In-Depth

IT Gone Good

Increasing numbers of IT professionals are using their well-honed skills to benefit those in need.

Six years ago, 6-pound, 13-ounce Frederick Carl Wright came into the world in Dallas. It was a joyous and bittersweet day for parents Toi and Jim Wright, as young Frederick was born with Down syndrome. Weeks afterward, doctors realized the child was also blind.

Toi Wright fought to restore her son's vision through a series of medical procedures, which improved his vision from totally blind to visually impaired. Two years later, the boy began to suffer from seizures as often as once every hour. Again Wright pushed for a cure and put her son on a special diet that simulated fasting. The seizures are now gone, and 6-year-old Frederick plays, runs and loves to wrestle with his 3-year-old brother Franklin.

One would think Toi Wright has done enough good to last a lifetime. Instead, her son, and the various organizations that came to Frederick's assistance, inspired Wright to do more.

Wright realized these charities lacked capable computer systems and staff to run them. Instead of helping just one charity, Wright decided to help as many as possible by launching WeAreMicrosoft.com, a charity that has no affiliation with the software vendor except that Wright and her partners apply their deep understanding of Microsoft to help those in need. Microsoft is a sponsor, along with Verio Inc., Infragistics Inc., Developer Express Inc. and Telerik Inc. Now, charities apply to www.wearemicrosoft.com. Weekend events are then held to evaluate the submissions and select the charities to help.

"I found a location that could host 100 developers," says Wright, who is president of the Dallas ASP.NET User Group and organizer of the We Are Microsoft Charity Challenge Weekend. "We then formed five-person teams so we could help 20 organizations in one weekend. It wasn't difficult to find organizations that needed software. I contacted all of the organizations that had helped us, and I had the Volunteer Center of North Texas send out an invitation to all of their agencies.

"The organizations apply," continues Wright. "Then a committee of business analysts contacts each organization to review its application. Next comes a very painful meeting where we select the 'winning' organizations. Once the 20 charities are selected, the business analysts work with them on their conceptual plan. Also, the developers are able to select the charity that they want to work with, and [they're] given all of the information about the project so that they can start thinking about the tools they need. The charities are provided licenses for two different CMS packages, Microsoft Visual Studio 2008 Professional, Vista Ultimate, Expression Studio and free hosting from Verio."

"It's a small thing, to give up some time to use your skills to benefit the world, but it has a great effect."
David Waldorf, Hosting Engineer, VISI Inc.

Wright is clearly on the upper end of the help scale. There's a huge range of projects, with IT pros offering services to organizations ranging from the largest charities to the smallest churches and school systems. When it comes to giving, size doesn't matter -- it's all good.

Getting Interested
Wright's interest came from a deeply felt personal experience, but motivation has many sources. For some, religion is the driver. Others have a strong human need to do good. And more than a few feel that life has been sweet, and they're simply giving a little back.

Getting started can be as simple as being asked for a favor or receiving a gentle prod from the boss. Other times, you just know.

Joe Miller, an IT consultant for JPM Computers, knew he wanted to volunteer -- he just didn't know where. So Miller found a volunteer referral service that hooked him up with the Boys 2 Men, Girls 2 Women Foundation. The foundation mentors underprivileged kids and teens, preparing them for college, vocational training, careers and life in general. Now Miller manages the organization's computers in addition to servicing other machines in affiliated churches. Miller even takes care of PCs donated to children in the program.

Miller has these systems running like a well-oiled machine. "I streamlined their internal network with hardware and software updates, solved a constant issue with connection problems with their printers and copy machines, tested and updated their computers with the latest updates for all the installed software and helped to resolve connectivity issues to the Internet at a local church," Miller explains.

Computers Gone Good

Most of this article is about people using computer skills for good. But Redmond reader David B. Nickason, who handles IT for a law firm, points us to a case where the computers themselves do good. The World Community Grid Project (WorldCommunityGrid.org) brings together 400,000 people and more than 1.2 million computers, creating a huge cluster that can work on big problems like fighting cancer and HIV/AIDS and developing cleaner energy.

