Engaging Tech in Development (and vice versa)

Growing up in Silicon Valley in the 1970s-80s, I couldn’t wait to move away. I was consumed by the Central American conflicts of the day, with their struggles for greater economic opportunity and societal inclusion. The technology I saw my dad building at enterprise software companies seemed worlds away from anything that could help average people around the world. To work in international development, consensus was that you had to join the Peace Corps or find a job in Washington, DC in the public or nonprofit sectors.
This was the path I followed for the first 10 years of my career. I moved to rural Guatemala, worked in a school for two years, went to graduate school, and ultimately achieved my dream of working at the World Bank. But by the late 1990s, technology had evolved — it was now prolific in everyday life, cheaper, more widely relevant. The terms ICT4D (Information and Communication Technology for Development) and TechforGood started popping up more often.
Impatient with the slow bureaucracy of the big development institutions, I wondered — did Silicon Valley have a more important role to play in international development than I had originally believed?
I moved back to the Bay Area in 2000, just as the dot coms were crashing, trying to find the road marked “ICT4D.” I went to work at Intel, where for 10 years I focused on education technology and corporate social responsibility programs with the mission of helping to improve the quality of education in developing countries.
Seeing that many of my fellow Intel employees also wanted to use their work in technology to help improve the lives of people around the world, we launched a program called the Intel Education Service Corps in 2009. We put out a call for employee volunteers to work on three projects that would match teams with nonprofits in developing countries for two-week, technology-related service projects.
Over 500 people applied for the first 15 spots.
Did Silicon Valley have a more important role to play in international development than I had originally believed?
This was a turning point in my understanding of the role that tech professionals and solutions could play in expanding economic opportunities for people in developing countries.
On one of our first projects in Kenya, we saw reading scores double in just four months for first graders who now had access to an adaptive learning software program for 20 minutes per day. We also saw light bulbs come on for the tech professionals exposed to new environments — where their expanded global mindset led them to re-architect heavy solutions so that they could better serve the needs of users in developing countries. Projects were complicated and challenging, requiring multiple years of co-creating solutions with our NGO partners. But it felt like we were starting to make a difference.
In 2012, I left Intel and co-founded a non-profit called Team4Tech with my former manager, Lila Ibrahim. Together we developed a platform for professionals from across the tech sector to bring their skills to development nonprofits, while also growing and stretching their own abilities.
We decided to focus on the education sector, where technology can help improve the quality of education through adaptive learning software and by developing 21st century skills through student-centered learning models. To ensure sustainable capacity building, we work with our nonprofit partners to develop a three to five-year collaboration plan, where a team of tech professionals can come each year to train teachers and staff in technology integration to advance teaching and learning goals.
Over the past three years, Team4Tech has reached 30,000 students through 18 projects in eight countries, with the engagement of 200 volunteers from 15 tech companies. Consistent with the experience at Intel, more and more tech professionals, especially millennials, are eager for an opportunity to use their skills to make a difference for people around the world.
We’ve learned a lot along the way. To ensure that Team4Tech is making a positive contribution, every project follows these guidelines:
  • We work only with well-established non-profits, who have a vision for how technology can help amplify their impact in education and can sustain the investment with staff and funding;
  • Project proposals come from the non-profit partners, who must clearly define their success metrics and commit to measuring progress over the life of the collaboration;
  • We focus on scopes of work where our volunteers can utilize their skills to build local capacity through training;
  • We use a human centered design approach based on observing user needs, rapidly prototyping solutions, and iterating until we get it right.
As an example, we recently completed a second project with seven volunteers from Autodesk and the Greater Stellenbosch Development Trust (GSDT) in the Kayamandi Township outside of Stellenbosch, South Africa.
At the request of GSDT, the Autodesk volunteers trained over 20 teachers at Makupula Secondary School in how to use technology to improve engagement and learning for their students — especially around digital literacy and math. The volunteers also helped GSDT engage the broader community, through events including EdTech meetups, hands-on 3D design training, and youth-focused community tech days.
One teenage boy came back every day, explaining that he wanted to design cars and learning to use the Autodesk software programs to bring to life his visions. He is using the adaptive learning math software that the volunteers enabled at his school to keep improving his math scores, with the goal of studying engineering or computer science at the local university.
Team4Tech projects challenge volunteers and partner NGO staff to do more than just match resources and time. All the participants need to adapt the Silicon Valley mindset to new and multi-layered contexts.
Tech professionals and solutions could play a role in expanding economic opportunities for people in developing countries.
In Kaymandi, even though a laptop lab was installed and teachers were trained in an earlier phase, use of this technology was hindered by not only a lack of resources to secure the space or outfit it with all of the necessary furniture, but also closed mindsets. It was vital that Autodesk volunteers not only encourage teachers and staff to advance their technical skills, but also model and coach them one-on-one to overcome their fears, to persist through failures, and to document, share, and celebrate both their own and their students’ successes.
The teachers’ enthusiasm and pride is now infectious in their classrooms and in their weekly peer-led professional development workshops. And, it has even caught the attention of government officials, who now see Makupula Secondary School as a testing ground for wider educational technology integration in the Western Cape region.
As we continue to reflect upon and evaluate our efforts, we’re developing a unique approach to advancing the use of technology that not only expands educational opportunities, but also catalyzes additional benefit for volunteers and their sponsoring companies. By using design thinking to work through real-life tech challenges in unknown environments, volunteers build their own skills around critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, communication, and expanded global mindset.
Research shows that these are exactly the skills they need to be successful back on the job at home. So whether Silicon Valley is helping to save the world, or the world is helping to save Silicon Valley, we see both sides gaining from the engagement.