The Job PDX
The Job PDX
52. Jean MacDonald

Jean MacDonald is the founder of App Camp for Girls.

The Interview

Hi, Jean.
Hi how are you?
Fantastic it’s a lovely day here in Portland. So before we dive into the stuff I really want to talk about, why don’t you tell me, just give me a little background like where did you come from and how did you get into software development.

Sure, well I moved to Portland in 1994, ’95? My sister had started a software company for multimedia software for children and my sister Judy who worked at Hewlett Packard had this idea for making arts and crafts type software that you could print out design stuff and then print it out on your printer and the software would come with all the things you needed to make say a book or magnets or whatever so back when software was sold in boxes and you went to the store to buy it…

And it was a fun start up and I was living in New York City at the time working in book publishing, but I was getting a little bit tired of that, so I decided to come and work with her and that’s when I really started to become a geek. I mean I always had geek leanings because I was interested in, you know, I like math and science and all that but it was my first really geeky job where I had to learn how to do internet marketing, and this was like ’95, ’95 so it was kind of make up, really make up whatever you want and one of the problems I had at the company was that I couldn’t get people to update the webpages so mainly the programers were responsible for that but they were busy with the software so they said “You should just learn how to do this it’s not that hard,” and that’s when I learned how to do html and how to load web pages on to the web, that was definitely a funny part of it because I assumed that must be really hard and when finally someone showed me I was like, “That’s it? That’s all you have to do?” And from that moment I was like, “Anything I can do myself I will.”

And I became a web designer form that point on, the company was sold to Intel and I was already taking intensive web design classes and I became a freelance designer and then an instructor, a web design instructor at PNCA here in Portland.

While I was a web designer, that’s how one of my clients was a good friend of mine who’s a software developer who had started this small Mac software company with another friend called Smile, and they asked me to build their website and then they asked me could I put together a contest for design for they had, their first software was called Disk Label, which was for designing and customizing labels for your CDs and DVDs –

Ahh different times.

Very different. You know, so we, and eventually the company grew really fast and they asked me to come work with them full time so I was a partner at Smile for 10 years almost, all the marketing/community building etc. And that’s while I was working at Smile and attending Apple developer conferences and getting to know a lot of Apple developers was when I started thinking about doing something called App Camp for Girls.

Ok, by the way, love Smile Software. I still use PDF Pen myself but, so you’re talking about at WWDC.


How long ago did you start going there? To those events.

I was always in town for, because Smile would do, you know, some biz-dev type type things, we threw a party and stuff and 2010 though we finally decided it was worth it to get a ticket for me to go and it was, it was incredible and I was just, you know, it was amazing. I was very excited to be there.

Have you been there enough to notice has there been any change in the gender balance in the room or is that something that you can not kind of even discern at that level? There’s a lot of people.

I haven’t discerned it. That’s what I first noticed, the first time and really actually the second time I went when I was little less star struck and more like thinking, “You know this is kind of weird that there’s no women around me,” there were women there but you know just a few percentage but we wouldn’t know, they don’t put out those numbers.

But you know, people joke about this bathroom, the bathroom index – is there ever a line at the ladies room, and they’re never was. But I would see a few more women. But I don’t know for a fact, but other people have said they feel like it’s getting a little better, we’ll see this year ‘cause this is going to be an interesting year.

So tell me, what is different this year – is Apple doing something different to help with that?

They are actually. They just announced it a couple days ago, so it’s brand new. They announced – they always have a scholarship program so just for the ticket to WWDC it’s $1,600 so it’s not something you just say “Hey, maybe I’ll go.” And nowadays you can’t even get the tickets because there are so many developers wanting them that I didn’t even get one last year and a lot of people I know didn’t get them. But students could apply for a scholarship and they would get the ticket and of course their travel, I don’t know to what extent, they’d have a couple hundred students as young as 13 to college, you had to be a part time or full time student.

This year, they’ve expanded the scholarship program, they’ve added more scholarships and they also are working with a number of STEM organizations. So you know, related to technology and science and engineering, math organizations, making it, making their volunteers or members eligible to apply for scholarships. Our volunteers now can apply for a scholarship which they couldn’t have done in the past because they weren’t students. So non students who were involved with these, I don’t know it’s about 15 organizations, including App Camp for Girls can apply. That’s a huge deal.

