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Siblings Pete and Alexa Ingram-Cauchi Talk iD Tech and Tech Summer Camps

If your kids are into technology, it is not too early to think about tech summer camps. There are many options, as shown in the Resources link at the bottom of this article.

This month, I interviewed brother and sister Pete and Alexa Ingram-Cauchi about iD Tech, a technology summer camp they started in 1998. Their camps usually are held at university labs and classrooms which happens to be a great way to get exposed to what it is like to sit in a college classroom, walk across a quad, eat in a cafeteria, all without parentals. Their story also shows one way to work in the technology field, in their case, helping kids become coders, computer scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs.

Tim: Let’s begin with iD Tech: what does the name mean?

Pete: When you see “iDTech” the i and the D stand for “internal drive.” The original name was Internal Drive Tech Camp. Our parents didn’t pass on money to my sister and I. We didn’t grow up with money. But they did pass on a sense of confidence and a belief that if you work hard at something you can accomplish what you want.

Alexa: We had the internalDrive to “Do Something Big”!

Where did you first get the idea to launch a summer camp to teach technology? As kids, did you have the idea of working together?

Pete: I don’t think we had any idea we would be working together. But life takes you down interesting paths if you’re open to them. Both our parents were educators with their Masters in education. Alexa went to the University of Washington and I went to the University of Washington, too.

Alexa: I, on the other hand, always had an inclination that somehow we would have a family business together. Since childhood, I was always creating “family” projects that we could work on together — granted these were on a very different level.

Pete: Shortly after graduation we got the idea to launch the tech camp in 1998 because we saw all this technology unfolding before our eyes but no one really knew how to use it. It was pretty clear the education system would take awhile to get caught up and I still think that is true today. Technology is changing too rapidly by and large for schools to keep up, both from a skill standpoint and a professional standpoint. This is a big issue and we were and are filling a niche.

After college I moved back in with my parents, lived in a little studio apartment over their garage here in Silicon Valley. We joke about the dream of every young 20-year old to move back in with mom and dad. We really scraped by but we had this idea we could do this. We didn’t know what we didn’t know.

We put a bunch of money down on credit cards. My parents weren’t in a position to help financially but did help other ways every day. We got just enough money to scrape by our first season.

We did everything soup to nuts. We taught multimedia, digital media, and I think web design initially. And some computer basics. Things have really evolved since then. Kids today want to design mobile apps, learn to code different languages, learn 3D modelling. We’ve had to evolve every single year.

Alexa: Pete and I also grew up with parents who were entrepreneurs in their own right. Our mother, Kathryn, created a business, with our dad's full support, so that we could be close when we were little. We learned business at a very young age — quality of product, importance of hiring the right people, attention to detail, and nurturing family. All these areas are in full swing at iD Tech today.

When we started iD Tech, it was important for me to create a business that was exciting to wake up to each day — where I and we could make an impact. We wanted to leave a positive footprint on this world. This is just who we are. We started with only 200 kids our first year and are now impacting over 25,000 children in a single season. We also match each camper with a tree through our one camper-one-tree program. This is only one of the many programs that we have created to address issues important to iD Tech employees, campers, and our generation.

Fortunately for us, the timing was right. We had the idea, the educational contacts (and background). The tech boom was in full swing.

How do you evolve your camp business?

Pete: Every week we do surveys. Parents, students, even staff do surveys. We read them all. If you care to get better you’ve gotta be a good listener. I like to say, we’ll never be perfect but we’re trying to run the perfect camp. How do you achieve that? You have to get better every season.

For example, a year and a half ago, I traveled across country and visited many of our camps. It was great because our enrollment was doing very well. But we also were creating lines. Busy parents hate lines when they’ve got to get to work; a half hour seems like a lifetime. So we developed a mobile app to reduce wait time to five minutes, that was our goal. Eventually we got wait time down to zero minutes. It’s an example how technology can make life easier.

Alexa: Pete and I also strongly believe in being actively involved. We don't just lead the company from a closed office. We are out and about. In fact, Pete and I don't even have offices.

