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Hackathon highlights changing perceptions of tech industry in Calgary

After three days of gruelling, often long hours of designing, coding, and mentoring, the YYC Hacks 2022 Hackathon has crowned its winning teams.

First place was taken by team Easy Licence, which designed an app to help entrepreneurs apply for City of Calgary business licences.

Second place was granted to YYC Hub, which created an interactive map for visitors to the downtown current events and venues to visit. And third place was given to YYSecrets, which allowed users to enter their personal preferences to be given a curated listing of events.

The winning teams won $1,000, $2,000 and $3,000, and a pro subscription to GoodLawyer.

At the end of the three-day event, all 14 teams that had begun the coding marathon finished and presented. That’s a rare occurrence in the sphere of hackathon competitions.

“It almost never happens, and I’ve never seen it. Usually, a few teams will drop out,” said YYC Hacks 2022 Hackathon organizer, and CEO of Pixeltree, Serene Yew.

“I think it’s a testament to the type of environment that we’ve created here that’s welcoming, and that people feel like is a safe space for them to be imperfect,” she said.

Solving real world issues

Teams in the hackathon were challenged to solve a number of issues relating to life in Calgary, with many focusing on the issue of downtown livability.

Dele Oyelese, software engineering master’s student at the University of Calgary, spoke about YYC Hub’s decision to tackle the downtown core problem presented by organizers.

“We decided to do that project based off of the problems that were presented to us by the city, and a lot of it had to do with dissipating information and communication between locals, tourists and, the city itself,” he said.

During the lunch hour on day two of the hackathon, Oyelese said that his team was hesitant about achieving success because of the size and difficulty in implementing the task. On his team were also a UX designer, two students from SAIT, and a high school student.

“I think it is above most people in our group’s ability at the moment, but it is definitely a forcing us to learn, and push our boundaries to actually make a build out of this,” he said.

By the end of the hackathon, but before Oyelese had been informed that his team had taken second place in the competition, he called the experience an awesome one. Later, collecting the award certificate alongside his team, he spoke about creating a collaborative team on the spot.

“I only knew one person on the team before, and I’m sure a lot of you guys relate to that you just met people for the first time,” he said.

“It was really amazing to see everybody’s so collaborative, and also helpful. The mentors that came out were great with guiding us and making us feel comfortable.”

Yew said that she was excited to see the seeds of further hackathon ideas planted into the community.

“The reason why I pushed so hard for this hackathon is that I wanted to create some momentum and interest, and getting people thinking about what other events we can post in the future to generate more ideas and get people excited,” she said.

“It’s great because I’ve heard so many ideas this weekend for future hackathons, and themes and different formats that we can run it in, and I’m excited to see them happen.”

Ending the imposter syndrome in the tech industry

Part of the message for the event was also helping the competitors to get over any imposter syndrome they might have felt going in.

Speaking to Mayor Jyoti Gondek during the opening ceremonies, Yew related her own experience of feeling imposter syndrome while meeting the mayor for the first time. She tied it back into the work that she has done with her own team at Pixeltree.

“Helping our team overcome imposter syndrome is something that we continuously improve on, and I think it’s something that everybody struggles with at all points in their lives, no matter how quote–unquote successful they may be,” she said.

Part of that, said Yew, was trying to create a culture that embraced the idea that people within the tech sector haven’t finished learning.

“We want to create that culture of safety, accessibility, learning, and growth because even people that have been in the industry for a long time still have things to learn,” she said.

“I’m learning stuff all the time from people who have pivoted into tech from other industries. Everybody has something to contribute with their unique experiences, and that’s what’s gonna make us really strong as a city.”

Mayor Gondek extended the metaphor for the city’s tech industry itself during her opening remarks. She said that Calgary has achieved a status in the tech world that was beyond what anyone would have predicted.

“I would say the biggest challenge we have is external perception of who we are,” said Mayor Gondek.

“We let people tell our story, and they inevitably tell the wrong story because they haven’t been there.”

Diversity of backgrounds present at the YYC Hacks 2022 Hackathon

Among other changing stories for the city is the diversity in the tech industry workforce, and among tech startups.

Mayor Gondek pointed to research done by Calgary Economic Development for Calgary’s clean tech industry. They found that it was comprised of 50 per cent first time entrepreneurs, 28 per cent by people born outside of Canada, and 22 per cent women.

“Those are big stats, because you don’t see that kind of representation in other sectors, so there’s something about this place that makes people feel like they can make it, give it a shot, and then they do well,” she said.

Yew, speaking as a CEO in the tech sector, said that having diversity is vital for a thriving innovation economy. Among the participants at the hackathon were a significant number of young women, and people from diverse backgrounds.

“Having people here, and having the representation changes the story of Calgary to one of diversity and inclusion,” she said.

“I think it’s really important for me as a woman in tech and leadership to have that representation, and to show other younger women that there is room for them to be themselves. I definitely don’t fit any traditional expected mould of a software developer or programmer, or even a leader or a boss.”

Uriel Karerwa, project coordinator for IncluCity who was also volunteering for the hackathon, reflected on the diversity of the participants in the event.

“Diversity is key, especially when you’re creating solutions. At the hackathon, you’ll see developers mingle with UX designers, and with people from the business sector to make up a brilliant solution,” he said.

“Even within that, there’s plenty of cultural diversity and people from different backgrounds, too. And once you realize that diversity is there, there’s plenty of ingenious solutions that come from that. Especially when you’re looking at the theme of this year’s hackathon.”