Developer doing good: How one coder is helping feed his community during the COVID-19 pandemic
In times of crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, many people want to reach out and help, but don't know how. On this episode of Dynamic Developer, I talk with Tom Monks, a developer and project manager, about his work with COVID Accelerator and Farm to Community to help get food from farmers to folks who need it during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tom shared how he moved from project management back into coding, how he found a meaningful way to help in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, how he worked to blend his development and project management skills to connect farmers with people in need and his advice for finding a cause that resonates with you and how to jump in and offer to help.
Bill Detwiler: Tom, thanks for being here today. I really appreciate it.
Tom Monks: Absolutely. Bill. Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.
Bill Detwiler: So, I know we're going to talk about the work that you're doing in response to the COVID pandemic, and some of the work you're doing with the COVID Accelerator. But before we get there, I wanted to talk a little bit about your background, right? So, tell me a little bit about your normal day-to-day, where you were working before you started doing this, your background as a developer.
So, day-to-day in my day job as a computer programmer, I work on maintaining medical data interfaces between our electronic health record system and other organizations, like the Department of Health. And making sure that the information can flow between those two, to meet different regulations for our hospital. So, I do a little bit of programming there, actually quite a bit of a project management, ironically enough.
Bill Detwiler: So, what was it about the project management to a more technical role transition that really, you said you liked the kind of the technical side of things and you liked coding. I talk to a lot of people that tend to go the other way. They have a CS degree, they did some development, they started out and then maybe they get a PMP certification. And then they move into managing products more than writing code every day. Talk a little bit about going the other way. Was it a challenge beyond relearning some of the skills you maybe learned in college, but hadn't used in a while? Or like you said, you did some learning new languages, that maybe you hadn't learned back then, but they were being used now. Talk a little bit about that.
Tom Monks: Yeah. It was definitely a transition. I had done some projects throughout my career as a project manager, dealing with software and building access databases. So, some things that were technical. So, my technical skills weren't completely dormant. So, but it was definitely a transition coming back to a more technical role. I definitely felt starting that role, that kind of a disadvantage going from more of a leadership role back into something that was technical. And I've definitely had my doubts about whether it's the right choice or not, but I'm finding ways now, both through my day job and through the work that I'm doing on COVID, to combine the best of both worlds, bring what I learned as being a leader as a project manager, as well as my technical skills that I'm bringing up-to-date now as a programmer.
Bill Detwiler: And did you find that people, other team members or different teams that you work with, found those skills valuable, right? I mean, we talk about people being specialists, and only really focusing on one thing. But it's harder and harder in a crowded market to stand out as an entry level, as a new developer, right? So, I talk to a lot of people about having other skills, being able to bring other skills to the table. Do you think that those PMP, those project management and those project leadership skills helped you maybe stand out a little, or at least maybe work a little better with some of the other teams that are doing that kind of work?
Tom Monks: Yeah. Yeah. I definitely do. I think, at the time when I was transitioning, I didn't have a lot of value for the experience that I had gotten as project manager. It was just the logical path that I took throughout my career. And so, that transition was a time for me to take charge of my career and move in the direction I really wanted to. But since then, the projects that I've worked on, I've really come to value my experience as a project manager much more, because just simple things like being able to set up meetings and bring other teams to the table and work cross-functionally, be able to communicate well and the document meeting minutes and action items. I think it's made my projects much more effective and, I've really been happy with a lot of the things that I've been able to accomplish my day job as a result.
Finding a meaningful way to help in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic
Bill Detwiler: All right. Well, let's get to the main reason we're here to talk a little bit about what you're working on with COVID-19. How did that come about?
