All the President's nerds
Harper Reed, CTO of Obama for America, and Threadless.com, also works on his own projects. Photo: Sara Mays
Many reasons can be given for why Barack Obama won the 2012 US presidential election. Aside from policies and image, there were young voters, women voters, immigrant voters and campaign funding.
Then there was data. Lots of it. Data mined so specifically by Obama's team that local campaign organisers could hand pick an Iran-Iraq War veteran from its list of volunteers to personally knock on the door of a fellow veteran and explain with a personal touch just why the President was a better bet than Mitt Romney for the next four years.
Technically superior: a triumphant Barack Obama. Photo: LARRY DOWNING
That kind of detail helped Barack Obama win the vote but data and tech were also the election's big winners. Obama's campaign invested heavily in a 100-strong tech team of 30-somethings lured from companies like Microsoft, Google, Twitter, Facebook and Craigslist to effectively digitise their voter drive.
The team's chief technology officer was Harper Reed, a 34-year-old former hacker who once launched a website selling plots of land on the sun for $4.95. His previous real world experience had been as CTO for Threadless, a crowd-sourcing T-shirt company based in Chicago.
“I don't think that the campaign won because of technology,” Reed told IT Pro. “It was a group effort. Everyone worked together. But we could have lost because of technology. We could have screwed it up.”
Reed is not alone with that sentiment. The Obama campaign was considered innovative when it used tech in 2008 but important elements failed during critical times of that campaign. When Obama's 2012 campaign boss Jim Messina hired Reed in April 2011 his blunt opening line was, “Welcome to the team. Don't fuck it up.”
Reed recalls: “People were like, 'Were you stressed out?' Yes. I was stressed out.”
But working 14-hour days, six or seven times a week, Reed and his team didn't mess it up, even after Amazon Web Services, the campaign's infrastructure host, once crashed on them and, separately, a hurricane hit the US east coast, causing widespread power outages close to election day.
Reed's team built important products for the campaign including a sales-like dashboard for organisers, a Facebook blaster, and a data platform codenamed “Narwhal”, which was the spine of the entire operation.
“We could have had absolutely terrible data, we could have had an app that didn't work, there were all of these things that were close but it worked,” Reed said. “It was a fine [line] and we struggled but we ran so fast to make it work.
“It is obviously higher stakes,” he said when asked about the difference between managing a private enterprise project and a presidential campaign.
“If you're running an online T-shirt business and [a customer was accidentally] charged $50 for a $13 shirt, or you sent the wrong stuff, at the time that seemed as though it was a huge deal. But I have to say that you don't really know stress until you know that the path of the free world is resting a little bit on your shoulders. That is just a little bit of a different engagement.”
Dressed in T-shirt and jeans, with a beard, over-sized ear-piercings, big-framed glasses and scrappy hair, Reed led Obama's tech team with his laptop, looking like a permanent resident of a cliched coffee-shop hipster hang-out. But as Mitt Romney discovered, underestimate Reed's appearance at your peril.
Obama's campaign managers were more interested in hiring the smartest people in the room than whether they wore a suit. Obama came by Reed's office on several occasions and Reed has posted a revealing picture on his Instagram account of the President hugging the black-framed hipster-nerd guy. The outsiders helped the insiders do good.
“Everyone was the right person for the job,” Reed explains. “I don't know if this is the difference between enterprise and campaigns, as much as it was a characteristic of the campaign. They were all incredibly talented and intelligent. It was amazing what [campaign manager] Jim Messina was able to do by hiring the right people.
“You don't have to interact with the President to get your job done. You don't have to interact with very many people to get your job done. You just have to know what kind of [things] you need to figure out.
“Data is what powers all of us and our lives,” Reed said when asked why data is so powerful. “It is ubiquitous among our now connected lives. I love how it is now the oxygen of our internet world.”
Did the election victory and the success of Reed's team win credibility for the IT guys?
“Yes,” he responds, before adding that tech's role was also a win for science and maths. “I think that it is more about credibility for all nerds and nerdy type jobs.”