Engineers Put Laptops Down to Build Homes for Needy in New Orleans

Editor’s note – June 8, 2010 –
The following article was updated after publication to correct names of organizations.

REDMOND, Wash. — June 8, 2010 — Eighteen “geeks” arrived a couple of days early for this week’s Microsoft Tech·Ed conference in New Orleans.

Microsoft MVP Paul Litwin makes sure a riser is level for a new home in New Orleans.

A group of Microsoft employees and partners attending this week’s Tech•Ed conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, took time to help build a new home in a city still struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

It wasn’t to hang out on Bourbon Street or to load up on jazz and beignets; it was to give back; working a day of hard labor with the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity to help build a home.

The group spent their Saturday working on America Street in New Orleans East, building cinder block and concrete risers. Eventually, a house will be built atop the risers, protecting the home from flood waters. Habitat for Humanity houses are also designed to withstand hurricane-force winds.

“This is absolutely a community effort and something that we felt there was a real need to do,” says Steve Andrews, a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) for Visual Studio ALM who spearheaded the project after learning that Tech·Ed 2010 would be held in New Orleans. “I don’t even know some of the people who came today, but it’s so great to see them here. It made sense to put this out to the technical community because these are people who are committed to community. This is what they do.”

Even before the recent oil spill affecting the Gulf Coast, the region has struggled to rebuild in the five years since Hurricane Katrina. Andrews says estimates put damage at $100 billion, making it the most costly hurricane in U.S. history. Additionally, the region suffered an estimated 400,000 lost jobs and 275,000 lost homes.

New Orleans is still struggling to rebuild, and one of the biggest needs is housing. At last year’s Tech·Ed conference in Los Angeles, Andrews and some other attendees talked about the 2010 event in New Orleans and discussed ways that attendees could give back to the city while they were in town. Andrews decided to follow through on the party small talk by forming GeekGive and arranging for a group of Tech·Ed-bound volunteers to work with Habitat for Humanity.

“It was truly devastating what happened, and I think everyone’s motivation is largely the same,” Andrews says. “We’re going to be in town anyway. Why not give something back to the community and show that people in the technical fields have spirit and are looking to provide help?”

The typical out-of-town conference experience is largely the same, says Andrews, who travels to many conferences and speaking engagements. “Normally you show up, you network a little bit, you have some drinks. This project is definitely a little out of the ordinary.”

On Saturday the weather was hot and humid, and the work was heavy, dirty and exacting. The group mixed mortar in wheelbarrows, laid cinder blocks on the foundation, leveled them, and then used infrared guides to make sure the building stayed level.

The 126 labor hours from the 18 Microsoft MVPs and Microsoft employees saved Habitat for Humanity up to $4,000. Nestor Portillo, director of community and online service at Microsoft, was one of the volunteers.

“When Steve asked us to be involved, it was an automatic yes,” Portillo says. “For us, it’s a privilege to be able to contribute.”

Microsoft MVP Mark Rosenberg (blue shirt), IT professional Sheila Silva, and MVP Peter Kellner mix concrete for a riser, upon which a Habitat for Humanity home will be built in New Orleans.

Andrews and Portillo say they’d love to see more technical professionals make time to give back not only to their own communities, but also to the communities they visit for conferences.

Portillo recalls that at a conference in Brazil he participated in an event in which all attendees were asked to bring nonperishable food as an admission item. This project in New Orleans though was the first time he went into a local community to directly help while at a conference.

Andrews says some conferences do set up food drives and he also mentioned a concept called Give Camp that’s taking off in the Microsoft developer community.

“Basically, Give Camp is where geeks get together on a Friday afternoon, and they drink a lot of Red Bull and build websites for nonprofits through Sunday afternoon,” he says. “One of the reasons I enjoy projects like this is that I get to hang out with that caliber of people and talk about ideas, and the repertoire and friendship that comes from that community.”

Sheila Silva, who oversees IT at the insurance firm Ability Resources, was another of the volunteers.

“We sit in front of computers all day and sometimes feel disconnected about what’s going on in the world. So it feels good to give back to the community,” Silva says.

Andrews and Portillo agreed that “geeks” can have a significant impact on their communities or communities they’re visiting.

“Things like this are really part of what makes me feel proud of the work that we do,” Portillo says. “Using our hands, using technology, using our intellectual capabilities—it’s how we can make our community better and stronger.”

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