The Trip

Driving down the 280 near Mountain View on the way home from the ultimate geek roadtrip, it’s time to report in.

First, about the trip.  For an event, to be described later in this post, I worked with 5 ubergeeks and (volunteers!) from SoCal.  All of the volunteers are working programmers and all of them volunteered 4 days of their own time to work on a large #teachingKidsProgramming event.  The event was held in Mountain View over the weekend.  There were also other volunteers from NorCal – more about them later.

The problem: How to get 5 geeks comfortably to NorCal for a weekend of volunteer teaching at an event for kids.

The solution: A Van, A Plan and A House near the sand.

The details

On Thursday afternoon, immediately after I presented to 500 developers in Burbank for MSDN on Windows Azure, the geek volunteer group met up.

We transferred all of our gear, and an extra shirt or two into the van.  Because we had laptops, cameras, projectors, robots (including a 2’ Lego man on a Lego Segway), we filled up the van properly.

June driving

June Clarke (@joonspoon), an Irish lass with a lovely lit, a sharp wit,  and SoCal sunglasses was our first driver (picture above).  June is the leader of the San Diego, eXtreme Programming user group.  While she skillfully navigated LA traffic, the rest of us plugged in and used every available byte of bandwidth from our intra-van connection. 

I (@llangit) was answering customer mail.  Llewellyn (@isidore_us) was showing PHP developer Katrina Owen (@k_owen) the SmallBasic recipes.  DBA and Lego master Thomas Mueller (@tmspecial) was fine-tuning his custom Mindstorms code blocks.

As the sun went down, June drove us over the grapevine and Thomas took over driving.  His Autobahn experience was handy, since we had a lot of road to cover. 

June iTuned out, while Katrina continued her enraptured coding every one of the SmallBasic recipes.  Llewellyn recovered from his jet lag, and snored loudly, having recently returned from Spain.  I kept working (and, in case you are wondering, that is NOT my laptop in the picture below).

Lynn working, Katrina looking on

The geek group delightedly soon opened the door to our new weekend home – a beautiful rental in Half Moon Bay.  In addition to the basics, bedrooms, bathrooms – there was a communal work area (huge table and bench) on on which immediately all laptops were opened. There was also a convenient set of couches, a fireplace conversation pit and an overhead projector.  In addition to a huge, open kitchen, multiple balconies and ocean view, by far, the most popular feature was the hot tub.

So, what did we do over the next few days?  First up – food and booze.  Off to the store to pick up what was needed.  Cooking and math conversations over pasta ensued.  Unlike my kitchen at home, the one in the rental house was fully equipped for cooking, and, fortunately, several of my colleagues actually enjoyed cooking!

First geek-cooked dinner - yummy pasta

I awoke the next morning to the smell of sizzling bacon and seasoned eggs and to the sound of a German accent talking excitedly about more custom Mindstorms blocks.  Friday was a super-productive days inside, as a fierce coastal storm raged outside.

We started with weekly planning session, kind of like a daily SCRUM, but with us on couches under blankets, see picture below.  The projector came in really handy for this.  After we added and prioritized tasks for the upcoming event, we cracked open our laptops and started coding.  We snacked and coded all day long, fixing bugs, adding features to our SmallBasic extensions, diving into fantasy worlds of Kodu and other topics around teaching kids programming.  We also reviewed each an every recipe, updated, polished and re-published all of them.

Katrina is a happy programmer

On Friday night, Kenny Spade and Sara Ford (@saraford) from Microsoft joined us for another geek-cooked dinner and beers.  Katrina and Llewellyn led Kenny and Sara through their first SmallBasic recipes in preparation for the upcoming event.  Post-dinner, June and Sara brainstormed Kodu teaching ideas, Katrina created a style-sheet for all recipes, then she and I took a final look at all of the updates.  Llewellyn was, once again, recovering from his jet lag (we call it poly-phasic sleep, in English, known as frequent naps, often accompanied by cookies.)

Kenny and Sara

The geek conversations were always engaging, adding Sara and Kenny to the mix just added to the fun.

Sara explains with her hands

*Note - there was but one unfortunate cooking situation during the entire weekend, which I will not detail, other than to say, that, somewhat surprisingly, I was not the cook.

As we scrambled to get into the van at the unusually early hour of 8am (for us programmers) for the event, Llewellyn and Katrina immediately began pair programming to code up his last naptime vision – by the time the van pulled into the venue, the pair had working code around this next fun turtle recipe test (they call it the ‘stitch’).