That’s really cool.


Huh. Ok, let’s back up for a second because I kind of got ahead of myself here. Why don’t you our listeners who aren’t familiar with this awesome thing: What is App Camp for Girls?

Sure. App Camp for Girls is a one week summer program that teaches girls, middle school aged girls, the process of software development through creating an iPhone app in one week. So brainstorming how you come up with app ideas, we have design workshops working on interface, user interface and icon design, we do coding, we don’t teach a programming language in one day, that’s not possible. The girls work with the development that Apple provides, that all developers who make iPhone apps use Xcode primarily, and working off of a template that we’ve put together so that they aren’t starting from scratch.

We think it’s really important to finish an app, a cool app not just a “Hello world” app in that week to get that sense of excitement that, “Woah I could make apps like this.” So the very last day of camp we do a pitch session where the girls pitch their apps, they make presentations and they pitch their apps, their ideas and how they would market them and who their audience is, to a panel of women investors and entrepreneurs and those women ask them questions and it’s a great way for them to get a little practice presenting and also to see that women are involved in every step of the process; not just coders, not just designers they’re also the money people as well.

We want our campers to see that if they’re interested in being in software development, something is there for them, it’s not just sitting in a basement at a computer never seeing the sunlight which I think is a lot of kids’ impressions of what computer programming is all about.

August 2014 Portland

That’s what it was in the ‘80s, not anymore. So this has been, you’ve done, so 2015 will be your third summer?


Ok. And this started in Portland, correct?


But are there, there’s other places you’re doing this now?



Yes so we started in Portland in 2013 because I live here and also, totally coincidentally, Natalie Ostin who’s our lead developer, we met at WWDC in San Francisco and she lives in Portland and when I found that out I was like, “I need you I have a project I need a woman developer.” And also I was inspired by the Rock and Roll Camp for Girls which is another Portland-born program and I’ve been to camp, rock camp myself, a ladies rock camp and I’ve been a teacher of guitar and a band manager during the girls rock and roll camp and I’ve been on the board as well for Rock Camp for Girls so I had this model which was a very Portland friendly model.

But we knew that we wanted to bring App Camp for Girls to other locations, just based on the demand that people just everywhere have asked, “How can we have this in our town?” So last summer we opened our first non Portland camp and that was in Seattle. We worked with some volunteers who had come down to Portland to volunteer for the first camp so they had already been through the process and they work for the Omni Group in Seattle and we used it as our test case of what do we need to do to be able to empower another group to put on rock – not rock camp – App Camp for Girls. Because there’s a lot, Rock Camp is a little easier because rock and roll is a lot more flexible I would say that software programming I would say but we have equipment we have curriculum we have, to get what we want to get done by the end of the week requires a little more organization and precision that Rock Camp.

But the Seattle camp went off really well, it was great and we learned a lot about what we had forgotten to tell them during the week and we needed to document, do a much better documentation of what’s in the curriculum, what’s in the program, how it needs to run.

So that’s what we put our efforts to and since last summer we have now an official handbook, a 50 page handbook, what you need to do to run App Camp and we have sample schedules and budgets and all the stuff that you need to know. And we called that App Camp Kit, it’s like a software development kit but it’s for camp and we are still refining that but we did an orientation weekend here in Portland with our out-of-town counselors, the organizers from the other camps. This summer we’ll also have another camp in Vancouver, BC.



So we’re also learning about Canada which is interesting. So we’re international and we’re very excited about the Vancouver location. We have a great team there, also started by one of my friends from Rock Camp.

Ok, so let’s take the Portland camp as an example – how many students go through there in a summer? How many camps do you do or how many…?

Sure. We do, right now we’re doing two sessions of 12 girls each, so it’s a small group, it’s very labor and hardware intensive so we have what we call project team managers who are essentially the counselors of App Camp are have a group of four girls so for those 12 girls we have three project team managers who are full time volunteers who are software savvy, not necessarily iPhone developers but they are willing to learn what we’re teaching the girls before we teach it to them, or sometimes as we teach it to them.

We’ve had women who are WordPress developers and Rails developers and software technical support q/a people have all been App Camp volunteers. We’d like to increase the size but right now we’ve focused on getting the program right and making sure we have the curriculum pretty well nailed down and I think that will become a focus in 2016, increasing the size of the camps or increasing the number of sessions.

