“Empowering ourselves up”: UTSC hackathon spotlights Black and women coders

Hundreds of participants build products, learn coding at 36-hour Hack the Valley 4
Twelve65, a UTSC dance group, performs at the opening ceremonies. ADAM LAM/THE VARSITY
Twelve65, a UTSC dance group, performs at the opening ceremonies. ADAM LAM/THE VARSITY

Hundreds of participants built products and learned coding at Hack the Valley 4, a University of Toronto student-led hackathon from February 14–16 at UTSC’s Instructional Centre. Hackathons are collaborative computer programming events.

Highlights of the hackathon included a Black in Tech Summit, together with a Women in Code Summit, which explored the experiences of programmers in underrepresented groups.

Why host Hack the Valley 4?

“The main goal [of the hackathon] is to develop the hacker community,” said Ralph Maamari, a fifth-year UTSC computer science student specializing in software engineering, and the president of Hack the Valley 4.

To Maamari, this means encouraging participants to become interested in computer science. He hopes that they can grow their enthusiasm to attend more hackathons, pursue their own coding side projects, and potentially land internships at top companies in the world.

“We want to introduce hacking… [also known as] programming, to first-year students, if not to older students as well,” added Prashant Patel, a third-year UTSC mathematics and statistics student and executive assistant of the hackathon.

Over the 36-hour period, coders developed products over a wide range of fields. Unlike many hackathons, Maamari noted that Hack the Valley 4 did not set defined goals for coders to work toward. Judges evaluated the event’s products on the categories including functionality, creativity, and level of technical difficulty. Sponsors also offered prizes for their own categories.

Maamari and Patel also highlighted the hackathon’s commitment to sustainability and equity. The event followed a “Global Hackathon Sustainability Standard,” which aims to minimize waste and recycle meals. It also hosted two summits that featured panel discussions about the experiences of Black and women programmers in industry.

Black in Tech Summit

Ahmed Duada, an innovator, discussed how his experience at Next 36, a program that supports Canadian entrepreneurs, empowered him to co-found his own venture, Wanda. The company delivers groceries directly into the fridges of apartments in downtown Toronto.

He explained that the venture’s pricing is similar to the cost of groceries downtown, as the firm purchases groceries away from downtown at lower prices. To build trust, he added that employees are salaried and wear body cameras, whose footage is viewable by the service’s clients.

Anisa Tahil, a software engineer at Zero Gravity Labs, discussed her transition from biomedical engineering into computer science after graduating from Ryerson University.

She talked about her entry into a three-month coding boot camp by Lighthouse Labs, which involved intense workdays from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm. The program enabled her to gain experience in coding with the language Javascript and the framework React JS, and later secure a job in software.

Reflecting on her undergraduate experience, Tahil recalled, “I was definitely in a program where a lot of people did not look like me. It was very difficult in terms of finding people that you can relate to or finding people that [you] can speak with about the same things that you face.”

She was part of a small minority of Black women in the engineering program — “not only biomedical engineering, but across all of the engineering fields.” She added, “And then moving on to the workplace, [I was] one of the very few Black people there as well.”

What motivates Tahil is her goal to be a role model for underrepresented people who want to follow a similar path. “There’s a lot of people who are Black [who] feel… discouraged because there’s people out there that will… tell them [they] shouldn’t be in a certain field.”

“For example, from an early age, you could have a guidance counsellor [who tells] you, maybe you shouldn’t take this class. It’s too hard. Things like that get to people, and I just feel like being in this field, you have to be strong, you have to [have] a strong mindset,” she continued. Tahil hopes her success can inspire others.

Raho Mohamed, a recent graduate of Ryerson University and a current student at the same boot camp, agreed with Tahil.

“It is hard [to work in software] because you sometimes feel like you can’t really relate to people who don’t come from the same background as you,” she said. Mohamed recommended finding a mentor for support.

“But I would [also] say, don’t doubt your abilities. Try your best,” Mohamed continued. “Once you get there, you can inspire more people to [succeed].”

Women in Code Summit

The Women in Code Summit was co-organized by the Women in Computer Science, Statistics and Mathematics student organization at UTSC.

A surprise panelist, Disney Lam, shared her experiences as a production engineer and team lead at Facebook. Her team’s focus includes ensuring that Facebook’s advertisements are targeted properly and helping users by ensuring the firm meets privacy standards.

As a production engineer, she noted, “it’s even more male-dominated than regular software engineering.” She recalled how at the start of her employment, a male colleague treated her in a demeaning and disrespectful manner.

“Eventually, I was like, ‘No, I’m going to ignore this person,’” she said. “[I’m going to] continue building my team, and keep on landing projects to show that I’m good.”

Her attitude resulted in her promotion. As a tech lead, she now leads a team, of which 50 per cent are women.

Andrea Chen, a hackathon coach at Major League Hacking, also encouraged attendees to make the most out of hackathons, even if they are beginners at coding.

“If you are not a coder, but you’re still here at a hackathon, there’s still so much value you could bring,” she said. She noted that participants can bring skills in design and research to their teams that do not rely on coding experience.

Chen also reflected on dealing with negative self-talk. “You [can spend] so much time putting yourself down and constantly [undervaluing your achievements],” she said.

“When I think about how other people in the room, like maybe my male friends, are always constantly hyping up their own projects,” she continued. “What if we just spend that time, instead of breaking ourselves down, empowering ourselves up?”

“The time we spend putting yourself down is the same time we could be… building ourselves up.”

For those who struggle to build confidence, Chen suggested approaching it in a competitive way. “[If] I can hype my project up more than [my male friends] in that sense, and that kind of leads to [building] a fake kind of confidence.”

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