Whenever we think of the word "hacker", a few images come to mind. Either we think of a man in a hoodie programming into a dual-monitor desktop in the dark, or we think of a criminal mastermind compromising the sensitive information of thousands of innocent users to use for his own benefit. No matter how we spin the term, popular media brings up the same recurring imagery.
Hackers are associated with a culture that is negative, elitist, pervasive, and overwhelmingly masculine.
However, in recent years, this has been changing. With the advent of hackathons and competitions like New York University's CSAW, a different perspective has come into the field regarding hacking and hacker culture. In accordance with this new standard, hackers are seen instead as individuals who are able to create something different out of something that exists. Whether that is building a web application or repurposing a blender, hackers have begun to embody a different persona from the dark personnel of popular imagination.
This new age hacker is someone who is resourceful, skilled, and approachable. They make apps that others can use, and they attend events to help out beginners to programming. They provide the energy to fuel the technology sector, and their creations are far from selfish and criminal.
Ever since I attended my first hackathon two years ago, I've been an avid attendee, frequenting universities across the country - even the world - and spending my weekends constructing projects using new APIs, tools, and technologies. I've learned to embody the term, and to embrace the culture of hacking that has come along with it. Whether that is constantly being on the lookout for a great idea, making friends with others who similarly enjoy spending their free time coding, or even just brainstorming ideas for how to create a great hack, I've learned to see hackers as positive figures in our society.
Nonetheless, even with so much improvement in the social perception of hackers, one problem remains. Hackathons have been constantly toted as elite, even by today's standards. Some of the longest running collegiate hackathons, such as MHacks, have even begun re-evaluating their selection processes to these events in order to embrace a greater and more diverse population of hackers. Attendees are no longer limited to entirely technical individuals - I've seen students with majors ranging from Art History to Chemistry attend and make great hacks.
Even with more leeway for those unfamiliar to programming, hackathons are still a breeding ground for discomfort. There is a certain sense of superiority that often exists among programmers, evident in shows such as Silicon Valley. "Brogrammers" duel over minor issues in their coding styles, undertones which only amplify the greater problems at hand.
The simple truth is, as open as hacker culture has become, it's really not all that it seems.
The problem with too many hackathons is that they force those who are newer to programming to lose confidence in their abilities. Because of how high the stakes often are, with prizes ranging from thousands of dollars in investments to expensive hardware, individuals who are less skilled in programming are often sidelined, unable to contribute when they can hardly even comprehend the work of their peers.
This doesn't just apply to those who work as designers. Anyone should be able to attend a hackathon, programmer or not, and be able to learn something. Yet, if this were the case, why is it that hackathons attract so fewer women than men, while events such as "coding workshops" attract a more even ratio of genders?
The issue lies in the culture behind hackathons. Some, such as PennApps, MHacks, and other partners of Major League Hacking, a collegiate and high school hackathon organization, offer prizes for the best hack by a new team. But even then, there is still pressure to create a finished product, something a new programmer would still have trouble accomplishing.
This is a problem that hackathon organizers agonize over, but it's really not too difficult to solve. By creating more hackathons that are beginner friendly - offering workshops that teach basic fundamentals, as opposed to solely basing them off of sponsors' requests to demo their software, newer programmers can have a base from which to expand. By offering mentorship, individuals who don't understand an issue can have a support system to relay their problems to. By having team building sessions throughout the start of the event, newer programmers can find a team that is supportive of their differences, and they can still have a great time despite not knowing how to code.
Knowledge, or lack of it, shouldn't be an impediment at hackathons. What matters isn't being the best programmer or the best individual coder, but being the best team member and making a meaningful contribution.
Too many hackathons still rely on experienced hackers to dominate, leaving nothing behind for those still making their way up. At the very core, though, the important issues should still stand out. Discrimination exists, even if it isn't blatant. As hard as it is to admit, these types of events still hold a prejudice against those who may be unfamiliar within the community.
I've been one of the directors for StuyHacks, a student-led high school hackathon in Manhattan, for two years now, and the response we've gotten from the community has been tremendous. By providing opportunities for newer hackers to contribute, we're building confidence and passion, something that needs to happen more within the hackerspace.
We've seen students who have no experience to middle school programmers to advanced high school hackers who have been to over a dozen hackathons in the past year. We've had teams developing their first website and teams created their tenth iOS app. We've had workshops ranging from basic Java programming to OpenCV and computer vision.
And the best part is, at the end of the day, everyone wins.
Experienced programmers can gain leadership experience from helping out a newer team member, and newer programmers can gain experience from learning from seasoned developers. Students of different backgrounds can bounce ideas off of each other in ways that a purely technical team could never have done.
Despite their history, hackathons shouldn't remain a wholly competitive environment. Organizers should ensure that their future events are open to those looking for a new experience, embracing the differences that each of us have as programmers.
Sharon Lin is a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is pursuing a degree in Electrical Engineering/Computer Science and Applied Mathematics.