We spent the day executing the event (details below this post) afterwards, we invited other speakers and friends to dinner at ‘the house’.  We made the required grocery stop in the way back.  Even though we had all just taught during the day, we all jumped back in as soon as we opened the door – laptops were open, conversation was spirited, “What worked? what didn’t? What will be do better next time?”

June and Thomas happy after the event

First up was a live test of a new course (Boyfriend Scavenger Hunt or T-SQL queries) with a visiting teenage daughter of a friend.  She not only found delight in coding up T-SQL queries that answered all-important questions (to her at least), such ‘Find the hottest boys in the DatingGame database who are exactly 6’ tall’, but also she confirmed that the hottest boys are Ryan Gosling, Taylor Latuner and Zach Efran.  Katrina, fresh from her SmallBasic teaching experience, jumped in to proctor our teenage tester.

As some of team was cooking up yet another tasty dinner, a couple more volunteer instructors (including an agile coach, Chris Simms @chrissims) from the event joined us for dinner and conversation.  After dinner, we played Werewolf until Llewellyn convinced June that she was ‘not good at this game’ with a single look.  Next up was well-earned R&R in the hot tub for the volunteer team (Sorry, no pictures available). 

So, what do 6 programmers talk about in a hot tub?  “Religion to compilers, and much, much more….” The spirited conversation continued, moving back to more games and puzzles at the big table.  Jagermeister was brought out, the talk got louder….

The next morning I awoke (first), to find the nearly-empty bottle of Jagermeister on the table. See picture below (note I am reaching for chocolate and NOT booze!).  We cleaned, packed up and piled into the van for the drive home. 

Can you spot the Jagermeister

As I write this, after a short nap in the van, the group is back to ‘two-minute’ Q & A mysteries, i.e. ‘here are the facts of x,y, z situation – what happened?’  Logical deductive questions while driving home on the 5 southbound….Meanwhile I am thinking…when will our next trip be? when will we go? what will be build? who will we teach? will you be there?

Next, about the event - Dare2BDigital

Dare2BDigital banner

The 5 of us from SoCal were joined by Sara Ford and Kenny Spade from Microsoft NorCal.  Also joining us were community volunteers Chris Sims (who Llewellyn and I met and invited to volunteer at OpenAgile Northwest) and Elizabeth Hendrickson (@testobsessed).  We all taught at the first annual high-school girl’s event at Foothill College in Mountain View, CA.  The event is named Dare2BDigital.  There were over 400 girls in attendance.  We were there to teach and/or to proctor the hands on classes to groups of these girls.

Shown below are Llewellyn and me, explaining our recipe-based system of teaching kids to program to other speakers at the event. We also had interest in sharing our courseware from several attending teachers and plan to return to Silicon Valley as invited guest teachers at a couple of local high schools later this year.

Llewellyn and me talking about teaching kids programming  

Here’s what our volunteer group of developers taught:
1) SmallBasic – Intro to Programming (we taught this twice due to demand)
2) Kodu – Intro to Visual Programming
3) Lego Mindstorms – Exploring the Mindstorms programming environment
4) SCRUM – Chris Sims taught a class in this methodology using his signature (interactive!) style to his class

In addition to these 4 classes, there were around 15 other courses available for the girls during this one-day event.

In this event, for the first time ever, Llewellyn and I trained new teachers to teach the SmallBasic classes (Katrina and Elizabeth), while we worked in a supporting role.  This is particularly important for us as we work to make the courseware more broadly available for teachers everywhere.

Our newly implemented ‘virtual proctor’ Small Basic screen monitoring application (which we coded up in Denmark two weeks ago), continued to really assist our TDD-like teaching methods in that the instructors can see the output of each pair’s screen, as they work on recipes.  It was really great to see the ‘new’ teachers use the virtual proctor as well.

Of course the most important outcome is that of delighted new programmers (girls!), and that goal, we happily once again achieved.  It is so rewarding to literally hear the kids say ‘aha’ and ‘wow’ as they code up their first recipe, program their robot or build their world in Kodu.

Next Steps

In March, Llewellyn and I will be taking a break from teaching live events, instead we’ll be working on hard on improving and increasing the recipe library. We are doing this so that teachers can use our materials over a longer term.  We have many, many ideas for different types of recipes.  To that end, we’ll be authoring new recipes, updating the SmallBasic extensions and producing train-the-trainer materials for teachers.

Finally we’ll continue to work on our 2010 calendar.  We have over 50 requests to teach live events all over the world!  Watch my blog for updates.