24 Hours of Charity
Many enlightened corporations encourage employees to volunteer, hooking them up with charities and giving workers the tools -- and the time -- to make a difference. Take the hosting company VISI Inc., for example, which is a big fan of and contributor to the Overnight Website Challenge. The 24-hour event has teams of developers cranking out Web sites for local Minneapolis charities.

VISI Hosting Engineer David Waldorf readily joined his company's team. "The Overnight Website Challenge pairs up a dozen teams of 10 Web developers each with a nonprofit," Waldorf explains. "The teams are given 24 hours to design a new Web site for their nonprofit. At the end of 24 straight hours of design work, the Web sites are judged by an impartial panel of experts, including The Geek Squad founder Robert Stephens. The commitment doesn't end there -- each team is required to submit a document about their ongoing commitment to the project."

Waldorf's project was for Access Press, Minnesota's Disability Community Newspaper. "In 24 hours, we created a working site for a newspaper, integrated new social-networking utilities into their site, and did this while working hard to stay within accessibility standards," he says.

Bill Stiles, disaster recovery coordinator for Parkview Health in Fort Wayne, Ind., has his boss to thank for getting him involved in charity work. The CEO at the time was a doctor and member of the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne Board of Directors. He asked Stiles to be a technical advisor. It was supposed to be a short-term deal, but eight years later, Stiles is still at it.

Every three months, the Community Foundation evaluates the financial needs of local charities. If the board approves, grants are given for technical projects.

As a technologist, Stiles plays a key role. "I provide the grant board with a recommendation on the validity of the technology in the grant," he says.

Fortunately, Stiles' employer backs these efforts. "My employer is a community-owned, not-for-profit health care organization," he explains. "People are encouraged to volunteer, and we're allowed flexibility in our schedules to take part in community activities. I work on the reviews after hours, but that flexibility allows me time to meet with people during the day."

After eight years, Stiles believes he's made a difference. "I've helped provide over $1 million worth of technology -- software, hardware and services -- to the community," he says.

Love Thy Neighbors
More than a few Redmond readers contribute their time at the same place where they donate money every Sunday: their church. Craig L. Reeds was well known to fellow churchgoers as an IT ace, so it didn't take long for members to ask Reeds for help. Now, in addition to his day job as IT manager for Dynamic Test Solutions Inc., which designs and tests circuit boards, Reeds is the de facto IT manager for his church, Gateway Fellowship SBC in Gilbert, Ariz.

Reeds has already made a world of difference. "The computers when I first started were behind on their Microsoft Updates and in need of being cleaned up and made to work better," Reeds says. "I now have the computers on a revolving maintenance schedule, and Windows Updates are downloaded as they become available."

Mark S. Gilchrist, a senior systems manager for AT&T Services, is also a religious man. Nearly 13 years ago, he applied for an IT job he never thought he'd get. He got it anyway and decided then and there to use his computer skills for good as often as possible. He found his chance after his local church's IT person abandoned the post. Gilchrist stepped up, not knowing what he was in for, and discovered it was a mess.

"I noticed many executables running in Task Manager with very peculiar names, taking up most of the processor. The IE browser was slow, with pop-ups occurring with great frequency for no legitimate reason," Gilchrist says of the church's computers. He ended up getting rid of 233 viruses.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

If you want to find a role model for giving, you can't do any better than Bill Gates. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has an endowment of some $30 billion. You'd think that Gates would have a bias toward technical projects, but the opposite is true. Most of the Foundation's projects focus on agriculture, health, population and education. However, many technical projects do exist in the Foundation's education efforts, where a number of grants fund computer networks, data systems and high-tech research and development for learning.

