Teen Jennie Lamere Wins Hackathon, Demonstrates What We Lose Shutting Women Out Of Tech
By Eliot Van Buskirk of Evolver.fm.
At this past weekend’s TVnext Hack event,
a loose consortium of geeks, hackers, and businessmen from the
television and technology industries gathered in a high-rise Boston
office building to compete for cash and prizes by inventing and building
technologies that add to the experience of watching television.
Several hacks won prizes from sponsor companies, while five of the best scored “best in breed” prizes (view the full list). Out of those, one was chosen as the grand prize winner on Monday at the TVnext Summit:
Twivo, a clever hack that lets you watch DVR-ed television programs
without worrying about your “second screen” ruining the show when you
check Twitter only to see the show’s ending given away. Simply enter the
name of the show, and Twivo (short for “Twitter for TiVo”) will block
all mentions of it from your Twitter feed, while also syncing your
Twitter feed so that tweets show up when they would have during the
show’s original airing.
Twivo was created by the only female participant at the event — and
the only minor. Unless memory fails, the only other females in
attendance, that I saw anyway, were an organizer, two camerawomen, a
caterer, three judges, and a participant’s wife.
The question of how to interest more women in technology fields is
one of the most important questions facing us today, for many reasons.
The internet, of course, is rife with opinion about What Has To Happen
in order for more girls to get into programming, for more women to speak
at tech conferences, and for how to make guys not be jerks to them when
they do enter these fields or show up at these conferences.
Nevermind all that for now. Let’s focus on how one teenage girl, Jennie Lamere,
defeated a room full of smart, motivated, experienced, full-grown men.
This would seem to be instructive to the greater argument about women in
technology, and besides, it has the added bonus of being based in fact
rather than opinion.
If you remember one thing from this article, it should be that the father of this prize-winning girl hacker (Paul Lamere, director of developer community for The Echo Nest, which publishes Evolver.fm) did not, as one might suspect, force, cajole, or otherwise convince his daughter to take up hacking.
Instead, he took her hiking.
“My dad goes to a hackathon a few times a year,” Jennie
Lamere told Evolver.fm. “When I was growing up, I wasn’t interested in
the technical side of his hacks [such as Boil The Frog and Infinite Jukebox],
but rather the musical side. His hacks were a topic of our weekly
hikes. He would tell me all about his latest project, which just seemed
like pure magic to me. Then, one hike, my Dad asked me for an idea for a
hack using the Songkick API. He told me some of his ideas, but I came up with my own, that would eventually turn into Jennie’s Ultimate Roadtrip.
Just by chance, I was already in Boston the day of that particular
hackathon, so I ended up spending a good portion of the day at the
hackathon and helped my dad out with the limited HTML I knew.”
Jennie Lamere was 15 on that fateful hike. In the past two years, she
has attended five hackathons, and now, she’s building her hacks on her
own, including the grand-prize-winning Twivo, relying on her father only
for “occasional help in debugging a thorny problem here or there,”
according to Paul.
It’s also worth pointing out that Jennie Lamere’s evolution from
hiker to hacker involved lots of fun and collaboration, and no parental
pressure — and that it happened outside of a traditional classroom
environment, though she learned some computer skills there too.
“Hackathons can be really fun — there’s lots of energy, creativity,
learning and fun,” says Paul. “Jennie says she’s learned more about
programming by attending hackathons than she has from her AP computer
Jennie agrees, which is something that programming educators might want to take into account.
“I don’t think any high school classes could prepare someone fully
for a hackathon,” says Jennie. “I’ve been lucky that my dad has been
able to teach me a lot, but I also learn a lot through friends, and
sites like StackOverflow.
The three computer classes have given a solid foundation as a
programmer, but I find myself learning a completely new concept — like a
new language — every hackathon. I think between
the three hackathons I’ve attended this year, and the year-long AP
Computer Science class, I’ve learned exponentially more at hackathons.”
We asked what advice she might have for other girls who want to enter
these hackathons, since they’re such great learning environments, and
because so much of our social, cultural, business, and technological
future depends on more women building new technologies. (Even if you
don’t buy all of that, which I do, you must at least concede that we’ll
get better stuff if the whole human population is involved in building
it, rather than just half.)
“Babysteps are the key,” says Jennie. “I’ve attended five hackathons,
but have only done one solo project. My first two hackathons, I didn’t
do any work beyond the UI. Then, I worked with a friend with a similar
knowledge on two hackathons, where I did about half the work. Finally,
this weekend I ventured out on my own, and worked on my own. I’ve been
interested in coding for about three years now, and though I still have
much to learn, I feel as though I have been able to do a lot. By teaming
up with friends, I was able to slowly learn how to make my own hacks.”
When she said that, she had already won several prizes
for Twivo, including the Best Use of Sync-To-Broadcast and company
prizes from Klout and Mashery (two iPads, a Roku, an Apple TV, a
backpack, and a Siftio).
“I was hoping to walk away with an iPad, so my expectations were more
than exceeded,” she said. “The best part is the feeling of
accomplishment and knowing that I made a hack that people reacted
That was before the video of her demonstration aired to all the
attendees of TVnext Summit, after which she won the grand $2,500 prize
and wound up carrying an oversized check through the streets of Boston
with her justifiably proud dad.
“This is a terrific story, and proof that young girls are an untapped resource of innovation,” said Change The Ratio
co-founder Rachel Sklar, when we told her the news. “More and more role
models in the space are showing girls like Jennie (who is now one
herself!) that this is a place for them, and for their talents. And now
organizations like Girls Who Code are providing the infrastructure to get there. The floodgates have opened — the ratio is changing.”
However, she points out that “women in tech” stories are also simply “tech stories.” Good point.
“It’s also important to note that Jennie’s idea is a completely
universal, gender-neutral one — the classic entrepreneurial story of
identifying a pain point and then solving for it. She had an idea and
made it happen. And, thanks to greater accessibilty of technology and
more and more infrastructure around the innovation process, we will be
seeing more and more Jennies as we move forward. In the meantime, I am
stoked to use Jennie’s invention to enjoy Mad Men at my own pace.”
Spoiler alert: So are we.
Photo: Paul Lamere