What a difference a year makes. In our first Mobile Makers classes in 2012, students were given a set of criteria for an app that would be their final project, then teams brainstormed ideas that met those requirements.
The main point of the exercise was for students to take a technically complex app from concept through submission to the App Store, to understand the complete development cycle, and to build an app portfolio useful for interviewing. Those early apps met those goals spectacularly, but they often weren’t scalable apps and so didn’t get many downloads.
Within a few months, Mobile Makers had inverted that process: now students pitch their own app ideas to their fellow Makers, a panel of facilitators assesses the technical merits and likelihood of getting to a minimal viable product (MVP) in the three weeks remaining in the program, and then teams of two or three form to build the selected apps.
Eddie Kang arrived in June 2013 with an idea for an app, figuring he could build it himself during the program and launch it before starting his MBA degree at the Chicago Booth School of Business in September. A former Army Intelligence officer whose tech background consisted only of a Java class while in college at West Point, Eddie started out confident in his plan.
“I quickly realized it would take me so much longer to do it myself, but if I could team up with someone who could pick it up, I could get to the MVP during Mobile Makers. I learned that even the smallest startup takes more than one person to do the work.”
Julie Caccavo was a quick study at iOS developing. She had majored in information technology and software engineering in college back home in Argentina, though in her job at Ernst & Young she was conducting system audits and project management, not developing. Still, she had enough of an exposure to various programming languages to pick up Xcode quickly.
Five weeks into the summer iOS bootcamp, Eddie pitched his idea for a social-networking app, Krowdx, which allows people to geo-locate the club or restaurant where they are at that moment, and to post photos about their experiences. Photos could be voted on, giving it a competitive game component and providing organic, real-time reviews of a city’s nightlife. In short, an app where Foursquare meets Instagram.
Julie signed on right away. “I wanted to make sure it would be challenging for me, and that it implemented what we learned in the course. I thought it was a complete app, then as it grew I became interested in continuing to develop it with Eddie after we graduated. I spent an additional month in Chicago working on it with him, then I continued from Argentina, where I got a job as a mid-senior iOS developer at Globant.”
Eddie had enrolled in Mobile Makers not to become a developer (remember that MBA program?) but because he wanted to fully understand the process. “The disconnect between the business community and understanding how to develop technology has to close quickly. Technical people with business skills are going to be very valuable.”
“With what I was learning in the program, I understood the technology well enough to communicate with Julie and quarterback the project. I couldn’t do that while also spending 14 hours learning code. Teaming up with someone who is passionate about technology, and learning how to work with that person and have them work with me, frees me up to work on the business strategy. For an intense coder like Julie, every bug she fixes is an investment.”
“Almost everything we learned in class had a direct impact on, or was related to, how to build the app. It was a reality check for me.” Now in his b-school class, Cases in Entrepreneurship, Eddie says “everyone is trying to grow their business; people have ideas for apps and they know a lot about the financials, but they may not know how long or complicated it is to build an app, or how to incentivize a developer. What I bring to the table, and to that class, is I can answer all those questions. I know how to find people to do it and how long it should take.”
One thing that surprised Julie about the Mobile Makers curriculum was how important the soft skills are. “We learned teamwork, working in teams every day. In college programming classes, we didn’t work in teams, but it’s important to do, because it’s not so easy to coordinate everything when coding.” And learning Git helped prepare her for her job. “At Globant I work with people from other cities, and this is the only way we could work together. Even learning Scrum—now we have daily meetings, and I was able to just start doing it because I knew what to expect. These are concepts I learned at Mobile Makers.”
Eddie and Julie’s hard work led to Krowdx going live in the App Store in early December. “Now it’s up to me to build interest in Chicago,” says Eddie.
“I learned so much at Mobile Makers. The desire to fix problems is necessary to be a coder, but I can’t emphasize how much character is needed, too. For career switchers, it takes persistence, the ability to consistently accept failure and work through it, the humility to ask for help all the time, the commitment to not make the same mistake twice, brute force hours—it can’t all be measured by a test. It may be different for CS majors, but I’m not sure it is.
“It makes you appreciate developers for what they can bring to the table and what they do on a daily basis. We’re still learning. Now I have a product that’s in the market, and I’m going to take Krowdx as far as we can take it.”