With the machines thoroughly clean, Gilchrist started to modernize. "We have completely rid ourselves of the former unproductive and unsafe computer environment," he says. "All PCs now have a firewall, virus protection and disaster recovery plans in place -- and are updated on an annual basis."

Gilchrist also sought outside help, "e-mailing and talking to vendors to try and get discounted software," he says. That's when a surprising e-mail message appeared, asking for the 501(c)(3) church nonprofit identifier. The message came from Walter Scott, then-CEO of disaster recovery vendor Acronis Inc.

"I wasn't sure what to make of it, but I complied," Gilchrist says. "At 5 a.m. the next morning, I got another e-mail from Mr. Scott, asking for the church's URL. The next e-mail came about 10 minutes later, instructing the chief software architect of Acronis to send me five licenses. Curious that there was no mention of cost, I wrote back, indicating that I had no need to 'purchase' five licenses, but appreciated [that] his company would help our effort to spread God's love. I asked for the cost. One word came back in the return e-mail: FREE. I will never forget that!"

The Rotary
Phil Abraham is president of print-on-demand consulting firm Impressive Solutions during the day, and webmaster for the Farmington Rotary Club of Michigan in his spare time. A techie at heart, Abraham saw the club's old Web site was stale and neglected -- a problem he volunteered to fix. He found it was less of a quick fix than an ongoing project.

"Like a lot of IT projects, after I got into the project there was considerable and ongoing 'design creep,'" Abraham says. "The major part was to update the Rotary Club Web site content on a more regular basis and add additional functionality, and that I did fairly quickly. There was also a need to improve our communications with members, friends of the club and the local community. It has become, to some degree, multiple projects-each with its own timeline."

Individual Charity
Charity, they say, begins at home. But it can also happen in someone else's home. Mathew J. Goolsby found a personal way to donate IT skills. Last fall a friend called him, telling of a lonely woman who had recently lost her husband. The busy Goolsby wasn't anxious to help but agreed to anyway.

"When I went to see her, I found out she had an old PC -- circa 1997. She was interested in dating men again, as she had been housebound for approximately four years. She thought she could meet someone online," Goolsby says. "I took a look at the PC and quickly found out there was nothing I could do short of putting dynamite to it. I recommended she buy an inexpensive PC from our local Wal-Mart, which she did. When she got the PC, I came over and set it up. It took me several hours to get it set up for her and working correctly. Even my wife spent a couple of hours setting up her e-mail after I finished."

Goolsby is a bit sheepish telling this story. "There are things that other people have done that far outweigh any work I've done," he says. "I thought I would [tell this story] to motivate others to volunteer their time and skills as I did. It's very rewarding."

Securing the Future
Michael Culp, along with a group of Charlottesville, Va., computer experts, believes one of our biggest security problems is a simple lack of awareness. The group members are big fans of National Cyber Security Awareness Month and thought they could add to the efforts. The result? The formation of the Cross Sector Security Awareness Initiative.

"The general idea behind the initiative is for the University of Virginia, local higher education in general, local businesses, K-12 schools, government organizations and others to collaborate on a coordinated set of activities aimed at building security awareness," Culp explains. "We highlight our security training and presentations during National Cyber Security Awareness Month, which happens every year in October. We also offer our services to local schools and other organizations, free of charge, during the rest of the year.

"This is an ongoing initiative," he adds. "We've presented and trained personnel from various organizations and businesses around our community, and presented to high school students at three local schools. All of the responses are positive. Most attendees come away with a newfound skill to better protect themselves while online."

Charity Geek Squad
Sometimes an entire company devotes itself to good work. Village Geek Computers in Zionsville, Ind., is one such concerned company. Steve Weigle is the man behind

Village Geek, and he devotes his and his staff's time to helping others. Weigle doesn't focus on just one project but helps wherever his community needs help. This has been Weigle's calling since 1995.

Originally, Weigle wanted to help kids learn about computers. "As the schools started teaching and requiring computer skills, the kids seemed to find their own way," Weigle says. "At least the number of people that came to us asking for help for kids dwindled away. In the meantime, requests for other needs continued to increase."

