Project PeaceOut — meaningful side projects keep engineering talent excited

Shahir A. Daya
5 min readMar 17, 2022

We each must define what “meaningful work” really is for us. What are we passionate about? What makes us feel part of something bigger. What makes us feel like we did good. For me it is being able to contribute to something that would make the world a better place. Projects with a positive societal element are meaningful to me. Given my own background and up bringing, some causes that resonate with me include diversity, inclusion, human suffering, and education.

It was Labor Day Monday (September 6, 2021) in Canada when I got a call from my manager at 9:30 in the morning. He asked me if I could join a conference call. And as I would normally do, I said yes. I didn’t ask very many questions and joined the call. On the call were the President of IBM Canada, the General Manager of IBM Consulting in Canada, and my manager. There were two other individuals on the call. Both were veterans and had served with the Canadian Armed Forces for 20+ years. They were both now involved in the evacuation effort in Afghanistan. They worked for an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) called Aman Lara. In Pashto, one of the native languages in Afghanistan, Aman Lara means Sheltered Path.

They were advocating for Afghan candidates that had assisted the Canadian efforts in Afghanistan with the Canadian Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) organization. The biggest challenge they had was collecting applicant information in a reliable, secure, and efficient way. They reached out to IBM for help. I got off that conference call and started to assemble a team. Not a single engineer that I called said no. Every single one of them was excited to jump in and help with this cause. We quickly assembled a team and got started the same day.

The Problem

It was very challenging for the Afghan candidates to apply and provide their information to the Canadian Government. The NGOs were doing their best to help gather the information from the candidates and advocate with the Canadian Government on their behalf. The NGOs themselves did not have a good way to capture the information from the candidates and share it across the different NGOs. The data was very sensitive in nature and needed to be secured.

So, we created an application that enabled NGOs to securely collect accurate essential data from Afghan applicants to enable the NGOs to advocate for them and their families to the Canadian Government to initiate their immigration to Canada.

The application needed to work on older smartphones in low and unreliable bandwidth environments. Because of the urgency, we agreed to first launch a stopgap solution. Basically, a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) digital application which we delivered into the hands of Afghans in two weeks. The MVP did not have a register and login capability, but it enabled capturing data quickly. The end state solution would enable Afghans to register, login, and continuously provide updates to their situation. We also needed to provide an administrative interface that the NGOs could use to work with the provided data.

The Solution

Figure 1 — The solution is translated both in Pashto & Dari

The solution leveraged IBM’s technology stack to provide a secure way to store and process highly confidential data, preserving the privacy of the Afghans applying to the relocation & advocacy program.

  • The solution is a web application that consists of an Angular front-end and Flask API
  • IBM DB2 to store user submitted data and Cloud Object Storage for persisting file uploads by users
  • Users are authenticated through IBM AppId
  • Both applications are deployed in a Managed Kubernetes Service (IKS) on IBM Cloud
  • The cloud environment is set up with Virtual Private Cloud (VPC) for the underlying infrastructure
  • The solution went through penetration testing with the IBM Security Services team to ensure the solution is not exposed to any vulnerabilities

The following figure shows the high-level application architecture.

Figure 2 — High Level Application Architecture

The Results

IBM’s initiative, which we called Project PeaceOut, has enabled NGOs to securely accelerate the relocation of Afghan refugees to Canada by:

  • Improving the quality of data captured for Afghan refugees that are eligible for immigration to Canada, increasing the odds of relocation with the advocation of the NGOs
  • Insuring complete and accurate documentation of applications

To date, approximately 2000 Afghans have been safely evacuated.

Engineers want to build cool stuff and make a difference in the world

Project PeaceOut was one of the most meaningful projects I have had the opportunity to work on recently. There have been several such side projects that make me feel good about the work I do. As a hands-on software architect, working on these pro bono side projects provides me with a lot of satisfaction and fulfillment at work.

I find that many of the engineers that got involved with Project PeaceOut and other similar initiatives, not only wanted to build cool stuff using great tech but also wanted to work on projects that made the world a better place. Their motivation and care is what inspired them to balance their day job with such side project, often spurring more creativity in both their give back and their regular projects.

Here are a couple of links for anyone that wants to read more about Project PeaceOut.

If you have any comments on what you’ve found that keeps engineers excited in their careers, please feel free to comment. I’m always learning how to keep an engineering team happy and excited.

I want to thank Ali Shakil for his thoughtful review of this article. I also want to thank the entire Project PeaceOut team for making this project a success and making a difference. A special shoutout to Laïla Abou El Bal, Meriem (Mimi) Boumerdassi, Shanghavy Karunakaran, Mehryar Maalem, Seif Ghazi, and Sina Rezaeizadeh.

Shahir A. Daya

Shahir Daya is CTO at Zafin and Former IBM Distinguished Engineer.