With its Hack for Good program, Microsoft employees use their technology-building skills for a philanthropic cause.
Amol Dawalbhakta recalled the stress of postoperative care for his daughter who received treatment at Seattle Children’s hospital. The care was excellent, the Microsoft employee said, and he wanted to give back.
He asked his daughter’s doctor what he could do and was told to mentor other parents through the process.
“I told him that’s OK, but I’m a software engineer. That’s what I do eight hours a day,” he jokes. So when he heard a project pitch that Seattle Children’s made for Microsoft’s Hack for Good development event, he knew he had to get involved.
On Wednesday, more than a thousand Microsoft employees gathered in carnival-sized tents across Microsoft’s Redmond campus for the final day of the philanthropy-oriented Hack for Good.
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Started in 2014 as part of a larger hackathon created by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Hack for Good is a skills-based volunteer program where employees partner with local nonprofits or use their skills independently to pursue solutions to philanthropic challenges.
The larger event — called oneweek — is a weeklong event to inspire employees around company culture and includes a large hackathon in which 15,000 employees work on what they’re passionate about, from bots and Microsoft HoloLens projects to one called “Designing for the Zombie Apocalypse,” which explores how Microsoft’s technology can be used to help survive a large-scale disaster.
For their part, Hack for Good projects attempt to address a variety of issues, from helping refugees and developing an education platform to aiding orca preservation and assisting with medical care.
The Seattle Children’s project involved a tonsillectomy-application team that worked to design an iOS and Android app to help parents follow postoperative care instructions, as well as to inform doctors on how the pain cycles and recovery curve are proceeding for their patients.
“I could just visualize the result of the project, so it was very easy for me to get interested,” said Michael Law, team leader and Xbox software engineer. “I could see the usefulness and the meaningfulness of working for Seattle Children’s.”
Like Law, other team members said they were drawn to the good work inherent in the project.
But for Dawalbhakta, the software engineer, the problem hit even closer to home.
“These are problems I faced with my own daughter, so to help other parents who are going to face those same problems is a really personal story for me,” he said.
Hack for Good projects began in June when nonprofits were invited by Microsoft Philanthropies — an organization within the company — to a pitch night where they delivered ideas to Microsoft employees while talking about their organization. From there, employees could sign up for a project.
“We wanted to provide real-world problems with enough time to get in and figure them out,” said James Rooney, a senior project manager at Microsoft who oversees the Hack for Good program.
This year, more than 1,200 employees worked on 480 Hack for Good projects, 32 of which are partnerships with nonprofits primarily in the Puget Sound region.
While some focused on a direct problem such as post-op care, others pursued solutions that fed into larger systematic problems.
For instance, one team worked to develop a secure data-portal platform for the Mockingbird Society, a Seattle-based advocacy organization focused on improving the foster-care system and ending youth homelessness.
One major part of its advocacy is the promotion of the Mockingbird Family Model for delivering foster care. It features a network of six to 10 foster families working with a veteran licensed foster-care provider offering resources and support such as monthly social events, respite care and help navigating the system.
The theory is that this model increases the likelihood to retain foster parents, reduces trauma on kids, normalizes the foster-care experience and greatly reduces the number of home placements for a child.
But the organization’s current data system is inadequate.
“One thing we really need to get the model adopted is data,” said Yossi Banai, Mockingbird board member, foster parent and a senior program manager at Microsoft who led the hack. “We need to show the state that it works.”
So the Microsoft team designed a more secure, modern data portal to improve tracking, increase accessibility and make it easier for Mockingbird staffers to generate reports.
“It is invaluable to have people sit down with us, find out what our needs are, and apply their skills,” said Brian Lawrence, Mockingbird Society director of development and administration.
“It allows us to focus on what we know best, which is taking care of kids, and it allows them to focus on what they know best, which is creating these amazing technologies,” Lawrence said.
Banai appreciated the opportunity for fellow Microsoft employees to get involved as he does.
“It’s a beautiful thing that the people at Microsoft who don’t get to work with children directly like I do can suddenly make a difference in that world with the skill set that they have,” he said.