Tom Monks: Yeah. So, for the past, probably almost a year now, I've been getting involved in the semi-local tech community. There's not really much of a tech community where I'm at, as we're in northern New York in Lewis County, with a population of about 27,000. So, it's a pretty rural area, but in Syracuse, which is an hour and a half from us, there's a pretty thriving tech community there. So, I've been getting involved in a Code for America brigade, Code for Syracuse, and starting to get into technology and code for good projects, which is something that's always really inspired me. So, when the pandemic hit in mid to late March, I was working with Code for Syracuse and we were looking around for different projects that we can get involved in. Because at the time we were just working on a refresh of our website, we didn't have anything super meaningful and impactful to work on.
So, all the team members started looking around online just to see how can we use technology to help out with this whole situation? How can we really make a difference? And we started looking at websites like helpwithcovid.com, which has a ton of projects on there, using technology in all kinds of interesting ways to help out with the pandemic. And that site led me to COVID Accelerator, and it was one of the projects that was listed on there. And I started checking them out and they had seemed very approachable. They had a daily Zoom call to introduce new members, so I jumped on there one weekend in early March, and that was how I got started.
Bill Detwiler: How did that first call go?
Tom Monks: Really well. I was nervous, jumping into something I really had no idea about it. And I just had this vision of these really brilliant tech people from San Francisco, and they are brilliant people from San Francisco, but they're all very approachable.
So, I jumped on. There was probably six or eight people on that first call, introduced myself and started to get to know Tito, the founder, or the co-founder, and some of the other folks there. And then it just so happened serendipitously that Tito needed help, and he put out a call for help that day with automating their onboarding process for the Accelerator. Because at that time, they were growing very quickly. I think they had around 600 members in their Slack workspace, and they were struggling with manual it was to have new members sign up and then get them invited to the Slack, and get them added to their Google sheet, where they were tracking the members. And bringing them all on board and getting them in the right channels and getting them hooked into the project. So, Tito was asking for help with that, and automating those kinds of things with Zapier was something I had experience with. So, I volunteered to take that on, and that was how I really started getting involved in the Accelerator.
Bill Detwiler: And was that, you said that that first call went really well, but was it hard to integrate with teams that are remote like that, to bring people together that maybe hadn't worked together before?
Tom Monks: Not really. I have a lot of experience working remotely, actually. I worked remotely for 10 years as a project manager, that was all work from home. So, I'm pretty comfortable with working from home and working over email and chat, and lots and lots of conference calls. So, I didn't find that part too hard. I was uncertain when I first joined, whether I could really find a way to contribute or not, as these projects seemed really impressive. I had watched a webinar before I joined, about a few of the projects that had already launched within two weeks. And they were doing really impressive things. They launched these national websites to help support local small businesses by selling gift cards and things like that. So, I was surprised how approachable it was and how easy it was to jump in and get involved and find a way to contribute.
Blending development and project management skills to connect farmers with people in need
Bill Detwiler: So, let's talk about those projects. What was the first project that you worked on?
Tom Monks: So, that was the first project that I worked on. And then the-
Bill Detwiler: I was going to say, how long did you work on that, about two weeks you said? How long did it take to get it where where you thought that it was ready for prime time?
Tom Monks: Yeah, I think within the first week we really had that pretty much ready to go. And then for another week I supported and tweaked that, and then started looking for another project after that.
Bill Detwiler: Okay. And you were going to go into the next project. What was the next one that you started working on?
Tom Monks: Yeah. So, I had in mind that I would find somebody else with this inspiring project that I could join in, and hopefully contribute to in some way, and I wasn't sure whether it would be programming or not. But it just so happened around that time that someone here in my local community, a farmer that lives just a couple of miles from me, posted on Facebook about they were buying some, or they saw some eggs for sale from another farm, which they couldn't sell through the normal means. So, they were selling them dirt cheap, just to get rid of them and avoid having to throw them out. So, she bought 230 dozen of them and donated them to our local schools meal program, which serves people in the school district, with school-aged children that are out of school and depend on the school for meals while they're there. So, that idea just really inspired me, and I think a lot of other people in my community. Because at the time, we were seeing a lot of stories in the news about all this food going to waste.
