Apple honors 50 students as it expands coding beyond engineers heading into WWDC 2024

Exclusive: ZDNET spoke with the winners as well as Apple executive Susan Prescott about this year's Swift Student Challenge.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

Students attend Apple WWDC 2023 in Cupertino.


Apple's Swift Student Challenge has become an anchor of its annual WWDC event for developers, the press, and partners. The Cupertino tech giant added a new wrinkle to the challenge this year by naming 50 "Distinguished Winners" -- from among the 350 overall winners. The 50 honorees will get to go to WWDC 2024 in person and participate in a special three-day experience at Apple Park. Judging by the handful of winners we talked to, their level of creativity and productivity is impressive.

The most admirable part of the Swift Student Challenge, which has been happening since 2020 (when I first covered it for CNET), is that it's not trying to identify the next generation of coding geniuses for Apple to hire. Instead, it's focused on convincing more people from different backgrounds, walks of life, areas of interest, and even life stages to take an interest in coding and realize they can build apps to solve problems in their communities.

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In an interview with ZDNET, Susan Prescott, Apple VP of worldwide developer relations, said, "We don't do the student challenge to be sure that everybody who participates becomes a software engineer. Some of them will. But we also want all of them to feel comfortable with coding and to know they can build an app. They can change the world in their own way."

Prescott said that Apple received a record number of submissions this year and that the caliber of the work was "better than ever," making it more difficult to narrow down the winning submissions, which ended up coming from 35 countries. When Apple launched this year's competition back in November, the company especially leaned into its Everyone Can Code resources to encourage people other than just students in computer science and software engineering programs to get involved.

ZDNET got the chance to talk with two of the US winners -- AJ Nettles from Birmingham, Alabama, and Dezmond Blair from Detroit, Michigan. Both entered the competition for the first time this year, built apps based on direct experiences from their lives, and turned around their projects in an impressive amount of time. 

Nettles, a Masters student in cybersecurity at the University of Birmingham, originally wanted to build an app to help nurses, but realized he didn't have the data for that. Instead, he drew on his experience with security scares and data breaches to write a guide to creating better passwords. The iPhone app itself also serves as a basic password manager, using the Secure Enclave on Apple devices to save passwords locally and securely, and using biometric authentication to access them. Nettles wrote the app in three weeks, after learning about the competition in February.

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The competition has helped inspire him to start his own app-making business on the side. 

Nettles said, "I'm planning on starting a startup not necessarily to be big [but]... just make things like applications that are usually paid for [through a subscription and] find a way to bring that price down so it'll be cheaper to the average user. To walk away from the subscription model and towards one-time purchases again."

Blair, who is part of the Apple Developer Academy in Michigan, learned about the competition from one of his mentors in the program but only had a few days to create his app. Digging into his love for mountain biking, Blair wanted to build an app that could help people feel the thrill of flying down trails, roaring through the hills, and hitting some ramps. So, he took a 360 camera and attached it to his helmet and handle bars to capture footage and turned it into an augmented reality experience in an iPad app called MTB XTREME. 

Growing up in Canton, Michigan, Blair's family lived in a trailer park and barely had a working computer, let alone an internet connection. The 22-year-old thus focused on learning tech skills as quickly as he could to assist his family. In addition to his studies at the Apple Developer Academy, he's also spun up his own company, Easy Dez It, to help people design app prototypes. He also has plans to eventually bring MTB XTREME to Apple Vision Pro.

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Blair was also one of the three students from the 50 Distinguished Winners that Apple featured in its own article on the program. The other two were Elena Galluzzo, a Canadian who designed an all-in-one care app for the elderly, and Jawaher Shaman, a 27-year-old in Saudi Arabia who designed an app to help children overcome speech conditions.

Prescott reported that apps focused on AI, machine learning, and spatial computing were also strong trends among the submissions and winners this year. 

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