They call themselves geekettes, and, this weekend, they’re out to show why.
About 100 women from Twin Cities technology companies on Saturday and Sunday will compete in a “hackathon,” an event where small teams of programmers and designers come up with ideas for products, then race to make them.
Hackathons are sometimes used by companies to build bonds among employees. Through short deadlines and the air of competition, ideas are quickly vetted, rejected or accepted. Then programmers and engineers, like athletes, get the chance to show their skills by trying to write a program or build a product, quickly and elegantly.
This weekend’s event, called Hack the Gap MN, is the first solely for women in the Twin Cities, organizers say.
It’s aimed at showing their skills to employers and themselves, as well as moving the ball locally on a conversation that’s animated tech companies around the country for more than a year — how to diversify an industry that’s heavily populated by men.
“Bringing them together in one place is a great way to show there are women programming software,” says Kristen Womack, director of product at LeadPages Inc.and one of the organizers of the event. “Having more women involved in all areas of technology, we believe, will drive more successful and diverse companies and products.”
The Hack the Gap event is the latest effort by the Twin Cities tech community to take on the issue.
The MN Cup competition, anchored by the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, over the past year has run a series of workshops and networking events as part of a “women’s initiative” to encourage diversity in tech.
And next month, Coco Minneapolis, a co-working space that is an early home to tech start-ups, is sponsoring a daylong event called “Startup School FemTech,” where eight women founders of tech companies will speak about their work.
“There’s opportunity for economic growth and new ideas when we encourage more women to start companies and create products,” said Melissa Kjolsing, director of MN Cup and one of the hackathon judges.
In Silicon Valley, after pressure from interest groups, major companies like Apple, Facebook and Google have begun to openly discuss workforce diversity data and take new efforts to recruit women and men from underrepresented minority groups. Google, for instance, this year sponsored employees as visiting professors in historically black colleges and universities to teach and recruit young African-Americans.
Paul DeBettignies, a technology recruiter in the Twin Cities, said the gender gap in the local industry is about the same as it is nationally. He added, “I think we are better networked than other cities.”
Another goal of the weekend’s event is for participants and tech employers in the region to network.
“It’s a way to see a whole team in action,” Womack said. “You really learn what it’s like to work with people, what they are like under pressure.”
Womack has participated in hackathons in the Twin Cities and, in February, was a judge at the 54-hour Launch hackathon in San Francisco, one of the nation’s biggest. But this weekend’s event will be the first time she’s participated in an all-women tech contest.
Womack is a leader in the local chapter of Geekettes, a network of women in technology that started in Germany and jumped to the U.S. The group is sponsoring the hackathon along with the local chapter of Gr8Ladies and three other groups: Pyladies Twin Cities, Girls in Tech and Girls Develop It.
They got the idea from one that happened at the Geekettes Berlin chapter in 2013. The software and products that emerged from that event appeared to be rooted in emotional needs or outcomes, Womack noted, with the winner an application that helped autistic children communicate with their parents. She said she’s not sure what to expect from the women participating in the Minnesota event.
Kjolsing said she expects to see some “new leadership ideas, even new structures of how to tackle ideas.” She added, “Events like this just raise the awareness around opportunities and give women a chance to showcase their talent and ability.”
Starting at 8 a.m., participants will divide into teams of four to five people, then build any product idea with software or hardware or both with a deadline of 10 p.m. A group of mentors will be on hand to offer feedback and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges is scheduled to visit.
At 11 a.m. Sunday, the teams will reconvene to demonstrate their product in front of the judges and each other. Prizes include home automation gadgets developed by Minneapolis-based Smart Things.