Lake views from the Milwaukee innovation labs

Scott Butler

Associate Engineer

Nov. 07, 20184 min read

Topics: tech advancement.

Zero to 60 in Three Weeks: Lessons from Our Tech Minicamp

Before I became a front-end developer, I was a tennis instructor. I love to see the light bulbs go off when someone I'm teaching finally “gets it” and masters something new. That's why I was so excited to have the opportunity to run our Tech Minicamp for high school students this summer. 

The Tech Minicamp is a hands-on learning opportunity where students gain exposure to the various roles technology plays in a large corporation, while developing skills in web app development, programming, agile development and more. My colleague Nate and I were given the opportunity to run the four-week program this year. We wanted to make it an opportunity for the kids to do real work, so prior to their arrival at camp, we developed a Financial Life Events Calculator. Basically, it's an app that asks questions like: "Do you plan to go to college? Do you plan to get married? Buy a house?" It then calculates how those different life events affect your financial well-being over time. When the students got here, we challenged them to come up with features they'd want to build in to the app, then helped them to develop those features. 

One team wanted to add a geographic component: If I choose to live in Minnesota versus Wisconsin, how would that affect my future? Another team looked at the random events that can happen in life—like illness or injury, as well as good things—and created a feature that allowed you to randomly generate these events and see how they could have an effect on your retirement. 

We were super impressed with their ideas and spent a lot of time running around the classroom showing them the ropes and helping them problem solve any issues that arose. We followed the methodologies we use in our work every day, like Agile and Scrum, and we held daily stand-ups and retrospectives to try and make their experience as realistic as possible. 

At the end of week three, the students gave a big presentation to different hiring managers throughout the company, including some directors and vice presidents. It was good to see these kids show off what they'd been able to create. Just three weeks earlier, they had no idea how to do this work. And yet, I'm confident that each one of them could now jump onto a team here at Northwestern Mutual and not be confused. In fact, of the 13 kids in camp this year, 11 of them ended up staying on for the remainder of the summer as interns. It feels really good to think we may have made a difference in the lives of those kids by helping them to develop technical skills and exposing them to new career opportunities. 

We learned a lot, too. For starters, we had to step out of our comfort zones to take charge of something entirely new. We developed the curriculum on our own, then took on the responsibility of running the camp for three weeks. Through it all, we learned a lot about the value of being organized and patient. And personally, I think the Minicamp made me and Nate more competent as developers (and certainly better communicators), because we had to find ways to convey complicated things in very simple terms. The experience also showed me that if you have the motivation, the company is willing to support you with opportunities to learn new things, try different technology, take on different tasks, jump in and help out with different teams. 

I'd love to run the Minicamp again. But I'd also love to see other people have the opportunity, because it's such a rewarding experience. It's a challenge, no doubt; there's a lot to do in a short amount of time. But anyone who's eager to try something new will not be disappointed.