|March 11, 2013 9:08 PM

Obama’s re-election team: How to scale technology overnight

Ask users, test it, break it, document the fix, and have a back-up plan.

And when you succeed, you get a hug from the president. Of the United States of America.

Key members of the technology team behind the re-election victory of President Barack Obama came to Denver recently to share their secrets – knowing that by the next race, everything they did will be out of date.

“The idea that the technology will last to 2016 to be used by Democratic candidates is false,” said Harper Reed, who served as chief technology officer for the campaign, and whose parents live in Greeley.

So the team’s advice was practical, not technical. “We were completely wrong on what users needed” at first, Reed told a tech audience at Galvanize, a Denver home for startups. “It’s important to focus on features that people really want and need,” said Chris Gansen, senior software engineer.

A critical component was the Get Out The Vote software to be used the last four days of the campaign. The team tested and tested. But there were still only 180 users and 12,000 calls to the system five days before the election. But on Election Day, the project suddenly had to work for 1.2 million calls, said Dylan Richard, director of engineering.

It did.

Asked what burned down in the last days of the campaign, Reed replied, “We had zero down time for any of our apps.” Stunned applause broke out in a crowd full of people who understood.

The team had close calls and managed a live patch, but they’d made sure that users would be unaffected, Reed said.

BarackObama.com. Used under CC (Gabriel Jorby/Flickr)

BarackObama.com. Used under CC (Gabriel Jorby/Flickr)

And if there had been a disastrous failure? “All the Get Out The Vote systems were backed up with phone trees and clipboards all over the country,” said Jason Kunesh, director of user experience and product.

Richard also ensured they would not be needed by breaking every one of their tech products long before the election, so they had solutions documented.
In contrast, the competing technology at the campaign of Republican Mitt Romney crashed for 90 minutes, and many users had problems making it work.

On election night, the Obama tech team shared the joy at the main campaign party in Chicago “with 10,000 friends,” said Gansen. “The next day in the office, the president comes and gives you a hug… and the next day, you go in and you’re fired.”

That’s working for a campaign.

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