Innovation

Election Tech: Leadership is more powerful than technology

Harper Reed-entrepreneur, programmer, and Obama's former CTO-says winning organizations treat technology as a 'first class citizen' by empowering people and small teams to make smart decisions.

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Harper Reed | Image: Modest, Inc.

The myth is powerful. Technology and big data helped Obama win a tight re-election campaign in 2012. Obama mastered social media in 2008, and by 2012 had such a grasp on the power of tech that the campaign was confident of its eventual success weeks in advance.

But technology alone was not responsible for the campaign's success, said 2012 CTO Harper Reed. "It's the leadership," he explained. "[Campaign manager] Jim Messina is not the type of person who was going to be intimidated or offended by technology. He's going to incorporate it, and run with it. Empower it. Make it a first class citizen as part of the campaign, just like field [operations], just like analytics, just like anything else."

Harper Reed is a programmer and entrepreneur. He was also the CTO of the 2012 Obama re-election campaign and responsible for adopting, developing, and executing on technology innovations that powered the campaign's confident victory.

Based in Chicago, Reed has a technology pedigree. Before working for the Obama campaign, he served as CTO for e-commerce clothing company Threadless. After the campaign he built and sold startup Modest, Inc. to PayPal and now serves as the company's director of software development.

Reed's style is humble and lean, and he is admired by colleagues in both politics and technology. "Harper knows his stuff," said Zac Moffatt, co-founder of data firm Targeted Victory and former Romney campaign digital director during a recent phone interview, "and he knows how to get stuff done."

Why did the campaign seek you out?

It was people like Messina who decided to bring in people like myself. I think the key is that I am aggressively not a political type. I'm just a programmer. I work in what they call the 'private sector,' which I never really understood. I have a very strange resume, but it always has this thread of technology. Whether it's Threadless, or publishing, or an ad agency, or just weird projects. It's always technology weaving through it. When [the 2012 Obama campaign] reached out and said, 'Hey, would you like to be involved with this?' the only way to [work on the campaign] was to just do what I do. Work with teams, and do big things.

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Image: TechCocktail

What role did technology play in the 2012 campaign?

There's a lot of people who just say, 'Well obviously Obama won because of his great tech.' I hear that all the time. It's like, 'Well, no, Obama won because he was a better candidate.' There's this great saying that election board members say. 'Pray for a wide margin!' I think if the margins were very small, then maybe we could have a conversation about how tech moved the needle. But margins weren't small. The reason we won is not tech. It wasn't because we got more black people to vote. It wasn't because we got more Latinos to vote. It was because more people voted for the president regardless of technology, of ethnicity, all that other stuff.

The thing that's really interesting about all of this is that oftentimes the narrative is around the simple answer, not the complex answer that's a little more nuanced. The innovation was bringing tech into the campaign, not the actual tech itself.

READ: Enterprise startups: The cream of the new technology crop (Tech Pro Research story)

The [political] world is all about 'How do we make sure we win?' They use [technology] as another way to win.

How did the Obama and Romney campaigns differ in their approach to technology?

[Technology] is a tool. It's kind of like my hammer. It's harder to build a house without a hammer actually. You can certainly do it, but if you get a hammer, it changes everything.

If you look at the difference between the Obama campaign and the Romney ... the Romney campaign did not bring tech [into the campaign]. They had tech folks, but they were not empowered to really have the same level of interaction that I had. I was able to work with a really great team, doing really smart things. That's awesome. That's a huge difference. My take away here, from a business standpoint, is the businesses that are successful are the businesses that enable technology.

There was a point in the end when the Romney team made a kind of aggressive stance about Narwhal, which was a product that shouldn't really be a big deal. It was just a tool that allowed for election day reporting. There was this kind of whole narrative about this Orca product, and when it failed on election day it really made people look at how our product worked. Before that, no one cared.

Meanwhile, every morning at 9 there was a meeting with the entire [Obama] tech senior staff. Sometimes Axelrod came, sometimes all these other people came. Famous people that political types would love to interact with. Every morning I was there, the head of analytics was there, the head of digital was there. That was because the campaign realized that we had to interact together, to get this done. [Tech staff] had to be in the boardroom. It had to be the same culture.

In what ways are campaigns and startups similar, and how are they different?

The key is to understand that campaigns are not unlike corporations. So when you look at something like a Hillary Clinton, or you look at a Bernie Sanders, or you look at Zappos, or you look at Amazon, or you look at Apple, oftentimes the technology at any of these organizations—even Trump probably—matches how the leader is.

One thing that's interesting is that everyone always asks, 'Well, what happened to your tech and can't you use it?' It's like, 'Well, no. You can't.' Obama's not running. Hillary can't use it, because it's Obama's tech. Not because he owns it, but because Clinton is not Obama. [The culture] is not going to be the same. It's not going to work the same. They can tweak it and fix it, but they can also build their own.

READ: Launching a startup: A primer for new entrepreneurs (Tech Pro Research story)

The key is to remember always that a lot of [management] stuff comes directly from the candidates themselves. Even though, you know, Barack Obama didn't come to me and say, 'Harper, here is what you should build.' Barack Obama found people that would represent [what he wanted], and it trickled down to me. The candidate determines how software will be built, and what it will do because they choose to organize all these other things.

That's how tech works. If the candidate is a terrible person, probably their technology is going to be [supported by] terrible people. That doesn't mean it's going to fail. Those are not related.

This stuff is pretty tricky. Look at the candidates, look at who they're hiring and how they're doing technology. That probably tells you a lot about the candidate. It probably tells you a lot about their organization. Too often the focus is on, 'Oh, they hired a Googler, or this person worked at Facebook.' But that doesn't matter as much as what the rest of the organization [is like]. Is it a big corporation? Is it run like an efficient startup? Are they using consultants? Is the campaign more like Amazon? All those things are important.

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Note: Some quotes have been edited for clarity.

About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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