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Code Word: Tristin Hightower extends the invitation

This column is the first in a series by Lindsay Hicks, a Philly-based writer and product manager, tackling the local tech scene.

Tristin Hightower is kind of a big deal. 

That was my thought as I walked to meet her for coffee a few weeks ago. It was the same one that crossed my mind during a panel discussion at last year's Women in Tech Summit, and upon learning she’d won "Geek of the Year" at the Philly Geek Awards in the fall.

After just a short time with Hightower, it's easy to predict her reaction to that first sentence: a burst of laughter, a shake of her head and a quick glance away from whoever mentioned it. Then she’ll change the subject.

It’s not that Hightower doesn’t appreciate being named geek supreme by a community that embraces, supports and celebrates all things nerdy, it’s just that she’s admittedly terrible at talking about her accomplishments.

Hightower, tech event organizer and cofounder of the local chapter of Girl Geek Dinners (GGD), exemplifies the kind of community spirit that makes Philly a great place to be for the tech curious. Philly GGD, launched with fellow gamer Nicole Kline in February 2011, hosts educational and social events ranging from metrics in gaming talks to craft nights and cookie swaps. Hightower is also a local gaming event organizer, community manager at Burst Online Entertainment and former Silicon Valley programmer.

Despite a resume full of tech-related gigs, Hightower doesn’t identify as a "techie," and points out that labels don’t do much to help the community grow. The sort of non-coder complex––the feeling of not being "tech enough"––keeps many people from taking part in events and meetups. The assumption is that tech happy hours or other events are full of dudes talking about their preferred programming language or video games. 

That potential makes even Hightower anxious, but it’s the way she deals with that hesitation that sets her apart: She organizes events that break the mold. She started by volunteering with the International Game Developers Association, which led to helping produce the GameX Industry Summit in 2009, a two-day conference for game developers. She went on to help organize five Game Jams (three Global Jams in Philly and two Philly Game Jams), GameLoop Philly 2011, BarCamp Philly 2012, among others.

Another woman pointed out how few women showed up to events, which led her to start the local GGD chapter. The group gives women an opportunity to explore tech topics in a laid back, nonthreatening environment. 

"The communities I’ve been a part of, especially the community I’ve seen grow with women in tech, has been welcoming and supportive," she says. "We’re helping each other learn, find jobs, and even just being there for each other when real-life bad [stuff] happens."

But it’s not just a gender thing. Hightower sees the same spirit— the passion, creativity and desire to help each other succeed—at Indy Hall (where she has coworked in the past) and at events throughout the city.

With ten years under her belt, the upper Michigan native has now been in the Philadelphia area longer than anywhere else she's lived since grade school. After being laid off from her first gig as a web developer, she wanted to get out of Silicon Valley, an area full of unemployed coders looking for jobs. She ended up in Philly soon after, taking a job at Comcast writing support and internal communications documentation, and later working on Comcast's video game products.

That’s when the switch flipped. She’d been an avid gamer ever since trying out her grandparents’ Atari 2600, but never considered what it took to build them. 

She got curious, so she did something.

"I was very eager to learn more about [gaming], and when I heard about an opportunity to get involved, I jumped on it," she says, speaking of the GameX Industry Summit in 2009. "I thought it would be a great way to get to know people and the local community in a way that be easier for me than just attending meetings."

After many weeknights out organizing events, Hightower is ready to spend more time in her other role: Wife to her programmer husband, Greg, and mom to two-year-old Matthew. 

But not before she plans another big event: A ladies-only hackathon, the first of its kind in Philadelphia. The hackathon is planned for March.

Hightower encourages any woman even the least bit interested in technology or the scene here in Philly to attend. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a project manager, a lawyer, a writer, a designer or a programmer: Everyone has something to contribute.

And for anyone whose anxiety might keep them from getting out and getting involved, Hightower borrows a motto from Indy Hall co-founder Alex Hillman: "JFDI (Just f#$%ing do it)."

For more on the rise of Philly's female-centric tech groups, check out this Flying Kite feature from fall 2011.

For updates on the upcoming hackathon, check out the Girl Geek Dinner Meetup page.

LINDSAY HICKS is a Philly-based writer and product manager. Her latest endeavor: learning to code with help from Girl Develop It.

All photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO
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