Chicago offers Obama’s tech team future as entrepreneurs, execs
BY SANDRA GUY AND LYNN SWEET Staff Reporters December 5, 2012 12:08AM
Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center hosts a Startup Forecast event. Harper Reed (center) , chief technology officer for the Obama Re-election campaign on December 4, 2012. . | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times
The OFA team designed never-before-used technology for a political campaign, including:
♦ A “Quick Donate” tool that took real-time donations, no matter how small the amount or how many times a person contributed.
♦ A voter-registration tool, Gotta Register, that allowed anyone to fill out an online form, print it out and take it to the local election office — as long as it was in a state that accepted such registrations.
♦ A dashboard that let volunteers meet other volunteers in their community with computer tools, canvass and make phone calls from the site and stay updated on the campaign’s needs and events.
♦ A “Targeted Sharing” tool that let supporters help target friends and neighbors who might be Obama voters. Matching a voter file to Facebook data, for example, let a user know which of his or her friends were not registered to vote — or who were sporadic voters.
Updated: January 6, 2013 9:36AM
They worked in a windowless room in Chicago dubbed “the cave.”
Inside, the 40-member team of tech whizzes sat crunching numbers, typing and throwing out ideas. They had one goal in mind: re-elect President Barack Obama.
Now they are loose in the world, looking for the next gig, or deciding whether to start their own companies. Chicago’s technology leaders are working to keep them here to boost the city’s growing reputation as a Silicon Prairie of young entrepreneurs and digerati. The team is young, with nearly all under age 40.
“The Obama campaign is one of the biggest things that could happen to us,” said Kevin Willer, CEO of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center that runs the 1871 tech center. “This tech team represents world-class talent who came to Chicago — and we hope to keep them here. … As the tech community, we’re saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we’d be crazy to let them go.’ ”
Nearly all of the Obama for America campaign’s engineering team — 36 of the 40 — are using free space offered by the 1871 center for digital startups at the Merchandise Mart to figure out their next moves, including starting their own companies.
Obama campaign senior strategist David Axelrod told the Sun-Times he has gotten calls from people in the private sector who are “interested in applying analytics to the consumer markets and want to talk to these kids.”
They are “the most desired young people around,” he said.
There were about 200 on the campaign digital team, and in addition to the 40 wrangling technical issues, some 60 worked on analytics.
At its peak, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina sat at the top of a data-driven operation running 66,000 simulations daily of the presidential election and possible outcomes.
Messina warns that the role of data may be overplayed, because the Obama re-elect built an enormous grass roots and fund-raising army; but data informed how the troops and other assets were deployed.
Data “allows you to do one simple thing, use your time and money more wisely, so we used data for everything,” Messina said at a Washington panel last month. “We modeled everything.”
The team came together after Messina took some advice from Google’s Eric Schmidt, who told him to look to the tech world — not politics — to build his digital staff. Chief technology officer Harper Reed, 34, for example, never worked in a campaign before joining the Obama re-election effort. He had been CTO of the T-shirt design crowdsourcing pioneer Threadless.
Reed, who lives in the Wicker Park neighborhood, said the Obama campaign “seemed like an interesting and fun challenge” when Michael Slaby, Obama’s chief integration and innovation officer, called him in March 2011.
The team came from throughout the country, but more than half were from Chicago, and its members were hand-picked for their experience and expertise.
Silicon Valley came to Chicago because, Obama for America Digital Director Teddy Goff told the Sun-Times, “we had the ability to recruit from all over, not just the world of politics, but also the world of creative agencies, the start up community, the most innovative non-profits around. … We had a really good mix of skills and backgrounds and point of views.”
Much of the team came from Reed’s contacts, including director of engineering Dylan Richard, who had worked with Reed at Threadless.
Now Reed and Richard plan to start a company in Chicago. Neither would say Tuesday what type of company that would be.
“A lot of companies are going to be started from this,” said Reed, adding the campaign was a terrific training ground.
