Creating a beginner-friendly hackathon

How StarterHacks founders William Nippard and Marium Kirmani built equity and accessibility into their hackathon’s DNA

StarterHacks, the beginner-friendly hackathon returning to Waterloo campus this May, grew out of a friendship between co-founders William Nippard and Marium Kirmani based on the principle that opposites attract.

When the friends met while working as residence hall dons at Waterloo in 2014, they could not have been more different. Nippard was a self-described “C’s get degrees” computer science student looking for direction. Kirmani was an overachieving health studies and health informatics student hoping to gain tech experience but frustrated by barriers to entry. They bonded quickly, however, over a shared curiosity and willingness to ask questions the people around them weren’t asking.

Headshots of Marium Kirmani and William Nippard

StarterHacks founders Marium Kirmani and William Nippard shared a frustration with existing hackathon culture.

“I remember I wanted to learn to code,” Kirmani says, “and all my friends said that if you want to learn how to code, you should go to a hackathon. So, I went to a couple hackathons, and they were such weird experiences.”

“First of all, I was always one of five women at the whole event, which was alienating. But even worse, whenever I approached people to form a team, they would back off as soon as they found out that I was in health, not computer science or engineering or whatever. I remember thinking, ‘Wait, aren’t we all here to learn? Do we need to already be set up to win everything?’”

Nippard and Kirmani soon realized their experience with hackathons was not unique. During their work as residence dons, students frequently came to them for advice because their applications kept getting rejected. “It felt like hackathons were moving from an experimental space to places with a hiring emphasis, where you bring all your tech skills and use them to prove yourself and network,” Nippard says. “Where did the sandbox — the playground — go?"

Together, they decided to build a new hackathon from the ground up, to “change the narrative of hackathons only being for experienced people,” Nippard says. “We wanted to bring it back to basics of what a hackathon was.”

The first StarterHacks, which they put together in five weeks in Spring 2017, was a very grassroots event. “We had just over a month to build a brand identity, find a venue, ask people to do workshops, get keynote speakers, look at applications, get those spots filled, get volunteers and get sponsors,” Kirmani emphasizes. Faculty members helped them make connections and find speakers, while colleagues in the Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association booked their rooms.

The friends were worried no one would be interested in their fledgling event, but the response was immediate and overwhelming: more than a thousand people applied for 200 spots.

“It was so wild,” Nippard recalls. “I had maxed out my credit card. I remember when our giveaway swag was delivered. This big truck backed up in front of the residence hall, and I realized I had to figure out how to fit two huge palettes of stuff in my dorm room.”

Large group of students posing for silly photo at Starter Hacks

Participants at the first StarterHacks celebrate a successful - if chaotic - event

Despite the stress, the first StarterHacks was a massive success. The demographics of the participants were also an anomaly, with 50 per cent female participants attending. “We did not initially set out specifically to be a gender equitable hackathon,” Kirmani says, “but I think that our open invitation for beginners worked in our favor because a lot of women and girls weren’t going to existing hackathons due to the intimidation factor.”

They also designed the event to be inclusive of non-traditional participants. Hackers were broken down into design, business and coding participant groups. The teams were also required to have a balanced number of two coders: one designer and one business manager. “This helped create an environment where people weren’t left out just based on their major,” Nippard says, “and they all got to sleep!”

The following year, StarterHacks received organizing and financial assistance from the Faculty of Mathematics, Nippard’s home faculty, and continues to receive support from to this day.

StarterHacks continues to maintain its focus on being educational and beginner-friendly. The event is free and experienced students are asked to volunteer as mentors instead of as competitors, while prizes focus on experiences like company visits or tech building kits like Raspberry Pis instead of cash.

“The biggest challenge,” Kirmani says, “is that there is such a demand for events like this that we can never accept all applicants.” Still, she says, they’re proud of how StarterHacks is helping to create a more diverse, beginner-friendly tech culture than the one they experienced as students. “We’ve discovered that keeping that door open creates a more equitable culture naturally. When we have people from different backgrounds working together, it helps shape the future of what we want tech to look like.”

StarterHacks will run on Waterloo campus July 27-28, and is open to all students.