Computer Camp: No Canoes, Just Coding (and Kickball)

Junior app developers flock to computer summer camps at elite universities

Michael Matias traveled 7,400 miles to camp this summer. Usually the 15-year-old computer enthusiast finds plenty to do in Tel Aviv, his hometown. But when a friend won renown as a hotshot programmer after attending a California tech camp, Michael and his parents made camp a key part of their trip to the U.S. in July. In July the Matiases found a short-stay home near Stanford University. Michael spent his days on campus in a fast-paced course run by iD Tech Camps, learning how to develop applications for the iPhone. “Maybe I’ll end up building the next great app,” he says.

As stories of millionaire app developers and billion-dollar tech startups permeate the global consciousness, summertime computer camp is suddenly a hot ticket. Families from as far away as Saudi Arabia and China are sending their teens to places such as Stanford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to learn the fundamentals of iPhone programming or the fine points of video game modification, known as “modding.” iD Tech, which runs camps at 60 university campuses across the U.S. and Canada, says enrollment is up 15 percent since last year and will hit a record this summer of nearly 20,000 students. When Alexa Ingram-Cauchi co-founded the camp 12 years ago, shortly after graduating from the University of Washington, enrollment totaled just 200 kids.

The price tag, which can run as high as $3,299 for a two-week, overnight program, is daunting, as are the prerequisites. For iD Tech’s most rigorous offerings, students must already know the Java programming language. But some parents—including this one, who sent his 11- and 14-year-old sons to an iD Tech week-long day camp in June—see programming know-how as a new path to teenage success, comparable to acing the SATs or taking the right AP courses. And, with the tech sector currently one of the few bright spots in the economy, computer camp is the latest way for anxious parents to ensure their children have the right skills. At the close of one camp session, parents peppered the instructors with questions: “Does my boy understand variables?” “How much are you doing with ‘If’ statements?”

Sridhar Reddy, a veteran disk-drive engineer, says his own career has been jolted repeatedly by mergers, layoffs, and capital crunches. By contrast, when he looks at the life of a software programmer with cutting-edge skills, he sees freedom and lucrative opportunities, like those made famous in the movie The Social Network. “All you need is imagination,” declares Reddy.

Reddy’s 16-year-old son, Rushil, attended a July session of one of iD Tech’s most intense camps, the two-week-long, overnight iD Programming Academy on the Stanford campus. Rushil arrived with a roster of nearly 50 published iPhone apps. His biggest seller has been Cheats for Angry Birds, which offers shortcuts for getting the desired golden eggs in the popular smartphone video game. He has sold 48,000 copies at 99¢ apiece, netting about $33,000 after Apple’s 30 percent cut. His other apps, in total, have brought in slightly less than that amount and contributed to his family’s savings for college. “That’s more money than I’ve made my entire life,” says Will Meadows, a computer-science student at California State University at Chico and one of Reddy’s camp counselors.

Programming is becoming like gymnastics or basketball: a field where the most gifted teens seek recognition even before graduating from high school. Brad McLoone, a 14-year-old from San Antonio, is in his fourth year as an iD Tech student. Jon Fortescue of Renton, Wash., won his parents’ approval to attend the costly overnight camp at Stanford after showing a flair for programming. Back home, he was the only freshman allowed to take a high school programming class.

Fortescue, 16, now discusses technology trends with the savvy of a CTO. At camp, he built an Android app that locates and then plays online episodes of The Colbert Report. “There’s another app that already does this, but it’s not very good,” he says. “My app finds the actual .FLV video file”—the suffix denotes a file programmed in Flash—“so that the episode can play full-frame on the phone. The other app just shows you the original Web page.” He complains that videos using Flash are “bandwidth hogs,” and looks forward to widespread adoption of HTML5, a newer standard that can play videos more efficiently.

During the first week of iD Programming Academy, instructors provide a fast-paced introduction to Objective-C, the iPhone programming language. In the second week, students scramble to build their own apps, with light supervision. Instructors share pointers and lots of reminders about the importance of debugging work every few minutes. Most campers can build working apps within a week and still have time for brief afternoon games of kickball, though some refuse to leave their screens during breaktime.

One camper, Jerish Brown, laid claim to two computers to make it easier to design and code Helios, an iPhone app that will let people conduct text chats on their phones via a Bluetooth wireless connection. It should be a handy way for teens in close proximity, such as in a classroom or on a bus, to text without paying messaging charges, he says.

While explaining his app, Brown fiddled with the image on one of his monitors, which showed an on-screen simulation of an iPhone display. He used Photoshop to shape and reshape the bright red balloons that would hold each person’s chat messages. “I used to think graphics were very unimportant,” he said, in a patient voice. “Then it turned out that I was totally wrong. They’re crucial.” He tinkered with the balloons’ curved corners for a bit. Finally he pulled back and gazed silently at his work for a few seconds. “Now it’s pretty much perfect,” he declared.


    The bottom line: Enrollment at iD Tech computer camps is up 15 percent this year, as the hot tech sector spurs interest in programming.

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