Reflections on Hacking Autism

Americans’ entrepreneurial self-esteem is now embodied by Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon. These are indeed fabulously innovative companies with world-beating business models. Yet one wonders if they are increasingly the exception, not the rule, and if the passing of Mr Jobs is simply the most prominent example of a broader decline in American entrepreneurship.

Steve Job’s and America’s Decline, Economist

One day after the death of Steve Job’s, the prognosticators at the Economist looked into their intellectual crystal ball.  Apparently, they saw the decline of American entrepreneurship.

Six days after the death of Steve Job’s, I attended an initiative called Hacking Autism.  What I saw there was in direct contradiction to the argument made by the Economist.

I saw a garage.  Let me explain.

The Garage Mentality

In 1993, my wife and I moved to Silicon Valley.  We discovered the garage, which is more mentality than place.  The mindset of the garage, “if we can dream it, we can build it.“

Nothing is impossible in the garage.

We adopted and applied this mentality to our own life.  Raising children with special needs, we decided to leverage technology’s potential for helping them overcome their human limits.

When multi touch arrived on the scene, our family became early adopters.  The first useful multi-touch tool we discovered was the HP TouchSmart.  We created our own garage of discovery around it.  Our experiences lead to an incredible story, which is too long for this space.

This story allowed us to be part of the budding partnership between HP, Goodby Silverstein (GSP), and Hope Technology School (HTS).   These inspired partners joined with Autism Speaks and the Flutie Foundation to create Hacking Autism.

Hacking Autism would put the Garage of discovery and possibility, in the service of every family with autism.



The Garage Building Business

Doing the obvious is what everyone expects.

Phil Mckinney, CTO HP Personal Systems Group

I didn’t know what to expect, when I arrived at the HP Executive Briefing Center to attend Hacking Autism.  Hacking Autism had been the brainchild of Goodby Silversetin.  HP partnered with them, and was now hosting the actual event.   Autism Speaks and the Flutie Foundation were sponsoring it.   Phil Mckinney, the CTO of HP, had become a driving force, because of his passion for the cause, so he was the chief spokesperson (unofficial chief inspiration officer).

I was with one of the engineer’s who helped me develop an Android App called Quick Talk, which was inspired by the idea of Hacking Autism.  We were very small people, irrelevant by comparison, and walking into the room I felt our smallness.

It didn’t take long for my insecurity to be replaced by excitement.  Phil Mckinney described his vision for Hacking Autism, and the electricity of his passion spread like a contagion.  He described an open, collaborative, and empathetic vision.  We would tap into the generous community of software engineers, educators, advocates, and parents, to help those with autism find their voices and reach their potential.

 Mr. Mckinney believed Hacking Autism was a viral idea, which needed to be spread.  Anyone, anywhere, with a heart for autism, would work together with likeminded partners to create great software.  Already groups as close as New York, and as far away as Sweden were preparing to launch their own versions of the event.

 As I listened to Mr. Mckinney, and talked with other participants, it became clear, we were being mobilized and given the freedom to invent.  We were tasked with creating three apps, all of which would be free of cost.  In the future, anyone could take the code, and customize the apps on their platform of choice, as long as the final product was free.

 I looked around at all the amazing people in the room and realized, we were entering the garage building business.   Hacking Autism was going to inspire people around the world to get in the garage and invent.


Get In The Garage

“Today is about making technology that gives people a voice, and the ability to participate.

Phil Mckinney, CTO Hewlett & Packard

I almost missed Hacking Autism.  I almost failed to get in the garage.   On the day of Hacking Autism, I had a very important meeting, and was uncertain about my attendance.   Two things happened to remove the uncertainty, and get me in the garage.

 First, Anne Finnie of HP contacted my wife to make sure I was going to be there.   Anne was representative of the HP employee’s involved.  For them this was not about HP, but about bringing the right people together to launch Hacking Autism.

Interestingly enough, this unselfish desire to contribute to the community without concern for profit was very much HP, the old HP of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard.  I found this original HP culture very much alive in my time at Hacking Autism.

Set out to build a company and make a contribution, not an empire and a fortune.

Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard

The next thing to happen might have been arranged by the ghosts of the garage, because my important meeting was rescheduled.  I was free to attend.

Without Anne’s persistence, and the rescheduling of the meeting, I might have missed Hacking Autism.  This would have been unfortunate, because at Hacking Autism my eyes were opened to the possibilities of the garage.

If I had missed Hacking Autism…

I would never have met the delightful team from Autism Speaks.  I was both amazed and inspired by how hard they are working to give a large organization the common touch.   They were interested in our story, our software, and began talking partnership right away.  This is their mission, to bring people together to make progress in the effort to overcome autism.

I would never have seen the heart of Silicon Valley on display, in the faces of incredibly talented and unselfish engineers, who came together to invent solutions for people with autism.

I would have missed the completion of a story, where the passionate employees of Goodby Silverstein, turn the inspiration of one child’s breakthrough, into a global idea called Hacking Autism.

I left Hacking Autism determined to remain involved, and encourage others to join us in the garage…where American Entrepreneurship continues to burn bright.