Hackathons generate solutions, opportunities and support for women in computer science

When Cassidy Williams was an eighth-grader in Downers Grove, Ill., she taught herself how to build website. Almost a decade later, the Iowa State University senior, 22, has made a presentation to the United Nations on a project empowering women in STEM and is such a winning veteran of hackathons that she’s now a co-organizer of the International Women’s Hackathon 2014 set for April 25 – 27.

“There’s not a lot of women in tech, so it’s exciting to have a hackathon with so many women participating,” Williams says.

This crowdsourcing event hopes to empower young women in computer science and encourage them to lead and find and be mentors to others. More than 100 hackers expected to come to Washington, DC – with scores more connecting via Lync over the weekend – to develop solutions to two challenges. One is increasing the number of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields and another is to stop distracted driving, such as texting behind the wheel.

“Hackathons with a cause are always fun, just because you know that you’re making the world a better place by simply participating,” Williams says. “Even if you’re new at it, try hackathons anyway. They’re the best way to learn fast and get a working product out there.”

Williams interned for Microsoft’s Bing Ads team in the summer of 2012, and met one of her mentors, Rane Johnson-Stempson, principal research director of Education and Scholarly Communication for Microsoft Research Connections and founder of the International Women’s Hackathon.

She also participated in her first hackathon, for Microsoft’s Online Services Division, and won. She was hooked. And soon, it was apparent that her victory wasn’t just beginner’s luck.

“When you win a competition, it definitely motivates you to do more,” she says. “It gave me the confidence to keep participating in, competing in – and now planning – hackathons.” After that, she participated in many more hackathons, including one that drew thousands to the University of Pennsylvania.

Her biggest win was on board a British Airways plane – yes a plane – from San Francisco to London, the UnGrounded Thinking Hackathon in July 2013. Amongst the plane’s other passengers: Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and the vice president of GitHub. Her team presented in London, and won that competition, too.

“It has opened up the most opportunities for me,” says Williams, whose project, AdvisHer, took a stance “to advise, advocate and accelerate women in STEM, to build a community around them, to encourage people, mentor and each other, and financial support and encouragement.” She’s even presented that winning project to the United Nations.

As much as mentors have helped her on her current path, she’s paying it forward by being a mentor to others, showing them that “STEM allows you to use both sides of your brain, more than any other field. You have to be both logical and creative to solve the world’s problems.”

At Iowa State, she majored in computer science and minored in Spanish. Williams is also president of the computer science club and in January 2013, she and her sister were invited to the White House Tech Inclusion Summit, as student representatives.

She’d like to see more women involved in STEM through “less chance encounters, more legitimate encounters to see what computer science is about.” Promoting awareness, she says, “is a huge deal.” For Williams, interning with Microsoft “was great.” She says, “It opened my eyes to the technical software development cycle that I didn’t get to see before, and it exposed me to hackathons!”

All that problem-solving has led her to a promising outlook after graduation: fielding 10 job offers in the fall and accepting one in New York City to do software engineering for Venmo.