“The magic isn’t when you’re with all women in these hackathons- it’s when it feels absolutely normal [to be a woman].”
“When you come to Hack Holyoke, you’re in a space that’s 50/50 [men versus women] and it feels normal- it feels right.”
Eva Snyder ’17 and Katie Ho ’16 reflect on their experiences as female coders, planning the first-ever women’s college hackathon and recommend us their favorite tech products. Smart, personable and accomplished, Snyder and Ho are two of Mount Holyoke’s most visible campus leaders.
How did you get into computer science?
Eva: I came into college not interested in studying CS. My family is very CS-oriented- my sister is a Software Engineer at Amazon, my parents are electrical engineers. While I had taught robotics to kids during some of my summers of high school, computer science never interested me. I was set on not sitting in front of a computer all day long (I very quickly learned this is not what all CS majors do!) I wanted to do music, but I heard rave reviews about Audrey and decided to try her class iDesign, a robotics course (hardware). I also took CS101 at the same time. I loved the hardware portion of it and the creativity, so that’s what intrigued me to move forward. One year later and I am now a computer science and music double major and the rest is history from there!
Katie: I didn’t plan on studying computer science when I came to Mount Holyoke. I wanted to do education or languages but eventually decided to take a CS101 course. I had been on a robotics team in middle and high school, so I got the exposure to hands-on hardware and coding [before]. I really liked our [high school] team when we competed together for five years, so I quickly fell into coding again and continued to really like it.
Katie, you did a gap year after finishing high school in San Diego. How was that experience?
Katie: After high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do and over the course of going to a series of college fairs, I also went to a couple gap year fairs. [Gap years] are seen as one alternative option to starting college right after high school and a lot more popular in Europe. I went with my mom to see various programs, and there were a few that offered volunteer partnerships in different countries. Others were about teaching, tourism and sightseeing, but I was lucky to find one that incorporated all these interests. Thinking Beyond Borders, the program I chose, combined sightseeing, language learning and service work. It was a structured program; we had seminars and texts to read during our time abroad. Although it was overwhelming in a several ways, it was an unforgettable experience of eight months, travelling around the world with eleven different people I had never met before. They had all been, like me, ready to go to college, but decided to take this year off with this program, accompanied by three adult mentors. We stayed with host families primarily in Ecuador, India, China and South Africa, with a different six-week service project in each country. We did a bit of tourist sightseeing in between as well.
Did that help clarify your major and future professional goals?
Katie: (giggles) I wish it did, but there was nothing really CS-related in the program! There was a portion of the program in India where I taught math and English to kids, so that piqued more of my interest in education. When I came to Mount Holyoke, I even though about becoming an education and psychology major. I eventually started falling back on my middle school interests, however, and that’s where the programming aspect of my college career began. I’m still trying to keep my interests in languages alive, but I couldn’t triple major! (laughs) CS started getting me really excited, and there’s a really wonderful CS community on campus.
How did you get into the CS society?
Katie: Some of my friends were in it, and after taking a couple of CS classes, I was looking for a way to be more involved in the CS community. The club has since rebranded itself to the Computer Science Society and is now structured into subcommittees and teams. It’s fun to be a part of such a vibrant group of women on campus who want to make a difference. I have enjoyed getting the opportunity to work in leadership positions in the CS Society, as well as practice networking effectively. We are working hard to increase our community’s visibility on campus and HackHolyoke has been one of the big events that has started us on the right track.
How did Hack Holyoke come about?
Eva: Hack Holyoke started last year with the Maker Jam I organized with Professor St. John and a senior who graduated. It started out with just Mount Holyoke students- about 30 people on [last year’s] Valentine’s Day! I spent Valentine’s Day with a robot.. (jokes) Don’t ever do a Hackathon on Valentine’s Day- it’s kinda sad. Nonetheless, it was a great experience, and the people who came loved it. They loved the opportunity to learn something new, and eventually, I approached Prof. St. John who also wanted to begin what is now known as [HackHolyoke.] The CS Society contacted me, wanting to make HackHolyoke a part of the CS Society and that brings us to the fall- the first bi-annual HackHolyoke officially! We just started organizing it – I started in the summer, Katie joined in September and we just started advertising. We teamed up with Major League Hacking- they helped get the word out for us, and we are very lucky to continue working with them. They work with the largest hackathons across the country, and we later started posting on social media sites about the event. We promoted it on Facebook and Twitter, and it just took off! Before we knew it, we had people from Canada asking us if they could come! It just kind of happened- we got the word out, and people got excited about it.