Although stores are selling out of things, on the other hand, we have farmers dumping thousands of gallons of milk and just mulching up the vegetables because they can't sell them to the restaurants and the schools, which are closing down. And they can't just flip the switch to sell them elsewhere. So, it was supporting the farmers, while they're struggling. It's saving that food from going to waste. And then it's also getting it to people that are in need, and we know that the unemployment rate is skyrocketing. So, we have a lot more people that are food insecure than usual. So, I reached out to her and asked her, it took a couple tries to get ahold of her, but I asked her if there's any way I could help organize that, because I just loved that idea and I wanted to see if we could take it farther.
And then one thing led to another, we got connected on that and brought in some more people, that became, evolved into the project that I ended up working on, and bringing back to the Accelerator to get help with it there.
Bill Detwiler: And is that project ongoing now? What's the state of it?
Tom Monks: It is. Yep. We call it Farm to Community. So, the basic idea is that we do fundraising within the local community and then use those funds to buy excess products from local farmers at cost, ideally. Products that they can't sell to the normal means, we want to at least give them something to reimburse them and help them keep things running. And then we donate those to our local school meal delivery program here, the Southwest school district. So, that's going pretty well. We've raised a little over $2,300 now, and we've organized deliveries of local milk, eggs, beets, radishes, maple syrup, and cheese sticks were donated from the local Kraft Foods plant.
So, that's progressing and I'm working with the team in the Accelerator to see how we can kind of spread this idea. It seems to have gotten a lot of traction here locally, and a lot of people here and as well as in the Accelerator are really inspired by it. So, we're working on seeing how we can make what we've done here repeatable and bring this to other locations and other meal delivery programs. We actually have a call scheduled for tomorrow with a second school district in the area, which is interested in implementing the same thing. So, hopefully we'll be growing this more.
Bill Detwiler: And how does the solution actually work? I mean, how did you all actually make sure that people, that farmers got connected with the right outlets for their products? How did you collect the payments? Talk a little about how you brought it all together.
Tom Monks: Yeah. So, that was a big part of what has a lot of [what's allowed us] to make this much progress is just getting in place. We used a GoFundMe campaign and made a Facebook page to get the word out in the community. And I set up weekly Zoom meetings with the people that are involved. This farmer that started this whole thing is very well connected in the community, very passionate about the cause. So, she's been a tremendous help in knowing who to bring in. So, we brought in additional volunteers, some school employees, the director of the meal delivery program, and some people from our local Farm Bureau. So, we've got all the right people involved. We have weekly Zoom meetings, and then just putting in place those basic existing technologies, like GoFundMe and a Facebook page. And we're using an Airtable form to allow farmers to sign up, to say that they have products that they would like to contribute, as well as new volunteers that want to help organize this and spread it to other delivery systems.
Bill Detwiler: And then, so once a farmer comes in, signs up for the program, then what happens with that information? Is it broadcast out to everyone on the other end of it? Do you have a system that somehow tracks that? How does that information get to someone who can take action with it, I guess?
Tom Monks: Yeah. So, the other piece that I forgot to mention is our Slack workspace. So, I hadn't used Slack a lot until I got involved in Code for Syracuse, and then even more so with the Accelerator. I've come to really value how that enables a much faster collaboration than having to wait for weekly meetings and then track everything through email, which gets tedious with a large group of people like this. So, we set up a Slack workspace and then use the Airtable integration. So, whenever anyone fills out that form, whether it's a new volunteer or a farmer with product they'd like to contribute, that gets dumped it into our general channel and Slack. So, everybody gets it and gets alerted right away.
Bill Detwiler: Okay. So, I mean, really is the bringing together of a lot of off-the-shelf solutions, that allows you to move pretty quickly.
Tom Monks: Yeah, exactly.
Bill Detwiler: And is that something that you had experienced before, in terms of project management or as a developer and programmer in your current job, is being able to look at a problem, know how you want to solve the problem, but then look for the right solution, right? There are a lot of different possible solutions, but maybe if you were going to write code to do all this, it was going to take a long time, right? It's just not practical in this situation. So, you were looking for that. Talk a little bit about how that, how you picked the platform, just how you brought that experience maybe to bear?
