Editor's note: This is part three of a three-day series that looks at technologists who are working to assist the world's poor. Click here to read part two, "Finding clean water for the slums of Buenos Aires," and here to read part one, "Of PDAs and maternal medicine in Mongolia."
Khaled Hassounah stood at the front of a dusty classroom, 10 miles outside of Nigeria's capital, Abuja, pointing his index finger in the air.
"Show me your power adapters," the 31-year-old Hassounah called out. Forty young hands shot up in response, hoisting pronged AC adapters skyward, black cords dangling to the floor.
It was test deployment day for Hassounah and his team from the One Laptop Per Child project, and the students were interacting with their new laptops--or any laptop--for the very first time. For Hassounah, who recalled his time with the Nigerian students during a recent interview with CNET News.com, the day rewarded more than a year of hard work.
"Beyond politics, logistics and planning, seeing real children hold the laptops was a breath of fresh air," he said.
With his youth and soft-spoken manner, Hassounah (Hah-SOO-nah) might not seem like an internationally respected diplomat at first glance. Yet he directs efforts in the Middle East and Africa for Nicholas Negroponte's ambitious, tirelessly profiled OLPC, a nonprofit initiative to design, build, test and ship 15 million at-cost, child-friendly laptops to developing countries.
For the last year, Hassounah has lived with a significant pay cut, long hours on the road, and up to three weeks a month away from his wife to help participating countries arrange to buy and distribute OLPC's specially designed XO Children's Machine.
Despite the personal sacrifice, he'd gladly do the work for free. In fact, he almost did.
Hassounah's relationship with OLPC began in November 2005, when Negroponte announced his vision for an affordable children's laptop. At a $100 ballpark figure, XOs are cheap enough for governments of developing countries to subsidize, Hassounah said, and powerful enough to give kids a hands-on look at computers and the Internet.
OLPC designed the XO to be customizable and interactive so kids can experiment and fix their own computer mistakes. The bright green and white casing is supposed to make the Linux-based XOs approachable for children, and fun. This design ethos extends to a "desktop" user interface where traditional icons are replaced by symbols, such as a drum to denote music, that Hassounah hopes all kids can understand.
The hardware and software is meant to engage students at a hands-on level, Hassounah explained, teaching them to learn experientially rather than passively absorb information.
"Given how much governments already spend on educational programs that do not yield the results they hope for," said Hassounah, "their participation in an initiative like OLPC becomes a no-brainer."
Laptops for the poor
CNET Download.com's Jessica Dolcourt interviews Khaled Hassounah, a regional director for Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child project. Speaking from CNET's studio, he explains why he hopes to place 2 million laptops into the hands of children in his region.
Getting involved in the initiative was a no-brainer for Hassounah, as well. Negroponte's idea struck a chord with the German-born, Jordanian-raised engineer, who had long wanted to channel his expertise into alleviating the restricted educational and job opportunities blighting many Middle Eastern cities and towns, limitations he experienced personally before joining tech companies in the U.S.
Always a dogged self-starter, Hassounah was programming in assembly code by age 10 and building radios by 14. He played with programming languages like other kids kicked around a ball. Because computer science wasn't offered at the University of Jordan, Hassounah majored in electrical engineering and groomed himself as a software engineer.
After graduation, Hassounah worked for a small Jordanian-American software outsourcer. In 1999, he began a four-and-a-half month stint at Microsoft, having been recruited at an event hosted in Cyprus. Not a fan of the competitive culture at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters, he left to become the principal architect at another start-up, OneWord Software Solutions, where he met his wife, Azhar Hashem.
The timing of the OLPC project was perfect for Hassounah. Only months before, security software maker Symantec had acquired IMlogic, the instant-messaging security start-up where Hassounah had been a founding employee.
Eager to help out, Hassounah contacted Negroponte, offering his tech skills and a deep understanding of Middle Eastern social customs and language. Here was "the first idea I saw that truly broke away from the traditional solutions, (which) have not really yielded the desired results for decades now," he said.
OLPC was impressed enough by Hassounah's tech resume that the organization's officials turned his voluntary offer into a permanent job as director of OLPC's African and Middle Eastern operations.
Tech guru and diplomat
Now Hassounah finds himself traveling from his apartment in San Francisco, where he lives with Hashem, to OLPC's Boston headquarters, to Nigeria, Libya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Jordan, South Africa and back again.
Hassounah's job makes him simultaneously a tech guru, project manager, diplomat, cultural coach and public relations contact. As a technical officer, he explains to interested countries how the initiative works, detailing the laptops' unconventional design and relating the governments' side of the bargain--like providing rural distribution and localized content.
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Reporter: Jessica Dolcourt
Editors: Jim Kerstetter, Leslie Katz
Copy editor: Emily Shurr
Design: Andrew Ballagh
Production: Jessica Kashiwabara