Sabrina Smai is a serial hacker, who spends almost every other weekend at hackathons.

Smai is a fourth-year student at UTM studying Digital Enterprise Management, and she has competed in over 20 hackathons.

“The word ‘hacker’ is kind of thought of in a very negative way. But… in the computer science world, hacking is not about… stealing information from a computer,” said Smai. “It’s more about coding and building an innovative project that’s going to impact the world within a certain amount of time.”

Hackathons are intensive coding competitions where teams of programmers gather and build a software project, typically over a 24–48 hour period.

With little sleep and lots of coffee, teams must complete their design within the given time frame and present their idea to a panel of engineers and developers from large technology companies. Top teams are awarded a variety of monetary and technological prizes.

“One thing that I value most about these hackathons is that I really think that it stimulates innovation… I have a couple of startup ventures that actually stemmed from hackathons,” said Smai.

For example, Smai competed in a Microsoft hackathon in which she and her newly-acquainted teammates came up with the idea to create a platform that can help students like themselves succeed in interviews. They used artificial intelligence technology to analyze interview performance, a project that Smai continues to work on today.

Her most recent success was at the University of North Carolina, where Smai represented U of T at the all-women Pearl Hacks competition. Her team built a mobile app called Encore (stylized as encore) that allowed users to discover and tip street performers.

“In an economy that’s going to cashless, the people that are suffering from this transition are street performers,” explained Smai. The new cashless economy makes it difficult for passersby to show their token of appreciation for the acoustic singer on the corner or the statued men coated in gold atop a pedestal.

Their app will allow the audience to tip a street performer by tapping their phone against a near field communication (NFC) chip. NFC technology enables communication between two devices in proximity and can act as a digital wallet replacement. Together with a rating and reviewing platform, encore encourages local artists and allows audiences to discover their talents.

In 24 hours, Smai and her team had secured third place at Pearl Hacks, along with the title Best Use of New Technology.

“It was super exciting being in a room filled with all these women in STEM,” said Smai, as she recalled how they had plastered their laptops with ‘Hacking the Glass Ceiling’ stickers. “We [were] all empowering each other. We [were] all collaborating.”

Smai has competed in 19 other co-ed hackathons where she had often been among just a handful of women. She cited her experience at Princeton University’s Annual HackPrinceton event in 2016, where she was singled out as one of the only women working on a hardware hack. With over 700 attendees, Smai estimated there to have been around 20 women. She placed first.

In addition to this social challenge, hackathons come with intrinsic trials. The technologies necessary for a project are not always familiar tools in a competitor’s toolbox. “I had to learn [skills] in less than a couple of hours so that was very challenging,” said Smai.

“I learned more in hackathons than I do at school,” she emphasized. Working with a group of people a competitor has just met teaches teamwork. Judges of these hackathons, often from technology giants like Google, Facebook, and IBM, provided valuable feedback. “I started getting better and better, and after my twentieth pitch, I became really confident in pitching an idea, getting feedback, responding, [and] doing demos.”

“It’s actually a great way to collaborate with people that have different skills, that have different experiences, and build something that’s super impactful for the world,” said Smai. “There’s so many opportunities that [stem] from going to hackathons.”

Stay up to date. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, sent straight to your inbox:

* indicates required