[This story is running in the print edition of The Seattle Times July 30, 2014.]
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.
[Continue reading the story here.]