Not Business as Usual: Software Engineering During a Pandemic

The Panorama Education team using Zoom for a company-wide meeting.
2020 team photo taken while sheltering at home

Stating the glaringly obvious, life during a pandemic is fundamentally changed. Yet for those of us who are fortunate enough to have a job that they can do from home, there’s still work to do. At Panorama Education, our mission — to improve student outcomes by helping schools and districts act on data — hasn’t changed. For software engineers, this means continuing to build software. Paraphrasing Dune, the code must flow.

Despite this, we don’t want to pretend that everything is normal during work hours. In trying times like these, there is a constant strain on mental health. The only way we can move forward on our mission is by acknowledging that it is absolutely not business as usual. By admitting that, we can talk about the challenges we’re facing in our personal lives and support each other. Panorama comprises a group of people sharing a goal, and we can only achieve that goal by allowing those people to be human, not automatons marching forward regardless of whatever is happening in the world.

In order to do that, we have taken some steps to put mental health at the forefront of our engineering team.

Step 1: Talk about Mental Health

Mental health was an important topic even before a pandemic. It impacts a large percentage of people, yet the stigma surrounding it means it is often hidden and rarely discussed. Panorama has made a commitment to DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), which includes neurodiversity. To support people with all kinds of brains, we have to create a culture where we talk about mental health with no fear of negative repercussions. As with most things involved with DEI, there’s not a magical solution, but a series of small steps to make improvements.

While there have been company-wide discussions at Panorama around some aspects of mental health, such as imposter syndrome, the engineering team decided that we needed to dedicate a weekly engineering meeting to the topic. We collated a set of resources to share, splitting into small groups for discussion. We decided to split the resources into two topics: understanding mental health issues and mental health in a time of crisis.

For the former, we included excerpts from Matt Haig, writer of Reasons to Stay Alive, a frank book detailing the author’s struggles with depression. The goal was to build empathy about neurodiversity and to chip away at the stigma associated with mental health issues. From the book:

The more sufferers [of mental health issues] who speak openly about it the better. Because stigma not only prevents understanding, but in this case can actively exacerbate symptoms. Having an illness of the brain is no more the sufferer’s fault than if it was an illness of the lungs or heart. Ill is ill. And depression is serious. We need less judgement and more help, for an illness that claims the lives of thousands every day.

After framing the conversation with empathy about mental health, we presented resources about how the current pandemic impacts it, key among them a Washington Post article.

Prizing psychological safety, we also made it abundantly clear that there was no pressure to share within the breakout groups, and reading the resources was enough. Speaking for myself, I was very encouraged by the open discussion in my small group. I felt comfortable sharing thoughts about my own mental health struggles, something I had never done at any prior job.

We ended the meeting with a reminder that we’re all here to support each other, but engineering managers and company leadership are also available for private conversations if needed. The result of this meeting was a sense within our engineering team that mental health is something we should be willing to talk about, even if that conversation isn’t easy. Not everyone is ready to share details about their mental health, but the important thing is that there is someone ready to listen when they are.

Step 2: Put the Social in Social Distancing

Sheltering at home can mean feeling cut off from the world. If the entire work day is filled with seeing faces on a screen solely for the purpose of getting work done, it can exacerbate that feeling. We knew we had to find ways to create a feeling of connection within the engineering team.

Our team is split into squads, so each autonomously figured out the best way to create some social time. For my squad, we made sure to keep our quick social period before stand-up in place, guaranteeing that we’d spend at least five minutes every day just chatting. This meant a lot of updates about kids, pets and video games, some of the key aspects of our new at-home world.

On a team-wide scale, we also added a lot of social pathways:

  • We started a virtual after work “speakeasy”
  • We leveraged an app that would randomly schedule one-on-one meetings, allowing for the more frank and open discussion that can happen in that format
  • Former in-person board gaming groups found online alternatives to keep the fun happening
  • Folks across the company with shared interests, no longer able to have impromptu hallway conversations, created topical Slack channels
  • We moved our company birthday celebration to Zoom, including our 2020 “class photo” (seen above)

We’ve found that everyone being stuck at home can be an opportunity. It’s much easier to click into a meeting than to figure out the scheduling and logistics to stay after work at a group event, so co-workers are now hanging out more.

Step 3: Enable Down Time

The pandemic cancelled plans. Long-planned vacations and extended weekends were no more. A business as usual mindset would be to shrug and get back to normal work weeks, saving time off for an eventual “new normal” when we no longer have to shelter at home. However, we can’t be sure when that will be, and in the meantime the work grind with all its normal pressures forms a feedback loop with all the stress and anxiety of a world in crisis.

We encourage everyone to take some down time. To facilitate that, squads discussed plans on how to allow time off in a way that didn’t negatively affect ongoing work. For my squad, which is working on an unshipped feature without a lot of external folks depending on us but with constant internal collaboration, we decided to have a squad day off so no one would feel like they were letting the rest of the squad down. For other squads that need to have members available to support people outside the squad, rotations were created to allow that time off without causing disruptions. We also gave team members the flexibility to take a different approach to getting some down time. For example, some team members prefer to take short breaks in the middle of day.

An occasional day off is not a panacea. However, empowering engineers to take time off as needed underlines our commitment to supporting mental health and allows team members to navigate what is their best path through this difficult time. In a world where it’s no longer business as usual, how we work has to change to support that reality.

Next Steps

Mental health is not a problem you “solve.” You can only listen, support and empower. We will continue to experiment and learn, trying new things that help us get through the difficult realities of sheltering at home. However, on some future day when there is a new normal, mental health will not stop being part of the DEI discussion at Panorama. We will continue to work to build empathy and improve how we support neurodiversity, an admittedly difficult challenge. But once you accept that there’s no perfect answers, you can continue to strive for better ones.




Stories and musings from Panorama’s design/engineering/research teams

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Mike Kelly

Mike Kelly

Engineering Manager at Panorama Education in Boston.

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