Their vision was simple, said Matthew Mack, one of the leaders of the //oneweek Hackathon team known as Ability Eye Gaze.
“Until there is a cure for ALS, technology is a cure.”
The Eye Gaze team had set out to do a project to help Steve Gleason, a former pro football player who is living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Gleason’s foundation aims to raise awareness about ALS, as well as to give others living with it the “leading edge technology, equipment and services” they need. The project united two dozen researchers, engineers, designers, program managers and media pros from across Microsoft, and was one of the 3,000-plus teams that participated in Microsoft’s first-ever global Hackathon. The team aimed to use Surface 3, Kinect and other Microsoft technologies to give independence to people with disabilities.
Clear, powerful—and, according to their colleagues and the company’s senior leaders, the most transformative idea to come out of the Hackathon.
On Wednesday, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced that Ability Eye Gaze was the global Hackathon’s grand prize winner. He also recognized nine other winners, who were selected by their fellow employees’ votes and by Microsoft’s senior leadership team.
After accepting “an amazing piece of hardware” from Nadella, Mack gave a heartfelt speech on what his team worked so hard to try to accomplish: bringing independence to the thousands living with ALS.
According to the ALS Association, an American dies of ALS every 90 minutes, he said.
“Every 90 minutes,” Mack said. “But we have the ability to give them quality in life, and that’s something that I’m super proud of, and I’m super proud of the team that’s won this because with Satya’s help we can take the robotics, we can take the Eye Gaze technology, and we can move that into mainstream, and we can give people a quality of life so that they can realize their independence.”
On early Wednesday morning, Gleason challenged Nadella to participate in what’s known as an ALS ice bucket challenge via Twitter, and Nadella readily accepted. For those who may not be familiar with it, the ALS ice bucket challenge is a social media movement wherein people post videos of themselves dumping a bucket of ice water over their heads. Once they’re sopping wet with cold water, they then challenge others to either do the same or make a donation to an organization dedicated to fighting ALS, and that’s just what Nadella did.
“The thing I’m really excited about is what Steve and the team have done to raise awareness for ALS,” Nadella said. “Now, let me take this opportunity to challenge Jeff Bezos and Larry Page to take their own ice bucket challenge. And let me tell you again from personal experience, it’s better to have your head in the clouds than under a bucket of ice.”
Jenny Lay-Flurrie, a member of the Ability Eye Gaze team, was impressed with Nadella’s willingness to accept Gleason’s challenge and help fight a disease that, according to the ALS Association, affects nearly 30,000 people in the U.S. alone.
“Satya being open to getting involved and using his profile for this cause will have an enormous impact in terms of raising awareness around a disease that isn’t yet very well understood,” she said.
All told, more than 12,000 employees registered for the Hackathon from 230 cities and 80 countries. After a two-day frenzy of hacking, caffeine and (hopefully) a little sleep, employees submitted more than 62,000 votes.
“I’m inspired by the ingenuity of people across Microsoft and the projects that I saw. I believe Microsoft is the place where smart, curious people can do their best work and the Hackathon embodied that spirit,” Nadella said.
The Hackathon and //oneweek teams are already talking about what’s next and how to build on the momentum, said Linda Thackeray, group manager for Engineering Excellence.
One of the many benefits of the hackathon is a huge “idea hub,” she added. “From project teams to executive leaders, we are seeing conversations pop up around project ideas to take them to the next level.”
The event amounted to Microsoft’s ultimate suggestion box, said Jeff Ramos, senior director of community outreach for Engineering Excellence.
“There were so many great ideas in hack projects ranging from new product ideas to ways to improve the way we work,” Ramos said. “Everyone showcased their passion to build a better company.”
There were two winners from each of the five categories: Business or Enterprise; Consumers; Developers, IT Pros or Partners; Education, Government or Nonprofits; Microsoft and its employees. Hackathon teams were challenged to create something new that customers want and businesses need; to imagine how to improve existing products, services or internal functions to generate greater impact; or to adapt processes, tools or systems that enable the company to be more agile.
Eye Gaze’s Tammy King, an eight-year Microsoft veteran, has participated in hackathons before. “But nothing has been as cool as this,” she said. “We think this is something that won’t just improve our products but will help society. We have the ability to change lives. It’s an honor.”
Like the Eye Gaze team, many of the winners expressed an eagerness to drive their ideas forward. The team behind Fit and Smart Kids, who hacked on a techy solution to tackle childhood obesity, plans to literally push themselves forward. In honor of the 644 votes they received, they vowed to collectively hike, bike, walk, or jog 664 miles.
Meanwhile, the team behind A Line in the Sand intends to pitch their manifesto to end sexism in video games to leaders at Xbox and Microsoft Games Studio, said Manuel Tenorio, a manager for Enterprise Commerce IT.
Tenorio loves video games. So does his wife, a huge “Skyrim” fan. (“We’re a geeky family,” he said.) They plan to introduce gaming to their seven-year-old son and four-year-old daughter, but they’re concerned about how women are represented in the vast majority of video games.
Similar concerns brought together the other members of his team, who were scattered across the U.S., the United Kingdom and Brazil. They had never met, but they were all gamers who were convinced “Microsoft could draw a line in the sand and say there was a better way,” Cervantes said.
For him, the power of employees collaborating across teams was the key takeaway of the Hackathon.
“We have an amazing set of untapped talent in the company,” he said. “We can accomplish great things when we come together.”
Jacob Siegel & Jeff Meisner
Microsoft News Center Staff