Hack-athon gives coders chance to show their stuff

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Access. Networking. Camaraderie. Work opportunities.

Those were just some of the attractions to the Lehman College Hack-athon.

Sponsored by the National Society of Black Engineers — Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, the hack-athon showcased more than 200 underrepresented students from diverse backgrounds by giving them a platform to illustrate their talents.

Jamil Gafur is a computer science senior at Lehman who is out job hunting and applying to post-graduate programs at the same time. The all-night event gave him some “me time.”

“A hack-athon is a way for me to relax and practice all of my coding, freshen up my skills but also to have a lot of fun and hang out with my buds,” Gafur said. “What I like about hack-athons is the environment.”

The business world is very formal, he added, where people have to dress certain ways and be polite.

“For a hack-athon, six hours in, you get really tired … and then you moan and (other participants) understand exactly what you are talking about,” Gafur said. “And, other times, you have no idea what’s happening and you are freaking out, and sometimes a random person walks by and says, ‘just change this,’ and everything works.”

Anastasiia Timashova learned about the hack-athon through City College, where she is a sophomore. Since technology — especially computer programming — tends to be a male-dominated field, she was encouraged to see the Lehman event to be almost evenly split between the genders.

“There are so many programs for women, so many initiatives pushing women up the career path,” she said, as she worked a math problem on her laptop, citing the hack-athon as a prime example of that.

This year’s event was the largest hack-athon to date with more than 400 people signing up for a space that accommodates just 250, said Alison Wong, Lehman’s project director who worked with undergraduates in the student-run effort.

At Lehman’s hack-athon, participants are tasked with designing a smartphone app, with just 18 hours to develop the programming code. At the end of the 18 hours, they present their final design to a team of judges.

Lehman junior Rosemarie Encarnacion was one of the organizers for the November event, who focused on attracting more corporate sponsorship as a way to expose those companies to local talent in underserved communities.

“It was important to have this event again because it was the best opportunity to students to come out and to do something good,” she said, “not only for themselves, but do something good for the community as well.”

One of the winning projects from the event was the creation of an app called Calm Me, designed to help those with post-traumatic stress disorder or depression to calm them down and help them relax. Another winner, 2Donuts, could help companies show diversity figures of hack-athons, so they know where they should send recruiters.

And then there’s Aeyes, which uses image processing to describe the surrounding environment using audio cues for those who live with blindness.
Winners received $3,000 in prizes, with additional prizes also awarded by sponsors.

Diversity apps like Aeyes is certainly needed in an industry where just 5 percent of technical jobs go to those who are black or Latino, and where even fewer tech firms are founded by someone who is black or Latino, according to a 2016 report from the nonprofit Code 2040.

While women make up 56 percent of the workforce, only a quarter of software and information technology jobs go to women, according to the nonprofit Women in Tech. Additionally, just 5 percent of startup technology firms are owned by women.

At Lehman’s hack-athon, it was much different as 58 percent of its attendees identified as black or Latino, according to its website.

The 18-hour event seeks to increase those numbers even more in the overall tech world, Encarnacion said.

“We are diverse voices that live in the Bronx,” Encarnacion said. “It was important to highlight and promote the talent already available in the Bronx, and also have sponsors come out and see that there is talent here, and have students see themselves through that light as well.”

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