Jason Kunesh, 42, director of user experience for the campaign and director of product for the team’s dashboard organizing tool, said he intends to start a “product” company next year that will empower people, make a profit and be environmentally friendly.
“People don’t tend to think of Chicago as a tech hot spot, but it shows we have talent here who can compete nationally and is that high of caliber,” he said. “It was a unique opportunity for us to show that.”
For those who don’t want to launch a company, opportunities are still plenty.
Part of the project’s unique nature was how it had to work at the largest possible scale within a fixed 18-month deadline, said Dan Ratner, co-founder and board member of online babysitting and caregiver site SitterCity, who worked as director of development for the Obama re-election campaign.
That makes the workers great candidates for leadership positions.
Ratner said he has worked with Reed and Richard to contact local CEOs and business leaders to try to get jobs in Chicago for the tech team.
“Everyone from a Fortune 500 company to a 40-person startup to a two-person startup is looking for a chief technology officer, and wants to talk to us about who might be a good fit,” he said.
Several local companies contacted said they are courting the campaign techies.
“The fast-paced nature of a political campaign is similar to the work environment at many startups,” said Mike Evans, co-founder and chief operating officer of GrubHub, the Chicago food-delivery company. “So it should come as no surprise that GrubHub, along with other area tech companies, is working to keep this pool of talent in Chicago.”
Campaign workers have applied for “a variety” of positions, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.
Online travel firm Orbitz hosted a “get acquainted” event Tuesday night with Obama campaign members. A spokeswoman said the company “is always looking for great technology talent.”
Tech team members reached by the Sun-Times said they’re busy fielding calls.
Dan Carson, lead interactive designer, said he and others on the design team are taking their time to find new jobs. That’s because a new opportunity “will be hard to live up to the pace and excitement of a presidential campaign.”
What the team did
By the time Messina was pulling together the Obama 2012 campaign, the tech innovations of 2008 were already outdated.
“The Obama campaign in 2008 was a quantum leap forward in technology and 2012 was a quantum leap on top of that,” Axelrod said. Data on the electorate “saved us tens of millions of dollars” in targeting voters using social media and broadcast ads, he said.
It was after the first presidential debate, one where Mitt Romney trounced Obama, that Jan Gollins, a statistician who specializes in analytics, met up with some of the crew that masterfully combined political savvy and technological genius to become the secret weapon behind Obama’s commanding reelection.
With Secret Service type guards around them, Gollins, who runs the predictive analytics company, Delta Modelling Data, sat with some of the team members to talk tech.
“They are extremely smart. Put them in the genius category. They are solving very, very complex problems, using high-powered computer, technology and algorithms,” he said.
The crew was running polls every day in the lead-up to the election.
The simulations they ran every day would give them precise information on what areas to hit, where to knock on doors, where to ask for money. But this wasn’t just going off of past voter lists, he said.
It was down to the most granular level.
“They had low-level, zip-plus-four kind of analytics. I’m sure they had some very complex mathematical models and these models were getting updated every day,” he said. “The models were developed on a personal-level basis. They had all kinds of information on you…I’m not even sure how they would get that information. It’s very specific information used for targeting.”
If a certain county in Northwest Indiana were to turn red instead of blue, for instance, then they knew they needed to react. The data gave guidance on where Obama needed to hit in the last days of the campaign.
At one point, the numbers showed he was doing enough that he wouldn’t go back to Ohio. By Monday night, Obama was through campaigning and had settled back in Chicago to await election day. Romney, meanwhile, was hitting last-minute stops even on Election Day.
“By 8 p.m. on Election Night, the Obama camp because of these models they were using pretty much knew they had won the election,” Gollins said.
Messina said the team spent a year “trying to build software that allowed all our different pieces to talk to each other.”
“In the end,” Messina said, “they just built a whole bunch of things to make door knocking easier,” Messina said.
Contributing: Natasha Korecki