Weigle's response was to work on as many projects as he and his staff could handle.

"We operate in a couple of small Indiana towns. So, I don't find them. They come to me," he explains. "I've been servicing the area for more than 12 years, and when people need help, I'm often the first place they come to ask.

"Recently, we were asked to build computer labs in retirement homes and individual PCs for elderly, handicapped and military personnel," he continues. "Sometimes the request is for a discount, or, in the case of military personnel, it's often a parent struggling to send something to a child in harm's way. When we find these requests, we waive all fees and provide the equipment or service at no charge."

Village Geek even mixes paid work with charity. "On those days when I see a tech standing around, I put him to work preparing used PCs. We usually have at least one or two ready all the time. On larger projects, we try to work [charity] in when business is slow, but it's been a while since business was slow. Many times, I end up assigning some staff to the project and get it done as if it was a paying customer," Weigle says.

A Microsoft Research

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is not the only way Bill Gates helps the world. Five years ago, Gates drove the creation of a science group within the larger Microsoft Research organization. This is far from a pure commercial play. Instead, Microsoft researchers are applying technology to fight and cure diseases, understand global warming, discover the origins of the universe and revolutionize how we produce and use energy.

Finding the Time
Weigle can find the time for himself and his techs because he owns the place. For others, nights and weekends do the trick. And more than a few have worked out flexible schedules with the boss.

Says AT&T Services' Gilchrist: "As a manager, I don't work a straight and steady shift. I wouldn't necessarily work eight hours, five days a week either. Sometimes it would be 16 hours or more. There were times when I was allowed to manage my time: For example, if I worked 16 hours one day, I could take the next day off."

Every IT pro interviewed received much more than they gave. "It's such a small thing, to give up some time to use your skills to benefit the world, but it has a great effect," concludes VISI's Waldorf. "Even when you only volunteer in your local community, the ripples spread out and make the world a better place. There are always people looking for help. There are always people who could benefit from your skills."

For JPM Computers' Miller, charity offers "the satisfaction of being able to make a difference in the lives of people who are making a positive change in our future generation."

Advice to Others
Many IT givers never imagined doing good works. But they found a way, and, if you're so inclined, so can you.

"Ask around your town," advises Parkview Health's Stiles. "There are so many more nonprofits around Fort Wayne than I ever knew existed. They all appreciate help and rarely can afford full-time technical help. Look for a local community foundation. If they don't have work for you, they can always direct you to someone who does."

Miller agrees. "Seek it out and do it," he says. "It's some of the most rewarding work that one can ever do, especially when you get to see the immediate response when you take something that doesn't work and you make it into a productive tool again. You save an organization time and money that it doesn't have."

Looking locally can give the quickest result, says Weigle. "Don't look for a major movement to join or a major charity [in order] to get started," he says. "Look in your neighborhood. And don't be concerned with tax write-offs. If we only give to get, then we aren't really doing anything, are we?"

Doug Says ...
It's an honor to have parents who are true role models. Mine taught me to be fair and kind and to avoid prejudice. I may have failed a bit in the first two, but I'm pretty good at the third.

Both my parents gave and continue to give. Mom Barney spent much of her life doing social work and volunteering. Now she spends tens of hours a month raising money for her church and community-and puts her great writing skills to use crafting grants. That earned her this year's Citizen of the Year award from the local Lions Club. My dad, Dave Barney, is involved in local politics and, as a member of his town's budget committee, makes sure residents in need get a fair shake. Also, as an AARP Tax-Aide volunteer, he puts his spreadsheet skills to use doing taxes for those unable to do so themselves or too poor to pay a preparer. While the 30,000-plus volunteer program he helps is sponsored by the AARP, it's not just for seniors. Folks of all ages, including teens, have received help.

comments powered by Disqus
Upcoming Events

Redmond Tech Watch

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.