Hacking, innovation, and lots of caffeine best describe what’s going on inside two massive tents at Microsoft’s campus this week.
For the second straight year, Microsoft workers are stepping away from their day-to-day jobs to participate in a company-wide hackathon that encourages employees to work together on a wide variety of projects.
Microsoft had traditionally held an annual company meeting at Seattle’s Safeco Field, where top executives attempted to inspire employees with a vision for the company’s future.
But last year CEO Satya Nadella replaced that meeting with the three-day hackathon, which is designed to spur creative out-of-the-box thinking with Microsoft’s technology and also includes participation from more than 10,000 employees around the globe.
James Rooney, a 15-year Microsoft vet, said that there was a lot of uncertainty around last year’s inaugural hackathon. This year, though, is different.
“Everybody knows how it works and people are hitting the ground running,” he said. “These teams are insane this year.”
Leading up to this week, employees had access to an internal website that listed more than 3,000 hackathon projects they could join. On Monday, teams gathered inside giant tents on Microsoft’s soccer fields, where long wooden tables, whiteboards, and bean bags lined the space. In true hackathon form, an abundance of food and drinks — including a special “hacked coffee” that used coconut oil and organic butter to reduce jitters but maintain caffeine levels — were available.
GeekWire had a chance to visit with some of the teams, many (166) of which were focused on using technology for social good. One group, for example, is developing a platform for managing drones used during disaster relief missions.
Kyle Schadt, a senior program manager at Microsoft, said the idea came from a cousin who returned from an Air Force trip in Syria where he noticed the need for better drone management technology that could improve the speed and quality of aid.
“It’s a quick, lightweight app that’s easy to deploy and would allow agencies to approve and manage drone pilots to fly in airspace for a given amount of time during a disaster event,” Schadt explained.
This particular group had employees from across campus, ranging from Bing Ads to Office to Microsoft IT, who all contributed some level of expertise. Schadt said he expects Microsoft to support the project even after this week and said he loved the idea of a company-wide hackathon.
“Had it not been for this hackathon platform, we probably wouldn’t be here doing this today,” he noted.
A couple hundred yards away at a tent labeled “Hack City,” another group worked feverishly on translation technology that could be used by relief workers during disasters in countries where only one language is spoken. This particular project was the most popular across campus in terms of interested participants.
“This is very fulfilling,” said Houman Pournasseh, an 18-year Microsoft vet. “We talk all the time at Microsoft about changing lives across the planet, and this is a very concrete example of where you can actually save lives with technology.”
Paige Williams, a director in the Global Readiness division at Microsoft, explained how the group was utilizing the diversity of Microsoft employees who could contribute their native speaking skills to the project. She also noted how her team was working with non-profits like Translators Without Borders.
“Our goal is to produce something real and tangible,” she noted.
Williams added that, like many of the participants this week, this was her first-ever hackathon.
“What struck a chord with me when watching people work together is what happens when you remove organizational boundaries and let people focus on the company, the business, the customer, the need,” she said. “That’s when magic happens.”
Jeff Ramos is manager at Microsoft Garage, the company’s internal incubator that helped organize and put on this week’s hackathon. He was pleased to see so many employees at their first hackathon this week — particularly ones with non-technical skills.
“Fundamentally, we believe all employees have great ideas — technical and non-technical — and they need one another to make them come true,” said Ramos, who called this year’s hackathon more organized and more sophisticated than 2014.
Rooney, a senior manager with Microsoft’s Technology for Good team, said he’s noticed a shift on campus with how employees think about their day-to-day work ever since Nadella became CEO and encouraged people take more risks and build new things. He said the hackathon is a reflection of that new attitude at Microsoft, which is also launching Windows 10 on Wednesday and hosting its big Imagine Cup competition this week in Redmond.
“Being here 15 years, I’ve seen a lot of changes and different things happen at Microsoft,” Rooney said. “But there’s a real spark that’s happened since Nadella came on to push us in this direction and employees are really latching on to it. The enthusiasm is just crazy.”