Have you had a lot of demand for those spaces?

Yes. We don’t do a huge amount of PR to get campers to sign up because we do’t have enough capacity for everybody that would want to come. I like, we always have a wait list, we always have more girls coming than we have spaces for. I’d like to do more outreach to schools and organizations that aren’t as tied into the high tech world as our campers tend to be children of engineers and other professionals.

I think that what motivated me in the first place was that I think girls could get really excited about this if they knew what it was, if they could see it wasn’t rocket science, and that they could do it, that they didn’t need to be some super brainy nerd to be a software developer. I’d like to reach more girls who have never even thought about doing that. By expanding the camp we could do more efforts like with schools and say recruit, try to recruit more campers which we aren’t doing now.

For the, it seems to me that one big concern would just be getting the equipment to develop on, all the computers and are those just sort of like loaned to you for two weeks of the year or do you guys actually have to own all that equipment?

Well the first summer we did go with loaners because friends of mine said, “oh well I have here a MacBook Pro.” We use laptops, we don’t use the iMac or bigger computers because in many cases like here in Portland, we’d do the camp at Tabor Space, we can’t just leave all our equipment there every night, we have to be able to move it in and out every day.

It worked ok with the loaners but we knew we wanted to have our own equipment because it takes a lot to set up the macs to work for what we’re doing. Xcode has to be installed we have to tie that Xcode in with our Apple developer account in this harrowing experience known as provisioning where so that we can run apps on the device. You know if you want to run an app on your own device, a beta version of your app without going through the app store, you have to set it up and it’s a very finicky process. Once you have it set up you don’t want anybody to touch any of your settings so – and we also wanted all the girls to have the same computers so it didn’t really matter which one you were on, so last year we bought a set of MacBook Pro, 15 inch MacBook Pro and that worked out really well. We have one computer for every two girls, we don’t even want them to each have their own computer, we don’t want them to get sucked in and lose the social and collaborative aspects of camp and I think if they each had their own computers they would lose out on what makes App Camp unique.

Yeah yeah that’s interesting. So I mean, it sounds to me like that is a big part of it that I would not, I guess I wouldn’t have expected. You know I was, maybe it goes back to the whole “in the basement writing software,” but it’s kind of like, it’s almost like learning about pair programing, kind of doing it as a social – so how many app, like does a pair of students develop one app or several apps or what’s the…?

Well they work as a team of four and so generally what happens is at least one or two in the team are more interested in working on the icon or the interface and one or two are more interested in seeing how far they can push the programming but they all collaborate equally.

The template that we developed for them to build an app with is a personality quiz basically so it’s set up for them to build four questions, five questions, four answers four results, so there’s a lot of content that they create during that couple of days where they work on that app. On the first day they do a hello world app and they also do a calculator with four functions, so they each write the code for a function you know addition, subtraction etc. They spend most of their time at the computer working on the quiz app and they just come up with some really fun and creative stuff and some weirdly accurate results so that’s been pretty great and then they present their quizzes at the end of the week. But yeah we want them to be a team of four and work together and learn how to help each other out.

We have a rule, you know for the volunteers is that we don’t touch the computers so we show them, we do a little bit of demo time with the projector but we coach them through it and then they teach each other. And now that we’ve been around long enough where we have interns, so coming back from previous camps, the interns can help with that too and so yeah it’s not like a programming course where somebody does something up at the front and everybody has to do what that person is doing at the same time.


Is there a moment that you’ve found where kind of this lightbulb goes off? ‘Cause I’d imagine at first there’s sort of, just gotta get your head around how all these pieces fit together – is there like Thursday afternoon all these lightbulbs go off where it’s just like, “This is awesome!” Is there like a certain point where you feel like “Ok we have everyone is really excited now” or does it just kind of start by the end of the first day?

They’re very excited to have a calculator. it’s not like a calculator like what you would expect you know because then we, to the extent they have the time and finish fast enough, they can play around with the colors they can add more functions, if they’re really interested we show them how to find all the math functions that are build in to the code, and then they have that calculator they can take home because we give them for the week and iPod touch.

Each girl has an iPod touch so we build the apps that they do not he Mac get like transferred to that iPod touch so that they have that in their hand, that feeling of like “Wow I made that,” and they can show other people so they take it home and show their family and show their friends and be you know we get email from the parents on that first night saying like, “Wow they’re so excited” you know and that’s cool.

