9 min read

Where the bloody hell were you - Our 2020 COVID bug-in

During Hacker Summer Camp, I was asked "where do you, uh, live now and stuff" a lot. Forgive this slightly indulgent post, but I wanted to blog a little bit of our story, and some of the thinking that went into executing our trans-pacific COVID bug-in back in 2020.
Where the bloody hell were you - Our 2020 COVID bug-in

During Hacker Summer Camp, I was asked "where do you, uh, live now and stuff" a lot. While many people moved around during COVID, my family's version of this was especially confusing... Forgive this slightly indulgent post, but I wanted to blog a little bit of our story, and some of the thinking that went into executing our trans-pacific COVID bug-in back in 2020.

To give the simple answer: We're back in San Francisco as of November 2021.

Sidenote: COVID was inconvenient for us for a variety of reasons, but my and family's inconvenience paled in contrast to the impact it had on millions of others. I consider myself fortunate to have had the ability to make the calls we did, as well as the support of family and friends.

Q: So have you moved back to the USA now?
A: The easy answer is yes. That actual answer is no, because we never moved away... My wife had a solo vacation booked for a wedding in Australia before COVID began, and as it approached we grew anxious about airspace/border shutdown while she was in Sydney and the kids and I were in San Francisco. It became clear to use that we'd need make some rapid decisions to avoid separation and to be able to care for our parents when the pandemic hit.

Q: So did you guys "bug out" and get stuck?
A: It was more of a bug-in than a bug-out. We were already worried about the safety and stability of the United States in 2020 - I remember privately describing the situation as "a country already doused in gasoline, while COVID shows up as the unsupervised child with a box of matches." Still, the main reason we went was to make sure we could be close to our parents and not be cut off by border closures.

If the title of the blog post is confusing, it's because it's based off an Australian tourism commercial - which are usually pretty confusing anyway.

Q: Was it planned?
A: We've always maintained a "bug-in" location in Australia, but that's about as planned as it got. We were >80% sure that USA border closures would happen during my wife's vacation three weeks before she flew, and we were the same way about Australia a few days later. The big decision was whether we should all go or stay.

Total aside: As we exit the pandemic phase, there's continues to be a lot of hype around bug-out planning in the USA that I think is pretty misguided and impractical - The bug-in plan actually comes first, especially if you're considering a family as a part of that plan. It's difficult to bug-out with nothing to bug-in to. For us, it looked like a condo we own and rent out as a short-term property in Australia, and always maintaining a reserve for flight bookings if and when they'd become needed - We activated both of these tools as a part of this story.

Q: What happened next?
A: The next bit happened pretty quickly:

  • Without action triggers, it's almost impossible to make these kinds of decisions. One of the things I was looking for was rioting in response to freedoms being taken away. This started to happen when colleges closed their dorms, which was the week of March 8th.
  • Just before midnight on March 12, we got tickets for me and my kids on the flight that my wife had already booked.
  • I called my EA and told them to clear March 13. I'd be in Sydney, Australia, when I joined calls on March 14, but they'd be the only ones who knew until then, because so much had to happen in the next 18 hours. This was a hard decision that cost trust and social capital, but it made sense to put family first and worry about the rest after the family was taken care of. A few months later, most of the people who were upset and surprised by the move at first realized that we had made a very tight and accurate prediction about what would happen next.
  • On March 14, we told the kids that we were leaving for Australia that night, so they should say goodbye to their friends for a while and pack their bags as soon as they got home from school. This was probably the hardest part. We had booked a return flight for April 2020, but we had a strong feeling that there would still be closures and safety concerns by then, but had to manage how we shared it with them.
  • We booked the flights less than 18 hours before going through TSA at a mostly empty San Francisco Airport. We knew that the US President would declare a state of emergency while we were at the airport. The next day, people trying to get home clogged up airports in the US, and this went on until US airspace essentially shut down.
  • We got to Australia on March 15. It's a 14-hour flight that crosses the dateline and seems to skip a day - I've actually "missed" a birthday once because of this :) Two days later, Australia put in place its emergency plan for biosecurity and, in effect, shut down its borders. 40,000 Australian citizens wanting to get home would end up stranded internationally, including many in the USA.
  • Our county school district abruptly closed schools on March 16 and wouldn't reopen for 20 months. This was much to the consternation of my kids, who were perhaps the last Bay Area recipients of a Distance Education Plan. The following Monday marked the beginning of the winding journey towards online education as a default.
US COVID cases from February to March 2020, in a cumulative logarithmic scale. The end of February was when we new there was going to be a problem, and this graph pretty clearly illustrates why.
The same data as above, presented all-time and cumulative linear. The logarithmic graph above appears as the basically flat section at the lower left of this graph. The subtle acceleration visible in mid-2020 was around when people staying telling us "yeh, that was actually probably the right call".

Q: This is crazy! How'd you know this was going to happen?
A: It was 50% serendipity and 50% foresight, like with most good decisions we've made. We were fortunate to have a scheduled flight that kept us focused on the March 13 as our go/no-go date, and the rest came from varied degrees of observation, intelligence, and analysis.

As an aside: My wife and I both believe that faith plays a role in both serendipity (i.e. "wow, that ticket was already bought") and our insight (i.e. "we just kinda knew").  We also believe that faith without thinking, judgment, and action is dead. The union of both let us see a succession of minor miracles throughout an otherwise objectively difficult time.

