November 2014

Volume 29 Number 11

Don't Get Me Started : Next Flight Out

David Platt | November 2014

David PlattGisli Olafsson’s picture ( doesn’t much resemble an angel. But when the massive earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, and Gisli came out of the sky on an Icelandair cargo jet, leading a search and rescue team with tons of relief supplies, he sure looked like one to the victims trapped in the rubble.

Tiny Iceland, population 325,000, hammered by economic meltdown just 15 months previously, put the first rescuer boots on Haitian soil before the ground had even stopped shaking. The trained urban search and rescue team had practiced using listening tools to locate buried survivors. They’d learned how to break through concrete and extract victims without further injury, and without bringing the whole pile down on themselves—they hoped. They risked their lives under unimaginable conditions to rescue strangers.

Gisli was a Microsoft employee at the time. A month later, after the Icelandic team had rescued everyone they could, he was back in Reykjavik, setting up my Why Software Sucks talk for local developers. When I enthused, “I’m gonna bring down the house,” he grimaced and said, “You might just want to change your phrasing a teeny bit.”

I first met Gisli in 2005, at another Microsoft speaking engagement in Iceland. I had dinner with him and his wife a few years later, when he had become Microsoft’s Technical Advisor for Disaster Management. In addition to helping with Microsoft’s own disaster planning, Microsoft also sent him to help governments and other organizations, such as the United Nations. “Microsoft actually wanted to pay me a salary to combine these two passions” of disaster relief and technology, he said. (Just can the Windows Vista jokes, OK?)

He later moved on to his current position as Emergency Response Director at NetHope (, a non-profit consortium of major humanitarian organizations looking to combine their IT forces to meet their world development and disaster relief goals. I doubt they’d decline a donation, if you’re feeling generous today.

Fighting disasters requires more than cots and food. Yes, you need those, and drinking water and bandages, too. But without IT, you won’t know who brought in the supplies or where you’ve stored them. You won’t get them to the right people in the right places at the right times, and you’ll have trouble convincing the outside world to send them. It takes IT, good IT under extremely tough conditions, to coordinate, to deliver, to advocate.

Gisli now lives with his family near Seattle, Wash., with his wife, Sonja Petursdottir. He became a grandfather for the first time this past summer.

He wrote a book on his experiences, “The Crisis Leader” (­ZyBeL9), which I’m finding fascinating. He speaks of the shift in a person’s life goals, from success to significance. That one is resonating for me.

Sometimes I think our work in the software industry is a waste of time. For example, I was just talking to a major corporation about helping them make their online advertising more effective. Sure, I know that pays for the Web content we all enjoy without coughing up money directly. And, sure, I’ll cash their check; I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid. However, I have a hard time believing that’s why God put me on earth. Or you, either. When I see a guy in our industry putting it on the line like this, I feel humbled. And if you’ve read these columns regularly, you’ll know I don’t humble easily.

I didn’t interview Gisli specifically for this column. I tried to do that a year ago, but he was tied up in the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. He’s too busy to talk again today, and I have to finish this column right now.

Because Gisli is heading out for Liberia as I write this. The fight against Ebola needs IT. He leaves tomorrow. Godspeed, friend.

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at