But one of my favorite lightbulb moments was when we, it was during the first camp, I wasn’t expecting this at all, as we had this final pitch session, I was also giving out like little gifts and stuff that people had donated, swag and whatever and one of the things was the Big Nerd Ranch Guide to Objective C which is the language for writing iPhone apps. It’s like a big, thick programming book, it’s a great book I’ve used it myself and we did not give them that book until the very end, that afternoon and I announced I said, “You’re also all getting a copy of this book, Objective C programming from Big Nerd Ranch” and they clapped! They were excited and to me, like on day one, this book would have looked like, “Oh please, do not give me,” you know and at the end of the week, even though they hadn’t learned Objective C and nobody ever would have claimed that yes you could learn this in a week, but they knew what it was.

They knew how it was the building blocks of the apps that they built and that if they wanted to learn it now was take this book and learn it themselves, teach themselves because a lot of programming is self taught.

Sure, tell me about it. And that is, that is a really cool story, that is a great book. Do you think that, do you ever foresee doing like a season two or level two, have you thought about that? Maybe where there was some, at least some Swift or something like that?

Well we’re gonna transition to Swift no matter what, Objective C is definitely going to be deprecated but yeah, I would like to do more that, keeps the girls involved who are interested, to keep them, keep their hand in programming and continue to be mentored by women developers. We’re tossing around some ideas of how that could work, maybe a high school program cause the girls who come to App Camp are now, they’re girls who are going into 8th or 9th grade, so we try to get them before they go to high school and i would be nice to do something at the high school level for the girls who want to do it, whether they’ve been to App Camp or not. Right now no, we don’t have anything like that. I wish we had stuff for younger girls too, we get a lot of emails from parents that are like “Really can’t some totally brilliant 10 year old come?” And then I feel bad but we only have so many spots and we’re really trying to get a certain age group. But having I think, I think we could go younger too.

August 2014 Seattle

I am – and I’m just putting this out there – I have a six year old daughter and I have a two year old daughter and I think they’d make great developers so if you were doing anything for two year olds…

I know you know!

There are apps that I’ve played around with for the six year old on an iPad where you can kind of –


It’s kind of like, you know almost like an erector set meets programming, kind of. And they’re interesting but I was definitely struck by what you were saying about the social aspect of it where it’s kind of like, I think that Zoe would be a lot more excited by it if there was someone else who was doing this alongside her, you know talking to her about it. That’s really interesting. So what are the next steps here, do you see some other cities in the future here? You’ve been –

Yeah… Both Vancouver and Seattle are being run by women who came and volunteered in Portland so we have some women coming from out of town to volunteer this summer and that would be my hope that, and that they’re coming with the intention of considering launching App Camp where they are. And we’re looking for maybe another Canadian volunteer to come to Vancouver so they could launch App Camp in another Canadian city as well. Since we are going to be a official Canadian non-profit as well we might as well start in –

Right all that effort.

Plus we like Canada right so… I mean we don’t have a specific number but we’re three locations now, I could see having six locations in 2016. Now that we have a lot of that documentation you know we have more volunteers, I have more people now I could say, “Why don’t you go to this town and help them go and get that one started,” because when it was just my tiny group here in Portland, there was only so much we could do but now there’s quite a few women involved, say someone from Seattle could go and help out the team in who knows where, Austin, ‘cause we have been going to the first camp, you know making sure we’re there to help them if they need us but trying not to take over and just run it ourselves cause that’s not the model.

So I know it’s hard to judge after that week is over probably, what happens since it’s just a one week engagement and you know still what you’re doing is still small, but have you, have people reached out to you from other academia from other universities or anything to talk about their curriculum and who they might involve something like this or…

Yeah we do get, there’s a lot of people interested in this area now, around the same time as App Camp, several other similarly targeted organizations have, so we have talked about oh you know are there ways to collaborate. This year, I’ve never been before but this year I’m gonna go to the [Grace Hopper Conference]( which is the biggest women in technology conference, like 8000 women and I’m looking forward to that for that very reason, I feel like we’re ready to like you know, get some sort of figure out where we fit in in the big picture and help other people and have other people help us to, so that we aren’t all siloed because it tends to be that way right now that these various organizations have started something but we could take more advantage of each others resources. There’s not that many people doing Apple oriented education, at least at this age group level so we could help another organization that’s been focused on Android or whatever, web design whatever say, “How about we help you put on an iOS development we’ll lend you our equipment we’ll lend you our iPod touches we’ll lend you our developer” and I think that would be pretty interesting.