On the analysis and intelligence side, we knew the CDC and national guard were rolling out across the USA while the populace was assured there was no problem, and when the penny dropped it would produce widespread and rapid panic (which it did, airspace quickly became unusable, panic buying kicked in, and being agile became generally a lot more difficult). We knew Australia's biosecurity measures are tight and well-practiced (which, contrary to punditry, isn't a nanny-state issue; it's vital to survival on a big and sparsely populated island) and that airspace would be significantly constrained. We also knew that without planes flying in, flight routes would increase in cost and there would be fewer planes going out of Australia, which makes complete sense but is a foreign concept to those who've never lived on an island. We knew that the climate of polarization and weaponized disinformation had revealed and stirred up a plethora of flash-points across the USA, and the additional disruption would precipitate cascading failure of domestic norms, civil unrest, and ultimately a risk of societal collapse as its democratic underpinnings were attacked (to it's credit, the USA prevailed in staying broadly intact - although IMHO it came too close for comfort).

A: So did you have help from "the high side"?
Q: Most of this was through publicly available and open-source data, ignoring most/all of the politicized quasi-medical analysis at the time - if you were wondering where my dis/misinformation convictions came from, now you know. Relationships and connections I've forged through my line of work with Bugcrowd and disclose.io into Australian, US, and UK military and IC definitely helped validate our thinking at various points (as well as general background insight from working with various agencies and Congresspeople on election security and general domestic security issues in the USA), but almost none of the information we were working with came from "the high side" - It was through close observation of publicly available data, and thinking critically.

Annoyingly, a bunch of voting machine research kit arrived just as we left.

A: How was Australia during the pandemic?
Q: Given the abrupt departure, I was working on SF time from Sydney which gave me a lot of time to compare and contrast the two experiences. While my SF colleagues we learning how to homeschool whilst learning to remote work, our kids returned to school in Australia with their peers there in June 2020, and life in Sydney returned to a very nervous most mostly open version of normal as we kept alert for imported infections and waiting for Warp Speed and other initiatives around the world to produce a working vaccine.

The challenge Australia had through this phase was primarily a biosecurity logistics one - If COVID had properly gotten off the leash through this period my country's healthcare system, which services 24 million people across an area the same size as continental USA, would have had it's bed capacity overwhelmed almost immediately which would have been catastrophic, especially for those with other, higher lethality issues to deal with. My state, New South Wales, managed to flush out COVID within a few months of it's first arrival and keep it mostly at bay through close diagnostic surveillance and selective lockdowns when a localized outbreak occurred - A counterintuitive benefit of a zero-case pandemic strategy is that sewerage surveillance can pick up a single case in a county - This, combined will strong communications and - more importantly - the default Australian culture of "none of win if we don't all win" worked well, felt like a pretty amazing bonding experience for the country, and something I'm tremendously proud of. As a country Australia, New Zealand, and others who adopted this approach didn't "solve COVID" - the simply delayed it out of necessity.

COVID cases in Australia. tl;dr: Zero-COVID was incredibly expensive, but it worked well to avoid a healthcare meltdown.
ANZAC Day April 25 2020 - The Australian equivalent to Memorial Day. This was one of the most profoundly beautiful and unifying experiences: The entire country rallied in isolation, making tributes in their driveways and holding their own dawn services. 

Q: So, why did you guys come back?
A: Returning was always the plan. It got harder to explain this to people as time went on, but we were always coming back - Our 3 month bug-in to manage the onset of a pandemic and avoid potential civil upheaval transformed into a re-enactment of Australia's roots as a (now extremely nice, and full of some of my greatest friends) jail colony. While we were gone, an awesome Bugcrowder boarded and cared after our California house, and the company continued to develop and lean into opportunities to further safeguard the Internet provided by COVID's first two years. I remained Chairperson and CTO at Bugcrowd, and the Australian team grew rapidly, we ran a couple of LevelUp conferences and did a lot of product work on Crowdgraph, as well as a tonne of virtual conference teaching and baby-kissing, and plenty of startup mentorship with Startmate and Cyrise.
Meanwhile, disclose.io forged forward, and 2020 to 2022 saw some of the most radical shifts in legislative treatment of hackers in history - The disclose.io boilerplates were even included in guidance to election administrators to identify vulnerabilities in election systems, as well as to provide a tool to combat disinformation targeting cybersecurity as a fundamental flaw in democracy itself... I've been privileged to do a lot of cool stuff over the past 10 years, but this is far and away the most impactful thing I've gotten to be a part of.
Meanwhile, now that we're back in SF as of November 2021 and while we'll always be proudly Australian, we all deeply love America (even with its flaws... Australia has plenty of those too) and feel strongly that our season here isn't over yet.


Q: So where is home?
A: I love and hate this question - Doing a startup as an immigrant with a family messes with your concept of "home". To me, home is where family is and where you are building. Australia and the USA are both home, whichever one we're in - to us - feels like home, but this is a difficult concept to explain to folks who've not lived this kind of life themselves. What I definitely can say is that the next time we (hopefully never) see something like this coming over the hill, a lot more people who should know will get the heads up.

There you go - That's a very highly condensed version of our last two years.