IBM's Call for Code to unite world's developers for a common good

IBM's Call for Code to unite world's developers for a common good

Friday June 01, 2018,

7 min Read

This is one call for code that should get everyone excited. IBM, in partnership with the United Nations, David Clark Cause, and the Linux Foundation, has announced a ‘Call for Code’ competition to use Cloud, Data, AI, and Blockchain technologies for natural disaster relief.

The $30 million, five-year investment award unites developers across the world to solve the planet’s pressing issues caused by natural disasters.

While announcing the annual ‘Call for Code’ global initiative, IBM Chairman, President and CEO Ginni Rometty called on the technology community to help build a better future. The goal is to unite the world’s developers and tap into Data and AI, Blockchain, Cloud and IoT technologies to address social challenges, she added.

Seema Kumar (Photo: R Raja)

In an interview with YourStory, Seema Kumar, who leads IBM’s developer and startup initiative, says, “This is the largest and most ambitious effort to bring startup, academic, and enterprise developers together to solve one of the most pressing societal issues of our time: preventing, responding to, and recovering from natural disasters.”

Seema Kumar spoke in detail about the Call for Code initiative, IBM’s roadmap for 2018 to target startups and developers and the need for re-skilling and up-skilling in the new-age tech like AI, IoT, and Blockchain, the organisation’s unique inclusion and diversity policies, and how she makes sure to have a career that is rewarding both professionally as well as personally.

Excerpts from the conversation.

YourStory: The Call for Code sounds like an initiative to make developers see the bigger picture?

Seema Kumar: Yes, this is an initiative open to anyone who can code and has a unique solution. For example, developers may create an app that uses weather data and supply chain information to alert pharmacies to increase supplies of medicine, bottled water, and other items based on predicted weather-related disruption. Or it could be an app that predicts when and where the disaster will be most severe, so emergency crews can be dispatched ahead of time in proper numbers to treat those in need.

Call for Code also integrates the American Red Cross’ focus on new ways to bring support to disaster victims – especially important with 2017 ranked as one of the worst years on record for catastrophic events, including fires, floods, earthquakes, and storms.

We are coordinating interactive educational events, hackathons, and community support for developers around the world in more than 50 cities, including Amsterdam, Bengaluru, Berlin, Delhi, Dubai, London, New York, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, and Tel Aviv.

YS: How can developers join the Call for Code?

SK: Developers can register at Projects can be submitted by individuals – or teams of up to five people – between June 18, 2018, and August 31, 2018. Thirty semi-finalists will be selected in September. A prominent jury, including some of the most iconic technologists in the world, will choose the winning solution from three finalists.

The winner will be announced in October 2018 during a live-streamed concert and award event coordinated by David Clark Cause.

YS: How is it different from a regular hackathon?

SK: IBM’s $30 million investment over five years will fund access to developer tools, technologies, free code, and training with experts. Apart from a financial prize, perhaps what will be more rewarding is that the winners will have access to long-term support to help move their idea from prototype to real-world application. This includes ongoing developer support through IBM’s partnership with the Linux Foundation. This is, again, elevating the profile of the developer to a first-class citizen.

So we are really saying how can 22 million developers across the globe solve problems for global challenges that matter. And this is, like, really changing the way we deal with disasters.

YS: It is refreshing to see that IBM is one of the multi-national firms to have women in senior roles. It won the 2018 Catalyst Award for leadership in building a workplace that values diversity and inclusion. Is there a particular strategy you follow to make this happen?

SK: It has been a conscious top-down approach. It is not only about gender diversity but also about inclusion. Both these are part of our core value system.

I would say, women, especially women in technology, are strongly encouraged, celebrated, and supported with the right set of programs. However, whether an employee is a man or woman, all of us have various life stages where you require the support of family and your organisation. And I think IBM offers a very nice balance of that. Ultimately, it all depends on the individual. How fast you want to go and you know what you want to do. But it doesn't come at the cost of your own work-life integration.

Personally, I feel it's also about women helping other women in the organisation, which I think is something that really works as an example.

It is common to see a reasonably good pipeline of women employees at the bottom of the pyramid in organisations. It starts to trickle down in the middle management roles and you see fewer women at the top.

I have personally seen that having strong coaches and mentors, both men and women, helps women become good leaders. However, when women pull other women up, it makes a great deal of difference. In fact, that should happen more in organisations.

YS: As someone who leads IBM’s developer and startup initiative, how do you see the Indian startup ecosystem evolving?

SK: The initial buzz and success stories in the Indian startup ecosystem have specifically been around ecommerce. But from the IBM perspective, we see so many quality startups in the hi-tech space as well, be it in the areas of fintech or Blockchain or even very specific AI-based solutions.

The ecosystem here is evolving. I mean, startups are now more focused on customer acquisition than chasing funding. It's about getting your initial anchor clients, getting your business, and market validation early on.

And thanks to corporates, be it banking or any other industry, they're opening their doors to startups. The space has evolved from where it was a few years back and it is a combination of all of these factors. One, having the industry opening up and giving startups new opportunities. Also, the motivation being business first and getting a solid product, which is important.

YS: What else are you planning around the startup ecosystem?

SK: As far as the ecosystem is concerned, the developers are my first-class citizens. I need to win the hearts and minds of developers. How do we make them successful in their jobs by helping them with the latest in the next-generation technology, helping them code better, helping them accelerate their path to innovation? So we do a lot of community-based work to get them together, share problems by best practices, and thereby help them innovate.

For example, we also work with several industry bodies like NASSCOM and corporate accelerators. So while we don't run our own accelerator, we find a lot of merit in partnering with the right ones. We do a lot of upskill and reskill activities. Recently, we collaborated with a few edtech startups to upskill and reskill the developer community in India.

YS: You joined IBM 13 years ago. How has the journey been?

SK: When I joined as a product specialist I used to work with clients and partners in terms of implementing that product. So it was mostly client-facing but very technical hands-on kind. A lot has changed in terms of the technical advancements. When I started my career as a programmer, it was all set for you -- this is the project, you have to code in Java etc. and so there's nothing beyond that. You figure out how to do that.

Today, developers are not like that. They have the cloud, they have a choice of multiple programming languages. They are polyglot programmers. Hence the creativity and the amount of things that they can do in a short time is far, far higher. The Open Source revolution is quite strong. It's a very different world today.

More details about Call for Code are available at