We feel like, educators feel like Mac and Apple is like a high, there’s a steep, it’s not really a learning curve it’s a money curve because the equipment is expensive and it’ s not perceived as being open so you know and Android is but from an app making point of view the development tools for free you can join the developer program for free if you want to be able to build stuff to your own device you have to have your own account but that’s only $99 a year, it’s not like Apple.

So I think between the equipment and all that feeling of how do you run the apps because app store is a closed ecosystem and so we’re trying to make it – and it is hard, it’s not the easiest thing to do for sure but it’s worth doing. Kids love iPhones, everybody knows that. I don’t care, what marketing you can see form any of the non-iPhone smart phones if you put iPhone and anything else in front of a kid and say, “you can have one,” I think the iPhone is gonna win most of the time.

Did you see there was just a video going around of the latest Samsung and iPhone and they were giving it to kids and asking them for their thoughts and obviously kids just think that the Apple ones are cool. Yeah that does help.

Yeah and I think it just engages them you know, in a way that they’re doing something that they also know is, they recognize the Apple brand, even kids know that it has a certain quality that they would – and I’m not saying I’m not necessarily in favor of marketing to children but I’m just working with what we have and what we have is kids like iPhones.

You know I read that essay that you wrote on iMore, is that right?

Oh mmhmm

I thought that was, and I kind of wanted to end on this note because I thought that was really interesting how you drew a comparison to women in sports in school. Could you briefly summarize that for me, that thing about Title IX that you were talking about?

Sure. So the piece was called “Why I’m Optimistic About Gender Equality in Technology,” and my point was that when I was a teenager and I think, you know, I was in the ‘70s, girls just didn’t participate in sports, which is hard for people to believe now but it was really true. I mean there were some things and there was gymnastics and swimming and stuff like that but I didn’t know any girls who played soccer, and I definitely didn’t know any that played basketball. Title IX came out when I was in high school and the basic rule of it was that you had to spend the same amount of money on girls activities, not just sports but girls’ sports teams as you do on boys with few exceptions and I myself as a kid thought “I don’t see how that’s gonna work because girls don’t want to play those sports,” you know I really just didn’t think that they did.

And obviously I was wrong about that, there’s more than a few girls playing basketball and soccer and the number of girls that play high school athletics now, I don’t know it multiplied like 20 times over the period where boys went up like 10 percent or 20 percent girls went up like 1000 percent. But people at the time said, “Well that’s so artificial, if girls wanted to do this – “ and even me as a girl who wasn’t like anti-feminist, I just thought, “It doesn’t sound very practical” but we hear this a lot in the technology field, which is that girls aren’t interested.

We can’t have a special program for girls because that’s not, we want to have the best programers, it’s the meritocracy and we’re not discriminating it’s just that girls don’t want to do this, you hear that a lot. And it’s just not true. I know cause I know about the whole sports thing and I was wrong about that as a teenager and now when somebody says that to me today I go, “Let me tell you about Title IX – you obviously don’t know the facts.”

I think you know, it’s sometimes just hard to picture that but it’s easier if you’re the person who’s making that change. Then you can see exactly how it’s going to change and you know, kudos to you for doing that.

Well it is one of the advantages of getting older is that you actually see things change for the better. You can point and say “Now it really will change i can guarantee you.”

Cool well Jean MacDonald thank you so much for being on The Job and where can people find out more about App Camp for Girls and what you’re doing?

The website is which is app camp, the number 4 girls dot com although it will work even if you spell out four of course because I’m a web designer I think of these things.

Yeah you’ve thought about that.

And I, there’s contact info there, I spend a lot of time on Twitter, my Twitter handle is Macgenie so that’s a good place, actually a good place to reach me so I’m happy to hear from folks and any feedback about App Camp or volunteers can, if you go on the website there’s a place you can fill out a form to tell us about your interests in volunteering at App Camp.

Cool, thank you so much!

Thank you!