Code for COVID

COVID-19 caused a huge dip in the economy and many businesses looked to cut back on expenses. My former employer relocated the R&D teams in San Francisco to less expensive Dublin, Ireland. I didn’t want to move and I was burnt out, so this was the perfect opportunity stop working and recover.

My fortunate position motivated me to donate some time. I signed up to volunteer with the U.S. Digital Response, an organization that provides tech support during times of crisis to government agencies. Before long, I was given a project with a state government to build a site for small businesses.

The site would provide education on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). There would also be a tool for businesses to enter their information and estimate their PPE needs. Most importantly, there would be links to buy discounted PPE from partner vendors. They gave me a project estimate of around 10 hours a week for a few weeks. Unsurprisingly, it took longer. Much longer.

While the original sketch of the idea was fairly straightforward, the scope of the project grew. Soon I was spending almost 30 hours a week and weekends on the project for roughy 10 weeks. I wanted to do meaningful work, but it became unclear if the PPE estimator (the most complex and time consuming engineering piece) was valuable to businesses that have already been open during the pandemic.

Lessons learned

I’m glad to have volunteered. I no longer feel powerless, a millimeter of progress is still progress. But as I alluded to, the process was far from ideal.

Burnout still applies to meaningful work

Burnout limits my will to do any kind of work, even if it’s meaningful. It’s certainly better than seemingly meaningless work, but my battery was still running at reduced capacity.

Freeze time commitments, even if you have time to spare

If I had been working a full-time job, there would be no way I could meet the time commitment that this project required. The problem was scope creep, which always grows by the resources available and beyond. If I had set a hard cap on time available, either scope would have been maintained, more resources would have to be added, or the timeline moved (which it did anyway).

Instead, I said I was unemployed so I had more time to put in if needed. While true, I should have put a limit on the additional hours.

Understand the problem deeply

I’m not sure how it was decided that a PPE estimator would be useful. Early on in the process, the designer mentioned that we were not sure if the estimator would be valuable to small business owners. After a few rounds of user interviews and testing, we received consistent feedback that the information, recommendations, and promised discounts were most valuable. Unfortunately, we had already spent many hours iterating on the estimator. Ironically, I don’t think cutting scope was ever on the table because we didn’t have enough time or resources to figure it out.

Helping people feels good

Despite these nits, my experience was positive overall. We launched the site and many businesses were approved for discounted PPE. My previous volunteering consisted of talking to seniors, helping clean up trash, or other kinds of manual labor. While this project took way more time, it also had outsized impact and used some of my skills. Feels good.