My Time Fighting COVID-19 as a CDC Software Engineer

September 5, 2020 · Filed under Personal

Disclaimer: I am a contractor at the CDC not an employee. These opinions and thoughts are entirely my own and are not endorsed, shared or supported by the CDC.

Early in my career, I did something that is almost a rite of passage for junior developers: I accidentally pushed the wrong code to production. This caused the blog of a major American company to start malfunctioning. I didn’t find out about my mistake until several hours later when I got added to the fraught email thread from the client that included the ominous phrase “This is being escalated to the highest levels of the company…” Yikes.

Luckily, I was part of a good team and my head did not roll. One of the senior developers consoled me by saying “At least we make websites and our work isn’t life or death. The world isn’t going to end because a blog post wouldn’t load.” And it’s true, most of the time when developing software or websites the stakes are pretty low in the grand scheme of things. So it was a change of pace to find myself in a position earlier this year as a developer at the CDC where the stakes were very high.

I don’t remember when I first heard about COVID-19. I’m sure I started seeing blurbs about it some time in January. I didn’t pay much attention to it, I just assumed it was a media panic disease like Bird Flu that was unlikely to ever affect my life directly. I think early March was the demarcation point of “Oh shit, this is a real thing” for most people. The NBA cancelled their season, Tom Hanks got it. I remember having lunch with two of my coworkers the week after that and saying “Isn’t it kind of weird that we’re still in office?” I haven’t seen almost any of my coworkers in person since that day.

So began what was easily the most stressful period of my entire career. Nothing else even comes close. It started with me getting pulled into a meeting at 5:30pm on a Friday night. We needed to update the official Coronavirus page with a new design, and it needed to happen immediately. The updates were being reviewed and approved directly by the White House as we made them. I stayed on that conference call all night working feverishly and finally finished at 10 the next morning. I went and got a bunch of tacos before passing out.

I became responsible for updating the new COVID homepage. They needed new designs and content constantly. This was in addition to my mapping software was being used on the official U.S. Case Count page. New features and bug fixes were coming in a constant stream. When 12+ million people are using your software every day, issues you weren’t aware existed tend to crop up. When I wasn’t busy with those tasks, I was also writing a new version of the CDC mobile app which desperately needed an update. It was a rough time. Working weekends and 60 hour weeks became routine. The architects on my team had it even worse.

This whole year and lockdown has been very weird and surreal, but being so close to it with my work was another layer on top of that. It was this brushing up against the zeitgeist where random things stuck out to me as notable. The rarefied air of submitting builds to Apple that were reviewed in hours (sometimes under an hour), not days. Seeing the user reviews for the app become a political battleground to discuss the CDC instead of the app itself. Seeing Elon Musk tweeting his infamous bad COVID-19 predictions and referencing CDC data and knowing that this person I had looked up to for years (though not quite so much anymore) had used things I built.

The work was exhausting but almost a welcome diversion because I was locked down like everybody else. All I did when I was done working was read all the terrible news that had come out that day about how many people had died. A lot of people didn’t have anything else to do but spend their entire day reading the news and stressing out. At least I had a stable job and something productive to focus on that made me feel like I was helping.

As time went on, I struggled. The long hours and isolation really took a toll. I feel some guilt talking about it because I know that this pandemic has destroyed so many lives, I got off pretty light overall. It has been even more demoralizing that this whole thing has taken place during an election year and somehow no candidate still in the running has decided to advocate for an improved healthcare system that isn’t tied to employment and doesn’t bankrupt people.

Over the months, work has improved. Things are not back to normal and I am still working to support the CDC as it responds to COVID-19 but the pace has slowed a lot. I wanted to write about this time in my life while it was still somewhat fresh because I didn’t want it to continue to be warped by time and the imperfection of memory. This might end up being the most notable period of my entire career, and I wanted to hopefully capture a bit of it in writing. Also, I haven’t written a blog post in 8 months, though I have a pretty great excuse!

The thing I learned about myself from this is that I enjoy building things that benefit everybody. Doing work for the government is harder than the private sector. Things move more slowly and there’s a lot of bureaucracy, but the work really is important, and it needs people like me to help move it forward. I also find it rewarding in a way that I didn’t find any of my previous work.

These thoughts inspired me to start my own business to continue helping state and federal government entities provide excellent digital services to the public — PubGood. My hope is that I can continue to do the kind of work I have been doing under my own banner and help raise the bar for government contractors in the future.

Daniel Immke

I design and build things for the web from Atlanta, Georgia. I write about topics I encounter in my day to day work here.

Learn more