In many ways the Obama campaign’s Tech Field Office, which I launched and ran with Angus Durocher from February-October 2012, was not a leap of the imagination even if it was the first of its kind. Since 2007, one of the defining characteristics of the Obama organization was the extent to which it devolved authority down the chain empowering volunteers and field organizers to be the drivers of activity. Heavy dependence on and integration of network technology was also a major feature of the campaign, which makes sense when you realize that the structure of our grassroots organization (relatively flat, and decentralized) very closely matches the structure of the Internet itself.
The logical extension of these two defining factors coming together was the establishment of a satellite office focused solely on recruiting technologists who wanted to volunteer their skills to help build the campaign’s suite of tools. My understanding is that the genesis of the idea (which predates my arrival on the campaign) came when Michael Slaby (CIIO) and Harper Reed (CTO) traveled to the Bay Area just after the campaign launched to engage tech supporters and recruit engineers to move to Chicago. At some point it occurred: why not bring the campaign to them?
We started talking about a San Francisco office even before I formally started on the campaign in June 2011, but other things in Chicago took precedence at that early stage. I spent the first eight months on the campaign doing product management at headquarters (not a role I was at all qualified for, given that I had very close to zero experience working on software development projects, talk about baptism by fire). Near the end of 2011 as the technology team, and the campaign as a whole, started moving from planning to execution a decision was made that we would go ahead and open the Obama Tech Field Office in San Francisco.
I was to be the non-technical lead and Angus Durocher, a grizzled veteran of the San Francisco start-up scene (he was early at Blogger and served as the first web developer at YouTube) would lead on all the engineering and technical aspects. Angus was one of the very very few members of the Obama 2012 tech team that had any campaign experience. He grew up in New Hampshire working on campaigns and, in 2008, he took five weeks off from working at YouTube to volunteer full time doing digital work in New Mexico for the Obama campaign. In many ways, opening and running this office was a fulfillment of a long-time wish of his—to offer the opportunity for people with tech skills to contribute something they’re good at to an effort they believe in. He likes to tell a story about offering his services to the Kerry campaign in 2004 and being told to head to a phone bank instead.
We secured office space (leasing desks at StackMob’s offices in SOMA) and opened for business on February 15, 2012. We had a list of initial projects we needed to get built, but we needed some volunteers. My main responsibility those first few weeks was balancing volunteer recruitment with making sure the products were sufficiently well specked out to allow for volunteers (people who mostly had day jobs and would be doing their work remotely/on the weekends) to be productive.
My biggest worry at the start was that we wouldn’t be able to get enough people on board. That worry was quickly assuaged. We were pleasantly surprised at the level of interest. Even in famously libertarian Silicon Valley, we got hundreds of sign-ups and conducted scores of interviews with engineers and other tech professionals who were excited to help out. When we asked them why they were interested almost all of them gave some version of the same answer: “I’ve always wanted to help out but making phone calls and knocking doors wasn’t my thing (not to mention I live in California where this thing is in the bag) and I saw an opportunity to lend my skills to re-elect a president I believe in.” Only a handful of them had ever volunteered for a campaign before. We got to see, in person, what Nate Silver described in a recent post as the benefit Obama got from his support in Silicon Valley. Let’s just say the GOP didn’t have a tech field office in the neighborhood.
We had some stressful weeks at the beginning, scared we’d fail, scared this experiment would be a waste of campaign resources, unsure even what success would look like. But when we launched our first tool and pushed through the frustrating final tweaks to make things deployable I had a sense that we were doing something that would really have an impact. We certainly didn’t do everything right and I’m not even sure the office itself is something that other campaigns or organizations should try and replicate. For one thing we’d added more lanes to the campaign’s development highway without really expanding the capacity of the DevOps team in Chicago to deploy more tools (I’m pretty sure they hated us by the end of it). And campaign’s are, in Angus’ sage words, “interrupt-driven” organizations. The person that’s in your face or the fire that’s currently burning the brightest is the thing that gets the most attention. Since we were safely tucked away in San Francisco we didn’t have the luxury (such as it was) of going over and tapping someone on the shoulder to make sure our particular issue got addressed. And then there was the frustrating amount of volunteer flakiness. It’s something every campaign worker in the field has to deal with, but when your volunteer is doing something like writing code it’s a particular pain in the ass when you can’t get a hold of them for days.
By October, when we were done building tools for the national campaign and turned our attention to the battleground states, we had recruited well over 100 volunteers who built over a dozen tools (not all of which are public, but I’ve linked to some examples below). We experienced the fifty-fifty rule of volunteer organizing: fifty percent of the volunteers we signed up actually did some work, and about fifty percent of them were solid, reliable contributors. Another dozen or so were absolute rock stars, a few of whom put their lives on hold for the last weeks of the campaign to travel to battleground states to support our data and digital teams. Kevin Gates, a former Google data whiz, went to Las Vegas to help the data director there. Johnvey Hwang, another start-up vet who built out later versions of Trip Planner essentially full time, went to Florida to build some reporting tools. Lior Abraham took all of his vacation days for the year from his job at Facebook to come to Chicago for five weeks to build voter protection apps. Matt Douglass, who built a really cool donation app that we ran out of time to launch, ended up in one of our small business videos because of his involvement in the tech office.
Angus led a very successful late-summer volunteer recruitment effort to send techies directly to states. The ask he sent out got thousands of responses which were matched up with states who needed on-the-ground tech help in the last weeks of the campaign. If I were smarter and more organized, I’d follow up with all of them on their experience. I really think that model—of sending tech volunteers into the field to support data and analytics teams on the ground—is a much more sustainable model of tech volunteer engagement for the long term and for smaller campaigns.
When I was in Colorado for the last weeks of GOTV it was stark what a disconnect there seemed to be between the tech team and the people who were using the tools. Centralizing the software development in HQ in part to avoid creation of rogue tools in the states, which is completely understandable, might have killed an important ecosystem for bubbling up innovation. You certainly can’t run a campaign where each state has their own show technologically, but there’s got to be a way to distribute authority at least a little bit down the chain. Much was made about our pod structure: each region had “desks” they reported up to, which had all the main departments of the campaign represented—Digital, Ops, Press, Field, Data, Analytics—but no engineers. Why not add Tech to the pods and then have volunteer technologists on the ground working directly with that regional lead? Putting engineers directly in touch with staff in the states would have gone a long way towards bridging the divide between tech and field.
Now that it’s over, my lasting impressions are all about how amazing our volunteers were. I mentioned a few earlier but Roger Hu, Marc Love, Brandon Liu, Eliza Wee, Carrie Crespo, Gunthar Hartwig, Pete Warden, Deron Aucoin, Shannon Chin, Patrick Cullen and a bunch of others I’m forgetting were total champs. I’m immensely proud that I got to be the one to pull them into the campaign, and I can’t wait to see what they do now that they’ve caught the political technology bug.
Edit: Here are those tools I mentioned: