Tech-minded young women finally get their day at Playa Vista hackathon

By Jenny Cain

Kamie Robinson designs the demo interface for a mobile application to help users locate public parks Photo by Jenny Cain

Kamie Robinson designs the demo interface for a mobile application to help users locate public parks
Photo by Jenny Cain

Getting to the Wonder Women Tech conference two Saturdays ago in Playa Vista wasn’t easy. Aside from the years-long gender bias against female participation in the tech industry that created the need for such an event, conference coordinators initially provided the wrong address for the old Spruce Goose hangar, an unfamiliar destination for this OC girl.

I was told to show up early for the hackathon — a collaborative software development gathering I’d waited a year to attend — but when I arrived there were hardly any hackers around. An event organizer offered me $5 to get some Starbucks while I waited, which was nice but not why I came. Maybe 7 a.m. really meant noon in some computer code I hadn’t learned yet.

Emily Yamane, a first-year math major at UCLA, also sat out the wait in order to attend her first hackathon.

“Technology is so big. I want to be involved in something people can relate to,” Yamane said.

And two hours later it was magic: hundreds of participants explored activities, booths and panel discussions with dozens of rotating speakers.

In the hackathon space, a few dozen people began to team up at various tables. I sat next to Tamia James, a ninth grader at Beverly Hills High School whose older sister, a successful iOS developer, had encouraged her to pursue computer science. Dancing was Tamia’s true passion, so she sought a way to combine the two.

“Since I want to go into dancing, I’m already making a website about it,” she said. “Dancing is detail. Code is detail. Dancing without detail — it will blow up. Coding without detail — it won’t work.”

I took a walk and found a group of about 20 elementary school students listening to Caine Monroy — who in 2009 at just 9 years old (!) founded Caine’s Arcade, a cardboard entertainment center at his dad’s auto parts store that other kids paid to attend.

Shirin Salemnia, who led the workshop, would later paraphrase Monroy’s advice for another panel.

“Never give up. Use what you have. Customers are kings and queens,” echoed Salemnia, founder of WhizGirls Academy, a coding workshop that has partnered with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Venice and Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista.

Back at the hackathon, coders and participants with various backgrounds began to execute their ideas.

About half the hackers were women.

“It feels good. Usually when I go to a hackathon, I’m a minority,” said Laurie Tran, who worked with others to develop an app that would encourage Los Angeles users to report suspicions related to child trafficking. Tran’s job was to code a form asking specific questions of tipsters.

The child trafficking app shows that when women are given a chance to lead in technology, new ideas — particularly related to issues facing women — come to the forefront, as child trafficking victims tend to be girls.

“We can report on animal abuse and we can report pot holes, but we can’t report on children in danger? Don’t you think our children are worth more than a pothole?” said Ruby Guillen, who pitched the idea.

Jonathan Aghachi, a Cal State Northridge student who also worked on the app, said the idea probably wasn’t something he’d have thought to do on his own.

“In my classes I always notice there are all guys. Finally, in one of my last classes there were two girls,” he said.

At the neighboring table, Cynthia Liu, Kamie Robinson and Ema Lalley were also toiling away with their team to create an application that would allow people to better locate parks in LA. They said such an app would be useful for women with kids.

“It’s all about increasing access,” Liu said. “If you were going to run an errand, maybe you can squeeze in a hike.”

Initial hiccups aside, it appears the Women in Tech conference did what it was supposed to do.

Yamane, who had waited with me that morning, was initially shy about joining a hackathon because she didn’t know how to code. By that afternoon she was working to develop an app to help independent food sellers reach customers.