On a warm, sunny morning at Microsoft Redmond’s treehouse meeting spaces, the sound of a melancholy jazz saxophone wafts across the air. A small group of employees en route to meetings freezes; others look up from their phones wondering where the sound is coming from. Even the breeze in the trees and the birds nesting seem to take a seat for the concert.
The soothing riff, reminiscent of jazz icon Charlie Parker, is coming from a vintage sax played by Lewis Curtis, whose day job is not to calm nerves with a woodwind but actually involves helping Microsoft and its employees tactically and responsibly respond rapidly to earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural and global humanitarian disasters. On this day, here to get his picture taken, he brought his instrument to campus.
While it might be strange to hear a saxophone ring out somewhere you’d least expect it, it’s just the kind of delightful introduction to the surprise that is Curtis—a jack-of-all-trades, modern Renaissance man with a hint of a southern drawl and eyes that make you feel like you can immediately trust him, eyes that have seen all kinds of sadness close up.
Curtis was raised by his grandparents in Georgia, with family farms near Shreveport, Louisiana, where they raised, grew, or made everything they could. That included some family who may have made moonshine. “They grew a lot of sugar cane, but never sold an ounce of sugar,” he said, laughing. “I’m sure it was very suspicious.”
“I have a lot of eccentric relatives who prided themselves on the ability to fix anything and the courage to try,” he explained. “All of them are like, ‘I can fix that’ and ‘I’m gonna try that.'”
Consequently, he’s just always been that guy who could figure it out, whatever “it” was.
Among the “‘its” in Curtis’s arsenal: raising goats, touring in a jazz band, playing four instruments, working a farm, doing most sports in high school, and living in the Philippines, Japan, and several states across America as a “military brat.” He’s been a bank teller (where he was held at gunpoint during a robbery), volunteer firefighter, college radio producer and personality, emergency medical technician, veteran of both Digital Equipment Corporation and Sun Microsystems, and one of Microsoft’s first-ever infrastructure certified architects.
He also taught himself how to speak again after a devastating stroke in 2007, a fearful time that changed the trajectory of his life and career—and opened his eyes to suffering in ways that would help him help others later on.
A change of heart
Just before he turned 40, Curtis was at a restaurant preparing his talk for an upcoming tech conference. Suddenly his chest began to hurt and his coworkers noticed an onset of profuse sweating. They rushed him to the hospital, where the doctor said he was having a heart attack.
“They performed an angiogram, where they stick a camera up your leg to have a look at your heart,” Curtis said. “Because my heart was so enlarged, they couldn’t really see what was going on and accidentally hit some filaments, which caused a stroke right there on the operating table.”
When he woke up, he couldn’t speak, write, or spell. He stared at the doctor who was talking to him, thinking, “Why can’t I move my mouth? What’s going on?”
His wife, Linda, flew to the city where the conference was, uncertain what she should expect since the nurses asked her right before her flight if Curtis had problems speaking before. They checked into a hotel for several weeks because Curtis couldn’t fly home. “It was a terrifying experience,” he said. The doctor was uncertain whether Curtis would ever speak again.
So Curtis set to the work of teaching himself how to regain his faculties, through speech therapy and his homegrown resourcefulness.
“You start slowly, remembering how to put every thought into a word. Then you start building phrases. Then you begin putting phrases together. You don’t realize how much concentration and muscle memory it takes to be able to speak. It took a full year. It doesn’t just click and done, you’re back,” he said. He still loses his words when he gets tired or if it’s been a particularly speech-heavy day.
Throughout that time, Curtis tried to keep working when and where he could. Little did he know that when he finally could come back fully to his job, he would have a change of heart about work.
For the four years leading up to his stroke, Curtis had been working as an infrastructure field architect at Microsoft—a job he enjoyed—being a hands-on IT person, designing and building servers, and getting everything working. And one of the aspects he enjoyed the most was occasionally being called on for community disaster response, his focus in graduate school. Later, Curtis and a core group of colleagues would be recruited for disasters, such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, New Zealand Christchurch earthquake, and the Malaysian Floods, to repair systems, scrambling to spin up servers to get an affected agency online again, donating subscriptions to Office 365 so those affected could get back into their email, or even just offering advice around disaster recovery.
“From 2004 to 2007, I was known for what I was able to do and what I knew. People called it being a ‘brain on a stick,'” Curtis said. “I stretched myself as much as I could and tried to contribute to as many efforts as possible.”
And then Curtis had his stroke.
