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Technica Broadens Its Horizons

Online, the All-Female and Nonbinary Hackathon Is More Popular Than Ever

By Maryland Today Staff

Hands with painted nails type on a laptop

Photo by iStock

Technica 2020, a hackathon for girls, women and nonbinary computer and technology enthusiasts, is being held virtually this year with roughly triple the typical participation because of easier accessibility for people around the country.

Whether in middle school robotics club or high school computer classes, Gesna Aggarwal was accustomed to being dramatically outnumbered by boys. During her freshman year at the University of Maryland in 2017, the composition of her tech world changed forever when the computer science major stepped into Reckord Armory and was suddenly surrounded by a sea of more than 800 girls, women and nonbinary computer and technology enthusiasts. She had found Technica, UMD’s student-run hackathon. 

“It was empowering to see that sort of representation,” said Aggarwal, a senior who also participates in the QUEST Honors Program and is pursuing a minor in general business. “It was just so inspiring to see so many female and non-binary people in one space focusing on technology and uplifting each other.”

The uplift continues this year at Technica 2020, which will be held over 24 hours on Saturday and Sunday, for which Aggarwal serves as the co-executive director. Because COVID-19 turned the event now in its sixth year into a virtual hackathon, she and her team had to reinvent many of the program’s offerings.

“We worked really hard to recreate the magic of Technica,” Aggarwal said. “We’re having a lot of the quintessential things about a hackathon like the sponsorship fair, meetings with mentors, watercooler chats where hackers can interchange ideas, and all of the workshops … they’ll just look a little different.” 

This year’s theme is “Expand your Horizons”—meant to inspire hackers ranging from coders to visual artists, writers, designers and engineers to step beyond the comfort zone of what they know to create something new.

Technica 2020 features four different tracks for participants: a general one for participants of any skill level or skillset to work on hardware, software, or whatever they desire; a 3-day research opportunity for undergraduates interested in different fields of research within computer science to work with faculty researchers and fellow students to address social issues; a beginner track for those just getting their feet wet; and a hardware-focused track to help hackers interested in building something master the fundamentals.

Keynote speakers this year will be Jewel Burks Solomon, head of Google for Startups and co-founder of Partpic, a company focused on streamlining the purchase and maintanance of repair parts using computer vision that was acquired by Amazon in 2016; and Cadran Cowansage, CEO and founder of Elpha, an online community with tens of thousands of members that works to accelerate the careers of women in the tech industry.

The online format hasn’t seemed to hinder the enthusiasm of participants who have registered in record-high numbers. Nearly 2,700 people have signed up to participate, roughly tripling attendance in a normal year. 

Aggarwal—who branched out from her first Technica and was soon competing, and winning, at standard, male-dominated hackathons—also hinted that there will be some special, platform-specific offerings to help keep participants engaged. One silver lining to an all-virtual hackathon is that participation will not be restricted to participants from the nearby region this year, she said. 

“Now you can be anywhere in the U.S. or Canada and come to Technica,” she said. 

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.