Katie: Being the first all-women’s college to do this is really special and we were fortunate to have participants from each of the 5 Colleges in the area attend our fall HackHolyoke! We acknowledge that the CS community is still heavily dominated by men and are channeling our energy to change this into events like HackHolyoke. Being a part of the CS community, we are very cognizant of the imbalance in gender representation at hackathons. We were less keen on the idea of an all-women’s hackathon because we thought it was more important to have everyone represented, not just the group who has been historically underrepresented. It was a great success! We had 53% women in attendance!
Was there a hackathon that really inspired you to create an integrated space?
Eva & Katie: A local one!
Eva: We had guys flirting with us at 3 AM and doing magic tricks, and we were like, “What are you doing? We are working.” We weren’t there to flirt or to meet guys and it was very degrading.
Katie: Women aren’t really seen as contributors to the knowledge base of STEM, because men have dominated these fields for long. The overall lack of gender equality and diversity inspired us both to lead a hackathon that recognized the contributions that women bring to the table. Eva: We ended up placing well, so we showed those guys up! Which Mount Holyoke women in computer science do you look up to? Eva: Audrey! She’s a second mom to everybody in the computer science department here at Mount Holyoke College. She understands everything we’re going through and she is so inspiring. The image of women in the tech industry is changing quickly and it’s amazing to be in an environment where this change is happening. Audrey is an inspiration to everybody in the CS department and instills her own courage within all of her students. Without women like Audrey, I might not be doing computer science.
What new tech products really interest you?
Katie: I like the idea of wearable electronics and the design aspect behind them. There’s this company named Ringly that I really admire– they have this ring with the capability to connect to your phone! Having the ring and your phone synced allows you to leave your phone in your purse and not worry about missing calls or messages. The ring will buzz or light up with different tones depending on who is trying to reach you. I like that it’s so user friendly, serves a purpose, and looks fashionable! I hope to work on products like these in the future or maybe pursue my design interests more and work on user interfaces.
Eva: I’m definitely a fan of wearable electronics and the creative side of CS as well. I’m actually now taking a couple courses off campus at Hampshire, specifically in game design. Last semester I worked with a group of students from the 5 Colleges to make a word game called WordSnack for iPhone and Android phones. You can find it on the app store! This semester, I’m working on a small team of 5 college students to create a game I pitched for Virtual Reality that’s a horror game on the Oculus Rift called “Neurosis”. It’s going to be a completely submersible experience designed to replicate the horrible conditions at a nearby mental hospital, the Belchertown State School for the Feeble Minded, which closed down in the 80s. I’d consider myself immersed in the creative aspect of computer science more so than the data analysis portion of it. I like how hands-on computer science is and how rewarding it can be. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you both.
Before we conclude this conversation, what advice would you guys give prospective Mount Holyoke students?
Katie: Take a CS course! Everyone’s nervous about doing it because we’re always seen in the lab, but college gets busier for everyone- regardless of their major. I would recommend taking CS101 as soon as you can, even if you’re not math or science-oriented. It will help you gain an appreciation of the minds, work and people behind all of our everyday gadgets and programs, as well as technology in general.
Eva: Also if you’re enrolled in the CS 101 class, don’t give up! There were so many times in that introductory class where I wanted to legitimately stop and quit. It’s a whole new way to think, which is very difficult. It’s not linear- you have to really take each step carefully from point A to point B. It’s very difficult to rework your brain to think like that. We know it’s easier said than done, but that just makes it all the more rewarding in the end. No pain no gain.