Software changes the world – be proud to be part of it

One of the joys of working for Microsoft is the real world citizenship. That sounds really corporate, but what I mean is the ability to stand up and do the right thing. Microsoft of course does lots locally and internationally as befits a successful company. But its the ability to do stuff as an individual that helps me fulfil ambitions, help others and feel like I’m making a positive contribution to the world.

For the last few years I’ve been able to support the First Lego League in the UK, and the UK Films for learning community by building and maintaining their websites. These are great activities that enable teachers and students of a wide range of ages to get in the mix with science and technology. Both have a huge effect on those taking part – enabling teachers to teach with flair and originality, and students to learn while having fun and enriching experiences.

Over the summer I’ve been able to do a few fun events with schools and colleges in my area. This has included:

College Technology day. I ran a workshop, repeated three times during the day, on different aspects of software and human interaction including speech controlled robot navigation, direct robot programming, multi-touch on Windows 7 and XNA game development. Nearly 60 students attended during the three workshops, all able to take part hands on building and driving stuff. Fantastic.

High School induction. Initially I was asked to run a robotics workshop as part of the schools activities to welcome its new year six intact. We thought we’d get enough kids interested to run one Saturday morning workshop with 30 student places. It was a surprise and a joy to get a phone call from Mr Cowan – the technology centre manager – to say 145 students had applied to take part. There is only one thing you can do in the face of such enthusiasm – scale out! With the help of Chris Proctor, organiser of the First Lego League in the UK, as well as my UK colleague Daniel Sumner, I was able to borrow more Lego NXT robots enough to allow ten robotic teams. With Mr Cowan’s and the support of senior teaching staff, we were then able to run the workshop twice a day for two consecutive Saturdays and allow all 145 students to take part!

Primary School club. Keen to support my local school, I was able to attend the after school Lego Club with my NXT robots (MS actually paid for them!!). In the brief hour after school, for a whole term, we built and programmed the robots to complete Lego missions on one of the First Lego League challenges. Fantastic fun, for boys and girls aged only 8yo. It never stops to amaze me how our children can rise to any challenge given the opportunity to participate.

My most recent adventure was to present a ‘Microsoft and me’ session for a local careers event for high school students. The event was full of fun with Thrust SSC engineers and a British Airways hostess presenting amongst others. I had a smallish group attend my session – an affect of the standardised lacklustre ITC classes I suspect. We had a great interactive session with discusses covering a range of topics including competitive angles. I enjoyed myself very much and today got some nice feedback from the students eval forms including comments like ‘Why can’t we have an IT teacher like that’ and ‘ Paul Foster is cool’. 🙂

My latest project is to try to support a collection of schools in Uganda. They have very little access to computers and therefore the internet, but the teaching staff want to be part of the internet phenomenon and to share their schools stories. By using their mobile phones or dial-up cyber cafes the teachers want to publish what their students are doing. Having got joined up with a UK volunteer recently back from Uganda, thanks to the Films for learning community, I’m now building out a hosted web server that will be able to support not just one school but as many of the local schools as would like to take part. I’m talking to a UK hosting company about their dedicated server products and hope to have the site up and running before Christmas.

Projects like all of these demonstrate just how powerful software is. As Ray Ozzie says, in one of our new employee induction videos, ‘with software, if you can imagine it, you can build it’. 

For me, being part of software that does change the world, making a positive contribution to all, makes me proud, excited and humbled.

I am one of many at Microsoft who does this sort of stuff. We are Microsoft, Microsoft is us. We are a force for good, and all the competitor FUD and the rubbish urban myths will not change us.

I’m a PC, and I’m going to change the world for the better.


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