Volunteering Engineering Teams During a Crisis

By Tido Carriero

When COVID-19 hit, both the leadership team and many individuals across Segment, the company I work for, were eager to find a meaningful way to contribute to response efforts. Segment is a tech startup headquartered in San Francisco that provides a customer data platform that businesses use to unify their first-party customer data and leverage it across marketing, analytics, and data warehousing tools. I lead our Engineering, Product, Design, and Security team.

Two of Segment’s core values are karma — we strive to be friendly, candid, and humble — and tribe — we strive to continuously help and push one another to succeed. Although we had many employees who wanted to help with COVID response, we were also well aware of just how many people were already working on various efforts at a breakneck speed, and wanted to make sure that we could find a place to contribute that was additive to the overall ecosystem, ideally with a partner embedded into the space. We reached out to U.S. Digital Response, knowing that they had tons of input from government agencies and public health officials on what they need, and could work with us to identify and execute on meaningful projects.

From discussions with the USDR team, it was clear that a small set of volunteers who could focus on a project for a long-ish period of time (2–6 weeks) would likely have the most impact, as they could go deep on a project, and reduce context-switching. Ideally, USDR would find a project that could be primarily staffed by folks from Segment to make team gelling on such a short timescale as easy as possible. I sent an email to the internal Segment team to see who was interested, and had a resounding 30+ responses from people across all roles and teams, eager to help!

Within a week, USDR had identified two projects that were especially important for governments they serve, and we immediately found Segment employees to staff them. One of the projects was to create a best-practice guide for all the counties and states spinning up new COVID websites. The other was to help states navigate the required changes to the unemployment insurance systems to adapt to new federal programs, handle the drastic increase in load they were seeing, and generally improve the user experience for applicants. Unemployment Insurance is one of the biggest technical challenges faced by states, and they were all experiencing problems at the same time.

We immediately staffed a designer and two engineers to the unemployment project, who in turn started cranking on a very rapid 36-hour turnaround demo that USDR could share with organizations including the National Governors Association so states could see what was possible, and start gathering inbound interest.

The demo catalyzed a bunch of discussions with state departments of labor, and our team spun up quick prototypes to fit the business requirements and data capture requirements of each department. Over the course of the project, the volunteer team helped six states with their unemployment systems, helping them implement changes driven by the CARES act, which included allowing those who were self-employed to file for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).

The volunteer team shared their learnings with their Segment co-workers while they were volunteering, letting others give feedback and learn about state governments as well. Below are some screenshots of what they built and you can see a demo here. Here’s a version that has been deployed by New Jersey Department of labor https://getstarted.nj.gov/labor/

Segment is proud of the contribution of our volunteers, and glad that we were able to contribute to the relief efforts in this unprecedented time.

If you are considering contributing engineering resources to the COVID-19 relief efforts, we recommend:

  1. Spinning up a full engineering team with a tech lead to volunteer, that is ~4–5 people who can work for 6 dedicated weeks on a project. Preferably, this team has worked together in the past.
  2. Partnering with an organization like USDR, which can help identify an impactful project
  3. Consider sending a fullstack team, but be flexible enough to add specialists to the team as needed

Visit www.USDigitalResponse.org to learn more or click here to volunteer to help.

U.S. Digital Response

Connecting governments with pro bono tech assistance to respond to the critical needs of the public.

U.S. Digital Response

U.S. Digital Response (USDR) places experienced, pro-bono technologists to work with government and organizations responding to crisis, to quickly deliver services and infrastructure that support the critical needs of the public. We’re nonpartisan, fast, and free.

U.S. Digital Response

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Connecting governments and nonprofits with pro bono technologists and assistance to quickly respond to the critical needs of the public.

U.S. Digital Response

U.S. Digital Response (USDR) places experienced, pro-bono technologists to work with government and organizations responding to crisis, to quickly deliver services and infrastructure that support the critical needs of the public. We’re nonpartisan, fast, and free.