This girl hacker is beating all the boys: a Q&A with Jennie Lamere

Dec 19, 2013 /

If you’ve ever had the ending of your favorite TV show ruined by a spoiler-filled tweet, Jennie Lamere feels your pain. The 18-year-old tech whiz won the grand prize at Boston’s TVNext Hack event in April for inventing Twivo, a clever app that blocks all mentions of a show you’re waiting to watch until you’re all caught up. It was a huge hit, with people like Chelsea Clinton tweeting about the app, and the publicity glut that followed has been dubbed the Jennie Lamere Phenomenon.

Jennie is no stranger to events like TVNext. They’re called hackathons, meaning hacking marathons where engineers, product managers and designers come together to produce an app or program in a short amount of time, usually a day or weekend. They can be intense, with people pulling all-nighters to get their work ready for the final presentation. Jennie goes to a lot of them and keeps herself awake by downing tons of soda, which she admits is probably not that healthy. “I get very jittery,” she says, “but once I get in the zone, I’d rather not sleep.” Her longest stretch is 30 hours, with naps, lest she get “really cranky.”

Jennie was one of the only females at the TVNext Hack. She was also the youngest there — and the only one working solo. She beat out roughly 80 far more experienced competitors. But being the precocious one of the group is nothing new for Jennie: This summer, she also became Twitter’s youngest-ever intern — and she plans to return to the social media giant’s offices next summer as well.

We spoke to Jennie, who is a freshman in college at Rochester Institute of Technology, about how she got into programming, being the only girl at hackathons, and where she sees herself in 10 years.

My first question: How does it feel being the youngest, and oftentimes the only female, at a hackathon? Here’s Jennie —

It’s pretty intimidating at first because you’re like, “Oh, everyone’s going to have so much more experience, and I don’t really know what I’m doing.” But sometimes, it’s kind of cool to be like, “Hey, I have something to present too.” It’s cool to show them up.

Are you treated differently by the guys?

I think if anything, people are more open. At hackathons — or anything when it comes to computing, really — people are eager to get women and girls involved. I’ve found that people will go out of their way to make sure that I receive the help I need.

How did you get into computer programming?

My dad is a software engineer who goes to a lot of hackathons for his job. He was planning to go to the TVHack in Boston, and I decided to tag along. Then I went again the next year. The more I went, the more I started to do a little bit more code.

What’s the most important thing your dad has taught you?

He’s really taught me how to learn on my own. A lot of the stuff I was doing wasn’t anything I learned in my classes. He taught me how to use all of the resources online so I didn’t have to bother him every two minutes asking how to do something.

If someone doesn’t have a programmer dad, how could they get started?

Code Academy is really good if you’re looking to start from not knowing anything at all.

When the Jennie Lamere Phenomenon hit, how did that feel?

It was so crazy. Right after the [TVNext] hackathon, my dad and I were driving home, and he was like, “There’s gonna be a little bit of a buzz for two or three days, but then it’s gonna die down and you’re gonna go back to your regular life.” But it totally hasn’t at all.

So your dad is trying to keep it real?

[laughs] Yeah.

What was working at Twitter like?

Really fun. They’re so great. I was the youngest intern they ever had, and I clearly didn’t know as much as the senior interns. But they made sure that I didn’t feel lost. I learned so much that summer, it’s just incredible.

What kinds of things did you learn?

I learned about working on a project from beginning to end. At hackathons, you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to run tests to make sure some random user isn’t going to break the whole thing. Working in a big company, there’s a lot more structure.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years, career-wise?

I actually have no idea. I’m just going to try to work for as many different companies as I can. When I graduate, maybe I’ll join a start-up or a big company. But I have no clue. I’ve kind of exceeded my expectations already.

What is one thing you know that you wish everyone knew?

The computer doesn’t know if you’re a boy or a girl. People make a big deal out of women in computing, but really it’s just you and the computer. There are so many resources online that will help you start coding, so if it’s something you’re interested in, why not? If you just spend a half an hour a day going through some tutorials, you can learn so much. It’s really easy to start doing this on your own.

This article is part of a series on young voices, exploring the spirit and wisdom of youth. Read the full series here.