DigiGirlz Summer Camp Is Serious Fun for High-Tech Teens

REDMOND, Wash., Aug. 8, 2005 — Visit a state-of-the-art playtest lab on Microsoft’s main campus, and you might expect to find product testers hard at work, putting a not-yet-released game for Xbox 360 through its paces. But would you expect the testers to be young women? Probably not, given the widening gender gap in the technology industry. According to a recent Computing Research Association (CRA) Taulbee Survey, women currently represent fewer than 20 percent of computing science and computer engineering graduates from U.S. colleges.

But today through Aug. 11, young women will be in plentiful supply — in the playtest lab and elsewhere — as Microsoft opens its campus to 80 high-school girls for the fifth annual DigiGirlz High Tech Camp. The camp gives girls in grades 9-12 the opportunity to participate in hands-on computing activities, as well as hear from working women who have broken the mold and achieved successful careers in the technology industry.

One of those women is Debra Chrapaty, a Microsoft corporate vice president who will relate her personal experience of overcoming career obstacles in a keynote speech Wednesday. The youngest of four children growing up in Philadelphia, Chrapaty says her father believed girls shouldn’t go to college or have careers. Instead, he expected her to get married, have kids and bus tables in the family’s diner. But in eighth grade, she turned the tables on him, asking for a subscription to The Wall Street Journal for her birthday.

Jennifer Heard (right), general manager of Microsoft South Central District, works with students at the DigiGirlz camp held at the company’s Las Colinas campus on July 28-29.

Chrapaty worked her way through college and went on to earn degrees in economics and computer science. She launched a career that’s included the Federal Reserve Bank, Capitol Records and the National Basketball Association. She has been featured in CIO magazine and has had her picture on the cover of InformationWeek as CIO of the year. Today, she is corporate vice president of MSN Operations, a job she calls “the icing on the cake of my career.” Chrapaty can’t say exactly when she crossed the chasm to the technology field, but she’s positive she wasn’t actively exposed to it.

“I think I was using databases early in my career to do economic forecasting, and I simply fell in love with the technology,” she says. “But we don’t want to leave that kind of inspiration to chance. We want to have role models, and mentors and hands-on experiences for young girls so they can develop a vision of what a career in technology would be like. If they can see their future, they can realize their future.”

As part of her talk at the DigiGirlz camp this week, Chrapaty hopes to inspire girls with her first-person account of a woman who wasn’t deterred by roadblocks in her career.

“There will always be people who tell you that you can’t do something or can’t be something,” she says. “It’s important to listen to your inner compass, and to know in your heart that you’re limitless in what you’re capable of achieving.”

Heather Head, a senior at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy who’s attending DigiGirlz this week, will no doubt be listening to what Chrapaty has to say.

“I think it’s cool to make a career out of something you love to do,” says Head, 16. “I know that the career I choose has to deal with technology because that’s what I enjoy doing and that’s my passion.”

DigiGirlz Camp Grows in Scope

Head is a good example of the kind of girls Microsoft wants to attract to DigiGirlz, a signature program in its effort to bring more women into the information technology fold. An annual event since 2000, the camp expanded its reach this year by soliciting high-school girls from across the nation, as well as adding a second camp on one of Microsoft’s regional campuses. The new camp, held July 28-29 in Las Colinas, Texas, exposed 38 middle-school girls from the Dallas-Ft. Worth area to hands-on technical workshops and question-and-answer sessions with Microsoft employees, as well as keynote speeches by women who work in the high-tech field. The Texas camp was modeled after the Redmond event, which this year attracted high school girls from as far away as Morocco, Canada, California and Georgia, as well as Washington state.

Microsoft hopes that by introducing girls to the opportunities and career choices available to them, more college-bound young women will consider computing science and computer engineering majors and pursue degrees that will ultimately narrow the gender gap in the technology industry. Microsoft’s research into gender equity reveals declining rates in the number of women interested in computer science as a major. Studies show that out of the female students who enter computer science, the attrition rate is between 40 and 60 percent by the time they graduate.

“That kind of data, along with demographic forecasts that predict a growing number of women in the workforce of the future, makes it clear that we need to interest young girls in the industry,” says Emily McKeon, a diversity consultant at Microsoft and the DigiGirlz program manager. “One of the main purposes of the camp is to demystify what a career in technology is all about, so we can attract and recruit girls and women to the field. The goal is to widen the high-tech talent pool, and in turn expand the ability to create dynamic new technologies, research and services.”

It’s Summer 2005 — Do You Know Where Your Daughter Is?

