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Originally published July 29, 2014 at 8:44 PM | Page modified July 30, 2014 at 11:23 AM

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Hackathon sets tone for Nadella’s new Microsoft

On Microsoft’s Redmond campus Tuesday, a number of huge white tents lined the soccer field. Inside them, groups of employees, clustered at tables, sat working on their laptops and exchanging ideas.


Seattle Times technology reporter

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On Microsoft’s Redmond campus Tuesday, a number of huge white tents lined the soccer field. Inside them, groups of employees, clustered at tables, sat working on their laptops and exchanging ideas.

It was all part of the company’s first global employee hackathon, an event in which thousands of employees from all different divisions of the company work on some 2,700 projects.

The projects cover a huge range. There’s one, for instance, that could help responders working in disaster areas. Another may allow wheelchair users to control their chairs using eye movements to guide a joystick.

The hackathon is part of a weeklong series of events called oneweek, designed to inform employees about, and inspire them to engage in, the company’s vision and strategy for the new fiscal year, which began July 1.

Instead of an annual employee meeting that traditionally took place in the fall, this year’s meeting took place Monday as part of oneweek. Tuesday and Wednesday are dedicated to the live hackathon. (Some teams have worked on their hackathon projects for longer.) And a product fair is scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday on campus.

Oneweek is the latest in a line of changes Satya Nadella has made since becoming Microsoft CEO in February.

He has shifted company priorities from being a “devices and services” company — something pushed by his predecessor — toward being a “productivity and platforms” one.

Earlier this month, Nadella announced Microsoft would be laying off 18,000 workers over the next year — the largest layoff in its history. The company also placed tighter restrictions on its use of vendors and temps.

Oneweek is part of Nadella’s larger attempt to reshape the company’s culture into one that’s more innovative and collaborative.

Since June, employees could register their hackathon projects on a company website or sign up for one already listed. That resulted in people from different divisions, who may not have even known each other, working together.

In one instance, employees from Surface, Xbox, Microsoft Research, the Cloud and Enterprise group, and the Applications and Services group are working together on accessibility issues.

Their work was inspired by former NFL player Steve Gleason, a former safety with the New Orleans Saints and a former football star at Washington State University. Gleason has a neuromuscular disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and uses a wheelchair. He communicates using Tobii eye-tracking technology and a Microsoft Surface tablet that turns what he “types” on the tablet with his eye movements into speech.

That technology allows him to speak, listen to music, play videos for his son, tweet, text and do many other things — but only if someone turns on the Surface tablet for him. Gleason requested the capability to turn the tablet on and off with eye-tracking.

“I’ve always believed that until there is a medical cure, technology would be that cure,” Gleason said. “It was important for me, my family and foundation to be able to communicate as efficiently as technology would allow.”

By last Friday, a team called Eye Gaze, which is working with Gleason, had completed the code to allow the Surface to remain always on.

If the coding passes testing, it’s a good software solution. A more ideal solution would reside in being able to interact with the hardware, said Jenny Lay-Flurrie, senior director of accessibility, online safety and privacy at Microsoft and a team member on Gleason’s project.

“The goal is not just to create a hack for one person but for all others, with disabilities and without disabilities, to benefit from it,” she said.

Hackathon teams are also working with Gleason to improve the speed at which his eye movements turn into speech and to allow him to move his wheelchair using a joystick guided by his eyes.

Another team, called Data Is My Superhero, has drawn together employees from Microsoft’s disaster response team, Microsoft Research, IT, Bing and Office. Together, they’re working to create easy-to-use tools that would allow aid agencies and other responders to quickly synthesize a huge amount of data relevant to their work.

For example, historical data could be used to guide agencies in evaluating the ebb and flow of needed food or medical supplies following a cyclone, or real-time data could show how many agencies are providing what type of supplies and where following a disaster.

“It’s exciting to see this type of event, where we’re looking at what we do every day and seeing what we can do differently or better,” said Harmony Mabrey, an operations manager with Microsoft disaster response, who’s working on the Data Is My Superhero project. The hackathon is “a great opportunity to leverage skills I normally don’t have access to.”

The hackathon also emphasizes Nadella’s focus on customers, said Scott Pitasky, a Microsoft vice president in human resources.

More than 100 internal and external customers — including user experience experts, IT professionals, developers, parents and general consumers — will form focus groups and provide feedback to the hackathon teams on what works well with their project, what can be improved, and what features they want.

“The hacks begin and end with ‘What is it that we can make better for them?’ ” Pitasky said.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @janettu.



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