Memphis held its’ first-ever women’s Hackathon late last month at the Fedex Institute of Technology in the hopes of “cultivating a positive environment for women in technology from across the region.” theCO’s Education Outreach Coordinator Molly Plyler, along with and Dev Catalyst intern Christen Harper, attended the event, which only lasted a short twenty-four hours.
The Fedex Institute of Technology is an organization connected to the University of Memphis and serves as a research and innovation hub for the Mid-South. In collaboration with Memphis Women in Technology (MWiT), ATHENAtechne Hackathon became the first of its kind, with the doors being open to women of all ages and skill levels.
Harper, who started at theCO as a fresh intern studying Graphic Design at Union University, attended the ATHENAtechne Hackathon with new coding skills she had developed over the summer by working with theCO’s Dev Catalyst program. Since the tech industry is so predominantly male, it can be hard for a female to feel as though she has a place or a voice in the world of technology when she is underrepresented, and Harper and Plyler both were inspired to see a Hackathon so devoted to encouraging women into the tech industry.
“Honestly, having an all-ages, all female event was incredibly encouraging. There tends to be stereotypes in the tech industry. If you fall outside of the norm, it can be challenging to have your voice heard or ideas taken seriously. This hackathon celebrated all of the skills brought by the ladies at the event,” Plyler said reflectively.
Like many Hackathons, there were no coding skills required, and girls as young as 4th grade participated in the event. Harper said “There was a huge range of talent there. There were people there who had never written a line of code in their life, to people who were more design oriented, and then we had women who had been working at Fedex Institute of Technology for years.”
Since the Hackathon was only a day long, the teams were only able to do so much with their project, but most were able to create a working website and plans to show for their product and prove its viability. The idea behind the event was to think about a woman that you respected and come up with a way to make her life better.
Harper said many teams spent much of the alloted time simply trying to figure out an idea. While convinced this would be a struggle for her own team, too, it turned out that Harper and Plyler’s team was made up of just the right people.
Randomly compiled on Friday night, the team included a blind friend who had difficulty using the public transportation in Memphis. As a team, which they had appropriately named “Sheroes,” they decided to create an app that would be handicapped-accessible to ensure that the product would meet the specific needs of the user. They titled the app “BlindSpot.”
“By Saturday afternoon, we had created a schematic for hardware which would be used on public bus seats, mockups for an app which would wirelessly communicate to the seat hardware to provide information to blind individuals such as which bus number is approaching and where open seats on the bus are located,” Plyler said.
The app required sensors to be placed in the bus seats on public transport buses that would be able to sense if the seat was occupied, giving the user the information to know which bus had space for them.
Plyler continued, “We also wrote code which would allow blind individuals to use a screen reader with our app, and built the business website complete with copy, graphics and a promotional video our team created. The video incorporated a FaceTime interview we conducted Friday night with the team member's friend who is blind and depends on public transportation to get around Memphis.”
Even though working on a team of people can be advantageous and exciting, it still has its challenges, especially when the team has various ranges of ability. With a team of seven individuals, the Sheroes needed a strong person to manager the flow of the work.
“Molly was really valuable in the marketing end of things,” Harper said. “She’s a very organized person and she kept us on track... Everyone had something different to work on. We had someone working on the logo, and another person who helped us with research and development because that was a big part of our project,” Harper continued.
Plyler, who primarily functioned as the project manager said, “When you are working with a group of strangers with diverse backgrounds and skill sets, it is always challenging to serve as the project manager. As such, you need to be able to quickly assess each person's skills and interests so you can plug them into the creative process as quickly as possible. When you are able to identify your teammates "happy spots" and prevent scope creep from taking over, magical things can happen in 24 hours.”
And Plyler is right, magical things do happen in 24 hours.
Harper expected second place, since their competition was fierce. And when the second place award came and went, their hearts dropped a little. But then the winner was announced, and the Sheros walked away with first place and the start of a project that benefits the Memphis community.
By being a apart of the ATHENAtechne Hackathon, Plyler and Harper got to contribute to something so influential in both Memphis’ and the tech industry’s development. They were able to see that women are needed and can be champions even as minorities, and they were able to support their peers in delving into the possibilities of the tech industry.
“I loved the advice Michelle Epps, FedEx Freight's CIO, provided during the hackathon's keynote speech,” Plyler says. “She said, "It's important to be comfortable being uncomfortable." I believe the more we can encourage each other to grow to that point of discomfort and withhold judgment when innovative ideas fail, the more we will see our community leap forward in all industries.”
To learn more about ATHENAtechne and get information on upcoming events, visit FedEx Institue of Technology here, and make sure to sign up for theCO’s upcoming hackathon, recently rescheduled for January 19-21, 2019.