We travel to the university sites. We meet our staff and personalize the experience. Our main office staff thinks of iD Tech as their own and this reflects in their daily work ethic. We push each other to do 110%, not just for ourselves but for the children and families we serve. The best reward is getting the little handwritten note, the email or phone calls letting us know we “nailed it”. How could you not want to keep making it better and create more excitement over learning technology? We love what we do and it shows. This internalDrive is what helps us evolve as people, community members, and ultimately a business.

How did you decide on roles in your new company? Are you both outgoing or more introspective?

Pete: I don’t like to pigeonhole anyone. Alexa did more the finance and human resources work and I did more of the marketing, business development, and client service. We kind of naturally fell into our roles. We never really had a discussion. We just told each other what we were working on.

Alexa: As Pete said, we don't like to pigeonhole ourselves. We both have the ability to be outgoing, but we also know the importance of listening and being more of the observer. It's important to learn how to adapt to your environment and act accordingly. Pete and I have always had those skill sets. However, I will profess that he, as the younger brother, is the more outgoing of the two"¦

It's funny because I don't think of us as having the “normal” brother sister relationship. I think we tended to get along better than the norm. Because we were close and were very supportive of each other growing up — same soccer teams, fort building, shared car, and so on, this led to us attending the same University, traveling the globe together and ultimately starting a business together. I am not sure how many brother/sister teams could do this and maintain their sanity — and their relationships. 16 years, and several children later, we are still going strong.

Pete: Growing up we got along. I certainly had my friends in high school and she had her friends. We had the normal brother sister relationship. I had been up to the University of Washington to visit her when she was setting up and loved it. So we maintained contact and I went to college there. We’ve had a very mutually respectful relationship. When we disagree, we let each other know and work through the issue. There’s nothing wrong with strong disagreement if at the end of the day you’re respectful and find common ground.

Here we are going into our 16th year working together. Alexa comes down from Seattle for holidays and stays with us when she visits during the year. The distance has helped us to not get in each others hair. We trust each other to get stuff done.

Alexa: We do have a tremendous amount of respect for each other not just on a personal level, but professional level. We flex when we need to, but also hold our ground when we feel passionate about an idea or situation. We respect each other.

When you hire teachers for your camp, what social and technology skills do you look for? What skills are the best predictor of success for the teacher and their students? Do you have teachers with experience with special needs kids, for example?

Pete: We have a rigorous interview process. We weed out thousands of instructors every year for different reasons. Clearly they have to have demonstrated technology skills. But just because you know technology doesn’t mean you can teach it.

We also ask them to show us they have an interest in teaching kids. We really like people who have worked with kids and ask them to show us you’ve done that before. You have to be incredibly patient when working with kids. We’re looking for teachers who are very, very creative.

We call ourselves the un-school. We’re not trying to emulate school in any way. When you come to our labs, there’s music going, there’s always eight students for every instructor. You have to tailor your instruction to each kid in the room. Because obviously kids with technology will be all over the map in their skill development. We bring each kid along as quickly as each kid can. A staff member has to be versatile and high energy. We don’t want the professorial type. Kids are too savvy.

We also do a lot of sensitivity training. So many special needs kids do really well in our camp. Maybe they’re drawn to technology inherently. We teach all of our staff techniques to work with kids who learn differently. We also have an assessment for the parents to tell us the learning style of their child. There’s got to be collaboration between parents and the instructors. Teaching kids generally is a challenge. The best we can do is train our instructors appropriately.

Do you have to train on technology or on the instructional side?

Pete: We do both online and in-person training. We have a learning management system we built in house. We assess the instructors know their subject. Our in-person regional training and people come by trains, planes, and automobiles to learn. We also teach them risk management.

Alexa: Our instructors are hired for their background and expertise in the various areas we teach — multimedia, visual arts, programming, gaming, web and app development, robotics, and the like. We make sure they know the software prior to entering the camp through our various training avenues. We do address and ultimately train on risk management, peer-mentoring among other things. This usually parallels what is occurring in the schools. For example, our anti-bullying curriculum has been in play for several years. We have a zero tolerance at camp.

For parents and students, what do you think are the best ways to compare and evaluate code camps and tech camps?

Pete: I know as a parent the questions I ask are, do you do background checks on all of your staff? The answer should be yes. What’s the maximum ratio of students to teachers? If they can’t tell you, that says something about their management. Our ratio is 1 teacher for every 8 kids. I would ask if they follow American Camp Association safety guidelines. How long has the camp been in business? Who are the owners?

