Thinking About App Camp: Amazing Accomplishments That Are Hard to Scale

It’s been a week since the news was announced that there wouldn’t be the App Camp For Girls program in Summer 2019 and that the board of directors would be exploring options for furthering the mission of the organization by other means. I said I would write a proper blog post once I had a chance to process my feelings, and this is it.

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(This is a really long post, and there are some nice photos at the end. I thought I would post a photo here at the beginning to balance things out, so you won’t have to wait until the end for photos. This is me and App Camper Aysa. We got to go on TV after the first AC4G beta session in June 2013!)

Jean and Aysa, Live at 7

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Back to the blog post:

The board’s announcement noted that the 2019 preregistration numbers did not make camp programs feasible this year, and:

“It has become apparent that the high-touch, high-craft model of App Camp is difficult to scale and the high cost per camper is not financially sustainable.”

I have not been a member of the App Camp board for some time, but I understand and support the board’s decision. The program had a great run. We showed hundreds of kids that they could make apps and they should feel empowered to pursue a career in the software development industry if they wanted to.

Over my years as founder/director of App Camp, I have learned that this financial sustainability is a harsh reality. My original idea was to model the program after Rock’n’Roll Camp for Girls. At Rock Camp, participants learned how to play an instrument, form a band, write a song, rehearse, and perform in a showcase at a local music venue. As a volunteer and board member at that organization, I saw firsthand how the experience excited and empowered youth in an endeavor they’d never tried. Rock Camp is an awesome program, but every facet of it is much less expensive than an app development camp.

At App Camp, we taught app brainstorming, UI and icon design, coding, marketing and pitching the finished apps. The participants, usually 12 per camp, worked in teams of four, using design tools and Xcode, under the supervision of an adult who themselves had overcome the barriers of gender inequity. Each camp location had an organizer to manage all the logistics, a lead developer to teach coding and to handle troubleshooting, a design coach to teach design principles and help the kids individually. We had a presentations coach come in on the last couple days to help the kids with their Keynote decks and prep them for public speaking.

This program, which required many specialized volunteers and a lot of hardware, was expensive to run. We thought we could scale the program, both by increasing the size of the camps and by launching more camp locations in other cities.

In 2016, after four years, managing 16 sessions in 5 locations with over 60 volunteers, I learned a thing about myself: I am not executive director material. I got into this endeavor so I could work with kids and inspire them, yet I spent most of my time as unpaid administrator. I was burned out trying to make this camp model work, and so were local camp organizers, some of whom had to step back reluctantly because the demands on their time and energy were so great. In 2017, we experienced our first contraction in the number of locations.

I sought out experienced non-profit professionals who helped me and the board see that a paid staff was needed to:

  • develop a strategic plan;

  • manage the organization and the camps;

  • significantly increase the level of fundraising;

  • improve the outreach to kids and families;

  • recruit/retain the necessary organizers and volunteers.

Since then, the board of directors has employed professional executive directors. Unfortunately, the goal of making the program sustainable remained out of reach. The costs per participant grew as the number of participants decreased. I know each member of the board has been dedicated to App Camp’s mission. Volunteers themselves, the board members have worked very hard to identify new solutions to the scalability and sustainability questions. I support the conclusion they have come to, given the realities of the program:

Rather than move forward with the likely outcome of disappointing campers, their families, our volunteers and our donors, we felt it would be more productive to take the time to research other ways to use our resources to support our mission.

This was a hard conclusion for an organization and program that is so well-loved. For those who are frustrated with this decision, please direct your frustration at me. I established a model of camp that doesn’t scale, and I tried to scale it. I had a vision that App Camp participants could learn to build an app in a week. I knew from Rock Camp that the joy of writing and performing a song in one week was magical. I knew from my own experience that building even the simplest app and running it on my iPhone was life-changing. But the cost of making that happen is high, both in terms of funding and in many dedicated hours of volunteer work. And, by working as an unpaid director for so long, I contributed to the false impression that the camp’s model was sustainable when it wasn’t.

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(You’re about 2/3 through this long post. Would some emergency guinea pigs tide you over until the end? These are Grace and Ada, almost 5 years old, named after legendary computer scientists Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace.) guinea pigs

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Back to the rest of this blog post:

Accepting the reality that the goal wasn’t feasible does not take away the amazing accomplishments our team has made. Over 250 girls, transgender, and gender non-conforming youth made an app in one week. They also learned how to design their app and pitch it. For many of them, camp was truly life-changing, and I believe they will take this experience of empowerment in technology with them through their lives. And they got to spend time learning about tech with their peers and making new friends.