Microsoft’s DigiGirlz camps are open to all girls, but primarily target those who have an interest in technology and girls with limited access to technology, such as those who lack computers at home. Camp organizers solicit recommendations from teachers or school counselors and reach out to extracurricular programs, community groups and nonprofit organizations that serve girls, then accept campers on a first-come, first-served basis, free of charge.

The events and activities at DigiGirlz camps are designed to be equal parts fun and motivation. At the two-day Las Colinas camp, for example, girls ages 12 through 14 had five hands-on workshops to entice them. In one course, each girl combined wires, buzzers, lights and other gadgets to create an electronic circuit, learning in the process about schematics and energy flow. In a workshop that introduced girls to game development, each girl pasted a photo of her own face onto a blank model of a game character, added hair textures and cloth textures to flesh out her head-to-toe design, then animated her creation. In a third workshop, a female engineer taught each girl how to build her own Web page using HTML. In a computer hardware course, each girl tore apart a computer, learned the name of each component and its function, then put it back together. And in “DigiGirlz: The Movie,” each girl used Microsoft Moviemaker software to combine photos, video and music into an expression of her camp experience.

Brandy Van Dao, a support escalation engineer at Microsoft who directed the Las Colinas camp, says campers raved about the camp on surveys. Anonymous evaluation quotes ranged from “It was fun making a graphic of me,” to “I learned more about computers than I did anywhere else,” to “Very cool. I could be as creative as I wanted.” Comments like that put Van Dao “on top of the world.” Van Dao was 12 when her father first helped her write code in the BASIC programming language, so her world revolved around technology. Still, growing up, she didn’t feel entirely welcome.

“It was a struggle,” Van Dao says. “Technology was something I wasn’t really invited to be a part of.”

Van Dao’s perceptions did an about-face when at age 23 she began working at Microsoft, where she says male colleagues have always treated her as a partner and equal. Now 30 and a successful engineer in Product Support and Services, she’s elated to work with young girls who might feel that they don’t belong in the technology industry, and to demonstrate through the DigiGirlz camp that such notions simply aren’t true.

“Lots of the girls were really excited about the DigiGirlz experience,” Van Dao says. “It opened their minds and showed them opportunities they just hadn’t been exposed to.”

Without an experience like DigiGirlz, McKeon points out, young women might mistakenly believe that a career in technology is limited to “guys” who sit in front of a computer all day writing code. But other career paths abound, she says. For example, someone who’s talented in languages could translate that skill into localizing Microsoft products for other countries. A trained anthropologist could study people in emerging markets to help Microsoft better understand how to develop technologies that serve their communities’ needs.

Developing a Vision of the Future

At the Redmond DigiGirlz camp this week, the four-day itinerary emphasizes hands-on computing experiences, but also features visits with product groups, job shadow opportunities, presentations by female executives and employee panels. Each morning, campers take part in one of three in-depth workshops, based on individual interests. While one group tests games in the playtest lab, a second has taken up residence in Microsoft Studios, a full-blown video production studio. Armed with a camera and audio equipment, the girls will interview Microsoft employees and interns, edit the recorded content and add graphic design elements to produce a short video documentary on what it takes to get into the high-tech industry.

Meanwhile, a third workshop focuses on user interfaces. Each girl in this course will design the user experience for a mobile product, such as a cell phone or PDA, then develop a sales and marketing campaign for her product. The exercise includes making decisions about media channels, testing and programming portable devices, and offering opinions on how the product might be improved.

In the afternoons, girls choose from a menu of three learning activities: using Microsoft Visual Basic to create a MadLib word puzzle, building a resume, and using HTML scripting to build a Web page.

“I’m always impressed by how much the girls love the camp,” McKeon says. “By the end of the session, they are so enthusiastic about what they’ve learned and the people they’ve met that they don’t want it to end.”

Often, she adds, the girls want to return by way of an internship or similar programs. In the past, up to 16 percent of the accepted high school interns at Microsoft have been former DigiGirlz.

High school senior Heather Head — varsity cheerleader, clarinet player, Bank of America Habitat for Humanity Intern and officer in her school’s Future Business Leaders of America chapter — already hopes to be one of those. Asked where she sees herself in 10 years, Head says she hopes she’ll be helping to run an organization that’s technology-based. She’s keeping her mind open about colleges at the moment, but she’s considering integrated marketing communications as a major. Meanwhile, she has her sights set on whatever experiences might move her closer to her goal. This week, that’s DigiGirlz.

“It’s going to be awesome,” says Head. “I know this is a great experience for us, and I’m hoping that it opens new doors and opportunities for the future.”

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