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The Billion Dollar Startup: Inside Obama's Campaign Tech 90

Posted by Soulskill
from the devs-we-can-believe-in dept.
Nerval's Lobster writes "A presidential campaign is many things to many people: a reason to hope in the future, a wellspring of jokes and debate fodder, an annoyance to tune out, a chance to participate in the civic process. But for a couple dozen software engineers and developers involved over the past two years in President Obama's re-election effort, a campaign was something entirely different: a billion-dollar tech startup with an eighteen-month lifespan and a mandate to ship code under extreme pressure. Speaking to a New York City audience, some of Obama for America's leading tech people—those involved in the all-important Dashboard and Narwhal projects, as well as fundraising and DevOps—characterized the experience as 'insane,' filled with unending problems and the knowledge that, at the end of the whole process, nearly everything they worked on would likely end up tossed away. This is the story of what happened, and how technologies on a massive scale can make or break campaigns."
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The Billion Dollar Startup: Inside Obama's Campaign Tech

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  • British parties are looking at Obama's operation very closely [economist.com] to see if they can improve their own using similar techniques. But they don't have nearly the same budgets for this kind of bespoke IT work and corporation-sized infrastructure, so are having trouble figuring out how to adapt any lessons from it.

    • by Overzeetop (214511) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 @04:46PM (#42537203) Journal

      Yes, but they don't have to deal with 50 individual, winner-take-all races over several hundred markets with three hundred million voters.

      And, to be fair, most of the 1.1 Billion spent by the Obama campaign was spent on advertising slots and ground game (rental, printing). This wasn't really a $1 Billion startup, but rather a conduit for $1B in spending. It's like saying your stock broker is a billion dollar operation because he directs clients 401k money for a 10,000 person corporation.

    • But they don't have nearly the same budgets

      Well yeah. When you take 5 weeks instead of 18 months to perform a general election, it's usually going to be a lot cheaper.
    • by timeOday (582209)

      they don't have nearly the same budgets for this kind of bespoke IT work and corporation-sized infrastructure, so are having trouble figuring out how to adapt any lessons from it.

      Well there you go. From the title I thought this would be a story about Obama's IT team starting an actual startup to provide similar services to other marketing or political campaigns. Work for Obama one week, the NRA the next. No point starting from scratch every time.

    • FYI when I get targeted spam from a political party in an election I usually avoid to vote for them.
    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Obama was a symbol because of his race, so his election in 2008 and reelection in 2012 might be one-offs that won't be easily copied either in the US or overseas. Remember there was no Tea Party in America until Obama was elected, then all of a sudden tens of millions of Americans became obsessed with trillion dollar budget deficits ("yeah we know, Bush was bad too."). Both supporters and opponents understood the significance of Obama's re-election: a one-term Presidency is considered a failure, so defea

  • by ShanghaiBill (739463) * on Wednesday January 09, 2013 @04:37PM (#42537055)

    What bothered me the most about the 2012 campaign was the lack of almost any discussion of actual issues. There was almost no discussion about the fiscal cliff, entitlement reform, gun control, or any other issues that the country is now dealing with. Unfortunately, the lesson seems to be that keeping campaigns content free, and instead focusing on social media, turnout, and the "ground game", is the way to get elected, even if it isn't good for the country.

    • by cayenne8 (626475) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 @04:39PM (#42537091) Homepage Journal

      What bothered me the most about the 2012 campaign was the lack of almost any discussion of actual issues. There was almost no discussion about the fiscal cliff, entitlement reform, gun control, or any other issues that the country is now dealing with.

      Of course not...that wasn't in their best interest.

      And the masses would actually have to *think* and try to understand tough things like "issues".

      I don't think we've actually had an election where the candidates have actually addressed issues since maybe the early 80's or slightly before.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Nobody wants to hear how similar real candidates are. They want a football game. Someone to hate and someone to cheer for.

        Really it's more like a very long, very complicated chess match with an unequal number of pieces. You take an endorsement from this group, let the other guy take the endorsement from that group. Up the ad budget in these four states and concede these other ones to the other guy. Spend those dollars elsewhere. Say you're pro-choice, but you're for parental notification. That gives up doll

        • by k6mfw (1182893)

          Nobody wants to hear how similar real candidates are. They want a football game.

          Exactly as what Europeans perceive American politics and football. There are only two teams on a football game. There are only two parties on a national election. Team and political players gather in close circle to discuss their plan which spectators and voters don't know the specifics, but they can cheer them on as they race towards the goal but don't have much influence on the outcome of the game.

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        I don't think we've actually had an election where the candidates have actually addressed issues since maybe the early 80's or slightly before.