It was not only the youth who benefitted. The volunteers, most of whom learned Xcode and Swift along with the kids, were also empowered to level up in their own careers. In addition, they found a community of women, transgender and gender non-conforming adults who became friends and offered mutual support. The fact that the volunteers were able to benefit from the program was a bonus outcome for the team and the organization.

This includes me. I was used to having mostly male colleagues in tech. App Camp changed that forever. I will never forget the day I met App Camp co-founder Grey Osten at WWDC 2012. An app developer, Grey was the first person who believed in the idea that kids could learn to make apps in such a short timeframe. Kelly Guimont was my original personal cheerleader, a boundless source of energy who worked with Grey and me planning that first camp. The photo of the three of us with our three “alpha” pioneer campers during Spring Break 2013 is one of my favorites.

App Camp Alpha Session

For our first “beta” camp session in Summer 2013, Maia Olson and Momoko Saunders came on board and made it happen on super short notice to be team leaders. Liz Marley and Kristina Sontag came down on Thursday from Seattle because they really wanted to help. Again, this photo of the seven of us, completely exhausted but so happy because we made it work, is one I will cherish.

App Camp Beta Team

For our second session of 2013, Michelle Petruzzi volunteered to help out with logistics. We learned from the “beta” camp that we were seriously understaffed and having Michelle made a huge difference in organization of everything from badges to lunch breaks to kid wrangling. In the off-season, Michelle agreed to be our part-time Operations Manager and that was key. Our ambitious 2014, 2015, and 2016 seasons wouldn’t have been nearly as awesome without Michelle’s steady hand and friendly manner backing us up. Sadly though, we lost Michelle to pancreatic cancer in 2016, and that was a huge blow for everyone and the organization.

Michelle Petruzzi, operations manager

Under Liz and Kristina’s leadership, the Seattle team started their own successful location, and held a total of five summer sessions from 2014–2018. Next, teams from Vancouver BC, Phoenix, Orange County, Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul put on sessions. I have so many great memories from these locations and their dedicated organizers and volunteers. You all have a place in my heart.

Seattle Volunteers 2014

We have also have the most incredible group of supporters in the Apple community and the tech world at large. Our initial Indiegogo campaign reached its goal in 3 days! At WWDC 2013, before we even held our first session, the WWDCGirls team offered to host a cocktail hour fundraiser for camp. Each subsequent year they organized a bigger fundraising party, and eventually combined forces in 2016 with James Dempsey and the Breakpoints to make their annual LIVE near WWDC event into a benefit show for our cause. The show is a highlight of WWDC week for me (I’m a Conditional Breakpoint, playing guitar on a couple songs) and became our most successful annual fundraiser. In addition to James, I want to express my profound gratitude to the organizers from WWDCGirls Michele Titolo, Jaimee Newberry, and Jane Lee, as well as the hundreds of folks who showed up to these events and contributed.

James Dempsey, LIVE near WWDC

(You can see so many more fantastic photos and videos on the App Camp For Girls website. It still astonishes me to see how much was accomplished since the launch of camp.)

Of course, I am sad that things will change. I’m encouraged to see so many new programs springing up since we started. The board is dedicated to making sure that the assets of App Camp For Girls are used to support our mission; that’s the primary goal of the transition. Everyone – volunteers, donors, sponsors, aspiring young developers, and the board – have a lot to be proud of.

As for me personally, after I turned over the reins of App Camp For Girls in 2017, I joined developer Manton Reece who created a new blogging platform that also includes a social community with anti-harrassment standards. I am very passionate about the tools and experience we have built at Micro.blog since our launch. Building a safe space to blog and interact on the web, based on open standards that offers an alternative to the social silos like Facebook and Twitter, is another way I can put my energy into bringing a better experience to those who are currently underrepresented in tech and whose voices don’t get heard on the internet.

You can reach me at jeanpdx@icloud.com.My blog is at micro.welltempered.net. See you at WWDC. I’ll be focused on producing another awesome LIVE near WWDC show with James and the other Breakpoints, and we are holding the 3rd annual WWDC Micro.blog meetup. I’m also planning to attend Release Notes Conf in October.

Jean MacDonald @macgenie