Tom Monks: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. So, I came into this, COVID Accelerator, thinking that I would get involved in a project where we would be doing a lot of coding and designing some app, or web app, or website. But yeah, and I think that's something that I've gotten a lot of experience with and developed being a project manager, is using all these great existing web applications that are really great for helping people collaborate. I did a lot as a project manager with SharePoint and having SharePoint lists. There was so much benefit we got out of just having everybody work from basically the same spreadsheet. I mean, it's almost the same thing as Google Sheets, but just having a shared sheet that everybody can work with, instead of everybody having separate spreadsheets and then having to keep them in sync. So, just using existing collaborative tools like that. While it might not be as fun as coding something custom, it's effective to get things rolling and to get people on the same page.
Bill Detwiler: And that's really what it's about, right, is actually finding a solution to the problem that works. And especially now in the midst of the pandemic, doing it as quickly as possible.
Tom Monks: Yep, absolutely.
Find a cause that resonates with you and just jump in and offer to help
Bill Detwiler: So, actually, I know we talked a little bit before this, this is an awful lot of effort and work and energy. What was it that let you spend the time the last few weeks doing this?
Tom Monks: Yeah. So, in late April, as I was starting to get involved in the Accelerator, and starting to get more and more concerned about working at a hospital and being potentially exposed to the virus and bringing that home to my family, they asked for about 40 volunteers at our hospital to take a temporary furlough. So, we would be put on furlough for eight weeks and able to collect unemployment during that time. So, the timing was good. It made me and my family feel safer. And then it also gave me time to work on this work, and finding a way that I could contribute to the whole situation with coronavirus.
Bill Detwiler: And I mean, I think that's such a great message, because you could have sat at home and done nothing, or just, no, I was going to say go somewhere, but there's nowhere to really go right now on vacation. But instead, you're using that time to do good and to help others as best you can and use those skills. And I think that's something, a really powerful message, and something, hopefully, we see more people do. So, how much time do you have left, I guess, on your furlough that you're going to be able to help with the Accelerator? And then do you plan to keep working on it when you go back?
Tom Monks: Yeah, I definitely do. This is definitely something that I'll never stop doing. So, I've got about three and a half weeks left I get to spend in this full time, but hopefully by then I can get things with Farm to Community running without too much involvement by myself, or for myself. So, if I'm successful, then I can kind of automate my way out of this. So, at least it's repeatable and scalable, and we can put something in place where this doesn't need my constant attention to run it. But I definitely still want to stay involved in the Accelerator and Farm to Community. I've met a lot of great people and built a lot of great relationships, and I definitely want to continue, excuse me, to continue doing this work.
Bill Detwiler: So, for other people who watched this interview or listened to us want to get involved in something similar, what advice would you give them, whether generally about getting involved or looking for opportunities in their local community, or specifically about working with this group, working with COVID Accelerator?
Tom Monks: Yeah. I would say two things. I would look for a cause that you really connect with. I think, as this whole pandemic started, I just really connected with the food issue. It just really, really resonated with and struck me how the situation was getting so much worse and how sad it was to see people in our own country, spending hours in line for, waiting to get the food banks to get the food that they need, and hearing some really sad stories about people not having enough food to just get through the week. So, that cause just really resonated with me, and I think having passion about the cause has really given me a lot of drive to keep pursuing this and getting outside of my comfort zone and getting involved in ways that I may not [have dared] to otherwise.
And then the other thing is, I started this not knowing whether I would be able to contribute in any way or how it was going to be able to contribute. So, I think that there's room for anybody that's passionate and driven to make a contribution, no matter what their background or their skillset, to get in and really make a difference. I mean, there are needs for project managers, and programmers, and marketers, and people who can type in a spreadsheet. There's really, no matter what your skill set is, you can definitely find somebody that needs your help in some way that you can jump in and make a difference.