        I've been voting since Nixon was in office, and I don't remember a single election where the issues that matter to the average man were discussed. Carter won because Ford was appointed by Nixon and had never won a federal election. Reagan won because Carter was the worst President most of us had ever seen. He won again because the Democrats were stupid enough to run

        • by Anonymous Coward

          why doesn't state's rights make it necessary for your party to push for the elimination of federal anti-pot laws, since we now have two states where it's perfectly legal?

          It does, of course, but the problem is, States' Rights is a dead platform.

          First, the issue was settled by force of arms back in the 19th century. States have no rights that the Federal government does not explicitly grant them.

          Second, the ridiculous nature of our political "system" makes it impossible to gain anything by actually supporting States Rights. Drop pot to the States? Sure, that pleases stoners. And pisses off soccer moms and Christian loonies. You can get the Christian loonies back by dro

          • by mcgrew (92797) *

            Drop pot to the States? Sure, that pleases stoners. And pisses off soccer moms and Christian loonies.

            Good comment, but support for legal pot has gone from 12% in 1969 to over 50% today. I have no idea why Christian "loonies" would be against legalizing pot (although I would characterize anyone who is against its legalization as a loonie), since there's absolutely nothing in the bible against it, and it has been used for thousands of years and was not unknown to the ancients who wrote that tome. The only thi

      • by matunos (1587263)

        Yes, the early 80s, when the big issue was what time it was in America.

    • by morcego (260031)

      What difference would it have made? They would just lie through their teeth.

      I found this to be a more honest campaign, in that regard. Sad, I know.

    • by Overzeetop (214511) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 @04:51PM (#42537287) Journal

      You're just now getting this? Every election is about the little shit that doesn't really matter much. It's about emotion and flash. It always has been. Look back 100 years and it will be the same thing. Look back 200. Mudslinging, character assassination, out-of-context quotes, outright lies have always been part and parcel of the political election process. Sure, we can do more and make more convincing fakes with technology (autotune the news, anyone?), but it's also easier to fact check.

      Contentless politician banter is anything but a recent phenomenon.

      • by ShanghaiBill (739463) * on Wednesday January 09, 2013 @05:17PM (#42537751)

        Every election is about the little shit that doesn't really matter much.

        Plenty of elections, even recent elections, have put big issues in front of the voters. Even Obama, in 2008, made health insurance reform an issue in his campaign. This election the only issue seemed to be whether taxes would go up on 1% of the taxpayers or 0%. This campaign was unusually content free.

        Look back 100 years and it will be the same thing. Look back 200.

        Read some history books. Look at the election of 1864. You think that was content free? "Continued the civil war till victory" vs "peace through negotiated secession" seems like a pretty big issue to me. Big issues were raised in the presidential campaigns in 2008, 2004, 1992, 1980, 1972, 1968, 1964, etc.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by datavirtue (1104259)

          Becasue none of the candidates wanted to talk about their "accomplishments" which would have certainly led to their blatant incompetencay and failures. Romney technically was the better choice but no one wants to debate technical merit as has been pointed out. In all seriousness you need a practical business man to head the government becasue their leadership and ability to make decisions has been proven, everything else is but the flip of a coin. Instead we got inbroiled in class warfare which Obama sto

          • by TapeCutter (624760) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 @09:22PM (#42540977) Journal
            Are you for real? You complain about "class warfare" and in the same paragraph basically claim that a class of people (successful business men) are the only class of people who can be trusted to lead properly. And you don't see a glaring contradiction?

            Please don't take the above as an insult, my intention is to be blunt, not insulting. Politics requires "critical thinking skills" more so than science but rarely are they applied with the same rigor. The reason you fall for the "class warfare" bullshit is because your vote with your gut, not your brain. You actually need to use both, know your emotional triggers and question your own basic assumptions, such as the assumption you display in the post that says something like "governments and corporations are very similar", once you accept that assumption as gospel, what do you then do to balance the power that you have handed over to wealthy merchants?

            Just remember one fact when people talk about "class warfare" - ALL governments redistribute wealth and they all claim their particular formula is for the "common good", it's not "class warfare" it's their purpose, it is the very definition of civilization itself. Sometimes the wealth piles up in great mounds on the "elite", sometimes it stolen and squandered by corrupt officials or angry mobs, every now and then a "booming middle class" appears as it did in the US after WW2, and is now doing in China after Mao's famines.

            Yes, I have an assumption that a "booming middle class" is a GoodThing(TM), but I don't think anyone really knows exactly how to create one (please don't send me newsletters). Truth is, if you take the time to look there are good and bad ideas from all sides, politics should be about shaping society in OUR own image, that image should not be preemptively restricted to the economic heroes of of the day.
            • by dkf (304284)

              Sometimes the wealth piles up in great mounds on the "elite"

              Actually, the place in society where the wealth piles up pretty much defines who is part of the elite. There are many possible reasons for the accumulation to happen (inheritance, business, kleptocracy, all sorts of possibilities) and many people think that the reason for it is terribly important. I'm not so sure it is though: I prefer to abstract all that away and use a thermodynamic model where the basis of economic activity is random exchange of money (totally an approximation!) The amazing thing is that

              • Actually, the place in society where the wealth piles up pretty much defines who is part of the elite.

