Microsoft kicks off //oneweek and you won’t believe the hacks!

oneweek, hackathon, Eye Gaze

Members of the Eye Gaze hackathon team, who want to help Steve Gleason be able to use his eyes to turn his Surface Pro 3 on and off. (Photo Credit: Scott Eklund / Red Box Pictures)

There were “easier” projects that could have been done for //oneweek. Members of the Ability Hackathon: Eye Gaze team had a list of them, mulled them over and weighed their pros and cons. But Steve Gleason hadn’t asked the team about easy. He’d asked for some real help.

The former NFL player, living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), uses his Surface Pro to speak with the help of eye-tracking technology. His story was shared when he narrated a Microsoft ad on TV during Super Bowl season earlier this year. Now he wanted to use eye-tracking technology to actually turn the Surface on and off, so that he wouldn’t have to ask for anyone’s help to do that.

The Ability Hackathon: Eye Gaze team immediately recognized the importance of the challenge – just as more than 2,200 teams from across Microsoft, in venues all over the world, are doing with their own projects as they get ready for the hackathon. The projects focus on everything from digital graffiti art to an add-in for Outlook that checks the validity of hyperlinks in an email before it’s sent.

The hackathon – Microsoft’s first-ever companywide exercise in growth hacking – is a key part of //oneweek, CEO Satya Nadella’s effort to reinvent the way the company does business and to encourage the rise of brilliant ideas no matter where they originate. Instead of holding just an annual company meeting for employees, as has been done yearly in September, there are several events on tap this week: A company forum on Monday where leadership will set priorities for the year, the hackathon on Tuesday and Wednesday, and a Product Fair on Wednesday and Thursday.

Senior leadership, in planning this week’s events, wanted to “kick off the new fiscal year in a new way,” said Frank X. Shaw, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of Communications. “We wanted to have a week-long celebration that was global in nature, as opposed to a single, Redmond-based activity that was streamed globally. We wanted to make sure that we combined the Product Fair in with the rest of the activities. And more importantly, we wanted to have a hackathon that the entire company could participate in.”

The hackathon being open to everyone at the company is also meant to encourage fresh ideas.

“It’s easy to think that a hackathon, or growth hacking, is for specific subsets of our employee base,” Shaw said. “But if you look at what it means to be a growth hacker, it applies to people in marketing, finance, engineering and sales too. We all have the opportunity to think really creatively about doing things differently in some really interesting ways.”

Steve Gleason, hackathon, Eye Gaze

Former NFL player Steve Gleason, who has ALS, relies on technology to help him communicate. (Photo Credit: Lauren Bowman)

Matthew Mack, one of the leaders of the Ability Hackathon: Eye Gaze team, said before the team decided on it, “There was a list of different options that we could have approached. But we asked some hard questions. We asked ourselves what would be most meaningful.”

Gleason’s request quickly rose to the top of the list.

“Think of Steve listening to music at night … or installing new drivers or a new player – and he has to shut the machine down, rather than restart it,” Mack said.

“He can’t restart the machine. He has to rely on a helper to come in and actually turn it on. We’re trying to give that person the independence to be able to turn their own device on when they need to, so that they don’t have to rely on a help aide, even if that helper is a loved one.”

There are more than 20 members on Mack’s team, including employees from Xbox, Surface, the Cloud and Enterprise Group and even a member from Microsoft Research based in China.

“I’ve never run a team as diverse across the company,” said Mack, who is a senior business program manager with the accessibility team, and previously had other roles at Microsoft, including being an operations manager for the security research and response team.

Tracey Trewin is team leader of the Family Album hackathon project, an idea which “sort of started from not a good place,” she said. “I realized that if something happened to me – my husband would have no idea where my pictures would be,” as well as the digital video she has created of their children over the years.

But, she said, the project isn’t just about rounding up and protecting family images and videos that are scattered and shared on various social media sites, as well as around the house.

“It’s also about how do we share these kinds of important events in our lives, going forward, when we don’t have things like photo albums that we put on the coffee table,” Trewin said. “Even from there, you think about how we also record those events now. It’s not just photos; it’s video, whether on a mobile device or a more sophisticated camera.”

Trewin, who is a general manager in Technical Evangelism and Development, is working with five others from areas of Microsoft including engineering, Cloud and Enterprise, Digital Life & Work Development and the Developer User Experience group.

hackathon, Family Album, oneweek

Some of the members of the Family Album hackathon team, from left to right: Doug Seven, Tracey Trewin and Tyler Gibson. (Photo Credit: Scott Eklund / Red Box Pictures)

“As I talked to more and more people, I realized it’s not just about your family album, it’s also about your life events,” she said. An analogy for what she wants to create would be “like a museum, but this would be a museum of your life. You have exhibits inside your museum, and some of them are your kids (and accessible only to them), and some of them are other special events in your life,” that are accessible to various friends and family members.

The idea, she said, with the gumption of a hacker and entrepreneur rolled into one, “really feels like one Microsoft should do.

“Microsoft is in a position where people will trust them to keep those memories safe. I think there’s just something comforting about putting them somewhere that is a place you believe is probably going to be around when you’re not here.”

Trewin’s enthusiasm is representative of what senior leaders want to see take hold, starting with //oneweek.

“When you’re trying to drive a cultural change like this, you always want to look for moments in time where you can make it real for people,” said Shaw. “But, if you don’t find the moment for people to actually take action, then it doesn’t provide the kind of change you want. The hackathon gives us the opportunity to build that muscle and say, ‘I learned something. I swam in data. I did something that I hadn’t been doing as part of my day job.’”

Suzanne Choney
Microsoft News Center Staff