“Having a stroke changes your life in significant ways,” he said. He’d been an architect and subject matter expert, but things had changed. One of the things he really wanted to do was make more of a difference in the world, for those struggling to establish their new normal in the aftermath of a traumatic event.
“After I recovered from my stroke, I decided to start focusing my capabilities on doing just one thing well: enabling and managing technical disaster response and humanitarian missions.”
Microsoft has always responded to disasters, but the newly reenergized Curtis wanted to formalize the program so employees could help reduce human suffering as fast as possible without wondering how to responsibly help, whether they could get the time off to volunteer, or if they were legally allowed to provide Microsoft resources.
“If we are going to do it, let’s do it right and responsibly,” Curtis said. He and colleague Joel Yoker met with senior leadership at Microsoft, presenting a case for an operational process based on Incident Command Systems, Emergency Declaration legal review and guidance, governance, internal partnerships, and a data-driven program to track the efficacy of disaster response and learn from each mission.
When you experience a disaster, it’s not enough to try to recover the systems and technology you had before in order to bring normalcy, Curtis explained. “The agencies face new realities and challenges and need new tech to address that,” he said. “That’s what the cloud is great for: it helps us rapidly deploy and build new apps to reduce human suffering quickly.”
After years of proving the community model, Microsoft leaders approved Curtis and Yoker’s plan, and Curtis was offered the role as technical director of services disaster response full time.
Relief in action
Then, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy flooded New Jersey and New York, causing an estimated $50–65 billion in damages and cutting the power to millions of residents for several weeks.
It was the first time that Curtis’s team, which is part of the enterprise services disaster recovery team, mobilized in its official capacity. The team stepped in to assist more than 60 organizations including New York City Transit, the Department of Education, and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. In the New York recovery office, the team set up command centers and added brain power to the existing city IT staff with expertise on security, systems and desktop deployment for the new NYC disaster recovery center workers to help citizens in their time of need.
Curtis’s team took a lot of what it learned when Sandy hit—the good and the could-be-improved—and applied it to 192 disaster relief missions executed over the past six years in a formal program.
No two disasters are alike, even when they are. For example, water contamination. One occurred in Flint, Michigan, and another on the Animas River, which supplies drinking and farming irrigation water to the Navajo Nation. In Flint, Curtis’s team pulled in the Cyber Response team to help hospital and police departments because they were being hacked. For the Animas River spill, it created an incident command collaboration website to help track damage.
Curtis’s team can design and deploy multiple capabilities. For example, now it can set up an incident command collaboration system (cloud software tools for collaborating in several locations, security protocols to prevent hacking, data tools to track damage, etc.) within 48 hours of a disaster—a feat that, under normal circumstances, might take up to several months.
Efficiency is key, and perfectionism must be kept in check. Curtis said that the missions are focused on speed, working only on solutions that will alleviate human suffering as fast as possible.
“That cool graphic that would take three hours in Photoshop to do? It’s gone,” he said. “We ask, what can we do right now? You have to just learn as you go.”
This figure-it-out, fix-it attitude, which he said came from family and ancestors who survived the Depression and rural hardships going back before the US revolutionary war, has guided Curtis’s path throughout his life.
“If a fence was broken and the livestock were in danger of escaping, we were the kind of folks who just made do,” Curtis said. “You don’t draw up a schematic around what the perfect fence will look like. You just go to the barn, look at what you’ve got, and figure it out.”
He’s learned to aim for the quickest fix that will accomplish the mission, not necessarily the perfect one.
Bringing out ‘the good that people are capable of’
Almost every mobilization that Curtis’s team has assisted with has involved a tragedy that led to extreme suffering, and only one of them didn’t include death.
“I have stories that bring me to tears to even think about. The things I saw in Nepal [after the 2015 earthquake] . . . women in foxholes with children eating anything they could find. The criminal activities—bad guys don’t stop being bad guys in a disaster; they just look for new ways to be bad,” he said.
It can be traumatic to see these things up close, so he helps focus his team of volunteers from around the company on being the helpers no matter the condition, politics, or stress levels.
“You will see a very dark side of humanity. But you will see a very uplifting and inspiring side that will also move you to tears—to see the good that people are capable of.”
The whole program and model is about tactically helping those in need. After his stroke, Curtis knew he wanted to work on making a difference and leave a legacy that people at Microsoft could use to do the same, long after Curtis himself is gone.
“The idea is to make a difference with something we were already doing. This whole program we founded together; there are so many hands in this,” he said.
“This isn’t about me. My career goal is to leave a legacy, for this program to last and outlive me so others can use this to do good work to help people.”