                Excellent point and an interesting way of looking at the economy, the "temperature" would probably be directly related to how fast money circulates, the size of the economy would determine it's "thermal inertia".

                As for social scientists they would look at this conversation and label us both "technocrats", however I remember the Iron Lady well, a chemist from Oxford I didn't like that much. ;)

          • Exactly. We need the people who ran and run Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers and the other banks to run the country. After all, they not only managed to make huge profits from their actions, but when the shit hit the fan they also managed to skate away completely unscathed by gaming the system.

            Surely you agree - I mean, If success in business is your primary consideration (and obviously it must be since you cited it above all other concerns for a chief executive) you would have to agree.

            Or, you know, maybe

        • by s.petry (762400)

          Obviously I disagree or I would not be posting. The last time we had a "real" debate in a Presidential election was when Ross Perot was running. Before that, it was Kennedy. What we saw this year, and even 2008 is nothing but rhetoric. Not just from Obama either.

          I searched all over for a platform for either party. I did the obvious, went to Google and typed in "Democratic Platform", and "Republican Platform". I got campaign pages and slogans, no information on a Platform. I asked people that were pro

        • by bogjobber (880402)
          Not to mention, lots of big issues that are raised go under the radar. There were some pretty huge things on the table in the 2000 election (changes in foreign policy, medicare part D, environmental issues, financial regulation, No Child Left Behind) that were clearly articulated by Bush's campaign platform, but most voters either ignored or did not realize the significance of these changes.
      • I would say it's more difficult for a politician these days to tell different groups different stories and not have anyone notice. I can't remember which Roman emperor it was but one of them had all these statues of himself erected in public places all over the empire. He wasn't a very handsome man, he was short, bald, and had only one tooth, luckily the statues were all carved on the one day he looked like a young Greek god.
    • by ganjadude (952775)
      does it really matter? whatever O wants, O gets. He makes bushes over reach in power look like childs play. Whatever happened to checks and balances?
      • Whatever happened to checks and balances?

        The Constitution of the US. Lots of checks, light on the balance.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by danbert8 (1024253)

        They were eliminated in favor of minting trillion dollar coins.

      • Presidential power has been accumulating over the last 100 years only to culminate during a time where people look more and more to authority heads for the answer to their problems. The future looks rather bleak and gives me a chill as I have seen this play out in my history books. It's hard not to be mad at the masses for letting this happen. Nature loves cycles.

      • by jjohnson (62583)

        And yet, the U.S. went over the fiscal cliff, clawing back only at the last second. And only be delaying the debt ceiling fight for several weeks. Do you think that's what O wanted? Of course not. He wanted a grand bargain, and didn't get it. So where's his omnipotence now?

        • He didn't get gitmo closed either. Some people would like to think that was on purpose ... but there were plenty of other things that he on purpose didn't want to do, and the way he didn't do them was to ignore them, not have a very public fight with congress.

        • by ganjadude (952775)
          everyone knows when you was 10 bucks you ask for 100 bucks, so when you get told no, you ask for 10 bucks and make them think that they won. the truth is thats what you wanted all the time

          that is what obama is a master at.
          • by jjohnson (62583)

            That's not what you said. You said "whatever O wants, O gets". If that were true, he wouldn't need ninja negotiating moves like "ask for $100, settle for $10". He wouldn't have to negotiate at all. Coming along afterwards and saying "O didn't get what he said he wanted, but what O got, is what he really wanted" is just bullshit.

            Haters gonna hate.

      • Whatever happened to checks and balances?

        Cheques and balances.

    • Yes there was. The republicans relentlessly talked about reforming social benefit programs, Obama relentlessly talked about the need for higher taxes. They didn't mention gun control, though.

      • by danbert8 (1024253)

        You are completely right. The Republicans relentlessly advocated higher spending while saying "smaller government!" while Democrats advocated higher spending while saying "Ask the rich to pay a little more".

        • Nice talking point, but we must acknowledge that no matter what we collect from the rich it will never keep up with what the government is spending. Fun fact.

          • by jjohnson (62583)

            Gotcha: taxing the rich won't cover spending, so don't tax the rich. That's smrt.

