Photo Credit: Gagan Moorthy

Photo Credit: Gagan Moorthy

Much has already been said of the Obama for America Tech Team, but it's best to hear it from the (Trojan?) horses' mouths. Harper Reed was the CTO of Obama for America Tech Team, celebrated for both his considerable engineering chops and his punk woodsman ethos. Michael Slaby, the Chief Innovation & Integration Officer, was perhaps less celebrated, but he managed to  get the bleedin' edge tech team to work productively with the traditional campaign team. Couldn't have been easy, and by all accounts he did a stellar job. 

The first part of the talk contrasted the use of technology in the '08 campaign vs the '12 campaign. The campaign staff were opportunistic consumers of technology in '08, and many of the applications were haphazard. There were two core problems in '08: 

  1.  Operations and data were silo-ed by department
  2. There was a huge gap between online and offline data.

In '12, the campaign addressed the first problem with Narwhal, a single shared data store for all of the campaign's applications (counting chickins, the Romney tech team named their database Orca, the Narwhal's only predator). They addressed the second problem with Dashboard, an online dashboard for offline volunteers. 

The biggest problem in '12 was managing the cultural conflict between new tech and traditional political campaign strategies. The new tech team came in as outsiders and were celebrated as outsiders. The outsiders considered the insiders' strategies to be "old"; the insiders considered the outsiders' strategies to be "risky." When you add to this the programmer's reflexive "I can fix this" response, you have the recipe for an internal battlefield. 

Why didn't that happen? Because Harper and Slaby believed technology is most effective when it's an empowering function that spreads across the entire organization–that is to say, not novelty for novelty's sake. Key to empowerment: ship good products. 

Technology also helps break down the hierarchy that is so entrenched in politics. A core reason the Obama tech team had a leg up on the Romney team was that former participated in all leadership meetings; they weren't shunted off to a corner. 

The tech team knew for database failures in '08 that they needed to stand on the shoulders of tech giants. They aggressively hired people who had previous experience with rapid scaling. The average age of an engineer on the tech team was around 40. Eric Schmidt was Harper's intern. 

The campaign's website was static html on s3. Harper said that's the fastest way to host anything, and it won't go down. Or rather, it won't go down if you prepare for failure, which the team did. You should fail fast, hard, and in a way that is safe for your organization. If Netflix is down and Amazon is down, you're down. If Amazon is down and Netflix is up, you messed up.

The team did a lot of A/B testing to see which elements would increase donations. They used a combination of Optimizely and custom-built systems. Also, everything they did was responsive, which enabled them to work across all devices. They designed for tablets, because a mobile web site built for tablet size will look okay on phones and desktops. Listen to the people you're engaging with--they will tell you what they want and what they don't.

Complex data analysis--and the actions resulting from it--gave Obama a competitive edge over Romney, but Slaby said what really matters wasn't the technology itself, but the culture of innovation that enabled it.