it was restricted to people who prefer to be referred to as “she/her.” There are lots of good reasons to have a Hackathon so devised, an important one being that young people who prefer the same pronoun I do (“he/him”) are so goddamned obnoxious and horrible in large groups. (I say “are” without speculation as to the reason why, although being a staunch relativist I think it’s mostly just the way us he/hims are socialized.) At any rate, Hackathons restricted to she/hers provide participants a way to work in groups, learn, and compete without some he/him dominating the conversation, keyboard-barging, and otherwise impeding the group dynamic. The teams involved actually do write useful code and solve interesting problems, and my guess is they become more confident in their own abilities and meet a bunch of other interesting people taking a similar path in life.
There was one aspect of Tech Together that struck me as problematic, though, and to be honest I’m not quite sure what to make of it. The point of a Hackathon, for the participants at least, is to compete to win prizes. Some of the prizes are quite substantial — Microsoft gave away like 5 X-Boxes, for example — and worth competing for. Yet I found Tech Together’s overall vibe, from the name on down, was mostly about inclusiveness and “Isn’t this great that we’re all here together you are all so amazing.” It very much did not feel like it was about “Our team is going to kick all your asses and win this thing.” I think we can take it as a given that she/hers are every bit as competitive and even cutthroat as he/hims, so why sublimate the competition part? I suppose it is a natural consequence of trying to make the event a protected space, which is absolutely a good thing… but could we have a protected space, that nonetheless still has a little ass-kicking going on inside it?
I think what I mean to say here is that finding the right approach to rectify an imbalance — like the ridculous “she/her” deficit in tech — is subtle. You have to provide a space where people can achieve, without feeling like their achievement was only made possible by having the space. To that end, I’d like to see a little more explicit acknowledgement or even encouragement of the competitive aspect of Tech Together. Let the winners come away feeling like they have triumphed; it will make the losers leave determined to return the next year and crush everything in their path.