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Harvard’s WECode conference welcomes more women into tech

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Laptop power cords covered the floor of the Harvard Innovation Lab, while a group of women worked at their computers during a daylong hackathon on Sunday.

The hackathon was part of the second day of WECode (Women Engineers Code), a conference to promote women’s involvement in computer science.

More than 250 attendees flocked to the inaugural event for keynotes, panel discussions, workshops, and shorter ‘lightning’ talks from prominent women in the innovation and technology sectors.

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For Elena Glassman, the event geared towards women served a real purpose at a time when the computer science field is so overwhelmingly populated by men (only 1 in 8 CS graduates are women according to a 2013 Globe report).

“I think the women here are a little less afraid to fail in front of each other,” Glassman said. “They’re not afraid to say this is their first hackathon. They’re not trying to prove they deserve to be in the room.”

A PhD candidate in computer science at MIT, Glassman volunteered to be a mentor at WECode. Along with other women from local startups and colleges, she was there to help foster a positive environment for women in tech.

For two women who met at the hackathon, Wellesley’s Tali Marcus and Boston University’s Tsai-Wei Chen, the event provided just that environment. Marcus and Chen found common ground in being relative newbies on the scene.

While groups with more coding experience worked on ideas into possible startups, Marcus and Chen used the free learn-to-code website Codecademy to build their knowledge of HTML and Python vocabularies.

Marcus, a computer science minor and psychology major, was attracted to user experience (UX). In UX, a field dedicated to making the interactions between computers and humans seamless, she found an intersection of her two areas of study.

Meanwhile Chen, a business major, only began to consider computer science a viable field two weeks prior to the event. At WECode, she found the focus of learning a tangible skill attractive compared to what she perceived as the more conceptual nature of studying business.

Women in Computer Science (WICS), the Harvard group putting on WECode, was founded at Harvard by Anne Madoff and Amy Yin. Computer science professor Harry Lewis connected the two after Madoff couldn’t find a group of like-minded women CS students to work with.

Asked about the matchmaking Lewis laughed at the idea of taking any credit for WICS’ success, calling Yin and Madoff an “incredibly dynamic pair.”

“The wonderful thing about teaching at Harvard is that you can fool students into thinking that you’re responsible for their successes, [which] is not true most of the time,” Lewis said.

The idea for the WECode conference came from sophomore WICS member JN Fang; although she was quick to add that a group effort made the event possible.

Fang came to Harvard planning to study pre-med. She had little exposure to computer science until learning about Android programming in CS50, Harvard’s wildly popular introductory computer science course.

This past summer Fang merged her pre-med track with a taste of computer science while interning at Jana Care, a startup hoping to reverse ‘diabesity’ through technology. While working at Jana, she became immersed in the extreme differences in gender roles in India. Around the same time, Fang read Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Fang saw an opportunity and contacted the other members of WISC to propose the idea for WECode.

“Our purpose should be encouraging people of all genders to have equal opportunity and equal encouragement,” Fang said.

The conference drew women hailing from forty different schools, representing states from California to New Jersey–although the largest contingent at WECode was from the northeast. The event was obviously a success; gathering more than 250 women in its first year and earning sponsorships from tech giants Facebook, Google, and Akamai.

The eight hour hackathon produced three winners:

-an app to notify Franklin W. Olin College students via text of free food or goods on campus

-MommaCoder, which was described as a friendlier version of the popular code Q&A site Stackoverflow

-a Facebook application designed to automatically notify selected friends with information about their expected whereabouts and what they were wearing in case they didn’t return home safely within a specified time

“In future years we want to grow it,” Madoff said, although she and Fang seemed pleased with their first WECode.

“Even for people who aren’t focused on feminism, diverse teams make better products and decisions,” Madoff added.

“Everyone can get behind that.”

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