And there are other small signs. Call up the camp to see if they pick up the phone during the week. If you leave a message, do they call you back? If you request a brochure, do they send you one? These are all the little details that matter. Some camps are loosey goosey while others are more tightly run.

Another thing to think about is who is teaching the courses? We don’t have a Counselors in Training (CIT) program because we found, in our early years, it’s too easy to cut corners. There are benefits, of course. But camps can use the counselors to lower their ratio by having 16 and 17 year old kids working beyond their skills.

You also need administration people to keep things running so instructors can teach. If instructors have to deal with meal cards, they’re not going to be focused on the kids.

All of our staff also are CPR-certified. Where required, we have camp nurses. In every camp, we have protocols in place for who to call, where to go, so things are executed quickly. We train them with scenarios on what to do in different situations.

What is the most fun about working together? About helping kids learn about technology?

Alexa: It's seeing and experiencing the positive impact we are making on a daily basis. It's hearing that kids look forward all year long for their experience at iD Tech. Our November 1st launch is always hotly anticipated — this is 8 months before camp even starts.

Pete: When we were in our twenties, we didn’t know what questions to ask, we didn’t know what was around the corner. It felt like us against the world. In the past fifteen years, we’ve gotten to see our students come to our camps year after year now go to great colleges like MIT and Stanford, become product managers, start their own indie game design firms, get 50,000 downloads of their apps on the Apple store.

We hear and see these stories and think, wow, we’re actually making a difference here. It’s a fun business. But at the end of the day, we’re not just selling widgets. We’re having a great time building experiences for these kids to give them a leg up on their futures.

Alexa: We also have over 50% female corporate staff in an industry that is predominantly male. We are breaking through the stereotype.

Plus our camps are creating an avenue for more females to learn and get excited about technology. That is awe-inspiring.

Also, when we get voted “#1 workplace” in the SF Bay Area by our staff, Pete and I know we have done something special.

Do kids write to you to thank you?

Pete: They do. I was out at American University in Washington, DC two summers ago and there was a student taking an Android development class with us. That day he got stung by a bee and I happened to be there. The staff did everything they needed to do. They called the ambulance because they thought there might be an allergic reaction. Long story short, I got to develop a relationship with the kid. He had missed dinner so I bought him a Chipotle burrito. He remembered and appreciated us so much he recently wrote to me to say we’re the reason he’ll be studying game design in college based on our camp and a burrito.

These are really, really fun stories. I know this is happening over and over. I have two boys and I was going to New York this summer to do a bunch of site visits and my little guy, nine years old, asked if he could come along. So I was able to get him into the Columbia University camp. He is so excited to have gone to study in New York at Columbia and now he’s like, next year I want to do NYU or Princeton because he met some kids from there. Wow, he’s getting a taste of college at the age of nine. He’s definitely going to college. How cool is that?

You could almost look at our camps as a college tour. It’s better to spend a thousand for iD Tech or a quarter million for a college you might not like.

Alexa: Kids write to us, they write to our computer science department and staff. We share these letters amongst the staff. It's a great way to personalize the experience, since most of the interactions for our main office are via phone, email or text. They are tremendously impactful. Every child has their own unique experience and story to tell. We listen and take it to heart.

What do your parents think of you and your sister starting a successful business, in the family business of teaching?

Alexa: Pete and I never take full credit for starting this business. It took a village and our parents were an integral part. They take pride in what we do and are always excited to tell people they meet (even strangers) about iD Tech and what their children have built. Our parents know we are positively impacting so many people and are proud we have found a niche where we can work together and provide a valuable service.

Anything is possible with a little elbow-grease, determination, drive and, of course, humor when things don't quite work out the way they should. Education was a big part of our childhood and to be carrying on the family tradition via technology is a proud moment, indeed.

Pete: Our parents gave us a sense of confidence and a belief that if you work hard at something you can accomplish what you want. We have passed this idea to our staff and down to the kids. We really believe we can do anything. We’re all very grounded. We don’t drive expensive cars or live in big mansions. We were voted #1 small workplace in the SF Bay Area this year which speaks to how you treat people and employees. Our parents I think are hugely proud of their kids.

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Help Kids Code Resources: Technology Summer Camps