          • by mk1004 (2488060)
            Taxes went down from the time Regan took office until the Bush tax cuts, during all administrations. The rates went down for the poor and middle class, but decreased the most for the upper tax bracket--from about 69% to about 35%. Spending didn't decrease. The percentage of the Federal Government's revenue from businesses has also been steadily going down in the last few decades, the 35% business marginal rate not withstanding. But now, according to the far right, we have a spending problem, not a revenue p
          • Because that alone won't fix the problem we shouldn't do anything, gotcha.

            Tax those who can afford it a bit more. Cut where we can cut without causing undue hardship. Stop spending stupid quantities of money on blowing people up (funny thing - it would have been cheaper to build every family in Iraq and Afghanistan a decent home and some infrastructure than it would have been to bomb the fuck out of them for the last 10 years, and generated more goodwill and stability over there). Spend the bomb budget ins

            • by Azghoul (25786)

              Let us know when your side brings up a single program to cut. Not you personally, we can all claim "cut defense spending!" or "reduce medicare benefits!" depending on which side you're on. But your party will never do it.

              • Well, the first problem I see is the thinking in terms of "sides" - that encourages bullshit grandstanding and that whole rah rah we can't ever say we were wrong about anything because then THE OTHER SIDE wins. It makes us all stupider as a result - we can't ask questions without the other side thinking we're trying to trap them or saying that we're ignorant, we can't admit fault because HOLY SHITBALLS we were wrong about one thing and therefore we must be wrong about EVERYTHING EVER and all that nonsense.

    • by Stiletto (12066)

      Why focus on changing people's minds (difficult) when you can simply focus on voter count (easy). Democrats tend to win when voter turnout is high, and Republicans tend to win when voter turnout is low. So, depending on your party, it's more effective to invest your efforts into Get Out To Vote or into Voter Suppression, than it is to try to change peoples' minds.

    • by timeOday (582209)
      Actually I disagree. One huge issue that was effectively resolved was entitlement reform. Romney brought on Ryan who had made a big name for himself in that area. The outcome was, it was an unpopular stance and Romney ended up trying to run to the left of Obama on Medicare. Which is another way of saying, the American People have spoken, and we are still not ready to cry "uncle" on healthcare expenses. Not yet.
      • Popularity contest. Romney was right to bring that debate, but Jane Wineglass doesn't get it--and may never get it. The lack of incentive (people starving) is prohibiting the natural balance brought on by change which is fostered by people who are hungry. Basic economics. We are voting ourselves money--straight to the poor house.

    • True story, Obama had planned to run a hard campaign on the issues, but they did focus groups and found the no one believed Romney would go through with the deep cuts to medicare, social security, welfare, etc along with the huge tax cuts. So Obama abandoned an issues based campaign and focused instead on the Romney's character and 'me-too' politics (like me, only louder).
    • by Mr. White (22990)

      How much do you expect to be said in a 30 second commercial?

      For anyone actually interested - and not just complaining - they can visit candidate web pages to read their 100 page policy papers on all sorts of issues.

  • "and the knowledge that, at the end of the whole process, nearly everything they worked on would likely end up tossed away."

    Do they think that's the last election that will ever be held? Or are they just all pretending that all code and documentation was thrown away, so that each of them can sell their "secret backups" at the next gig?

    • If it was all copyrighted to the Obama campaign then yes, it might be excellent code that the owners have no interest in releasing -- regardless of the wishes of the people who engineered it.
      • by vlm (69642)

        Well it holds monetary value... I'm not saying they "have" to sell the rights to the code to the R party, but if Biden wanted to run, and pay O $100K for it, why not?

        I have seen things in the corporate world where cascading licenses of weird dependencies cause mass confusion. This is one of the best parts of free / open software, if its on Debian Main its by definition DFSG free and I don't need to spend 20 hours of legal tracking down if I can give/sell a bash install script to someone else or whatever.

  • by schlachter (862210) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 @04:50PM (#42537281)

    Obama turned to his team and said..."you didn't build that!"
    I keed, I keed.... :)

    • Interestingly, it was partially true. Both the Romney and the Obama campaign heavily leveraged Salesforce, for the precise reason they didn't have to build out everything themselves. A good chunk of the infrastructure and the business logic was already built out and ready to go once they signed on the dotted line.

      • by RyanK (338502)

        I can't really speak to the Romney campaign's use of salesforce, but I never had to deal with it as I believe that our use was limited to handling inbound contacts from public channels.

        The Obama campaign had the distinct advantage of having 18 months to build our technology from the ground up, and that's precisely what we did! Of course, there were still external vendors that handled some functionality and we built systems so that everything was integrated and worked together.

        Typically, a Presidential campa

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I was at first taken aback when I heard the clip of "You didn't build that". I just had to go youtube the Obama speech that it came from. Wow, he was talking about the infrastructure - roads, post offices, other public services... that all businesses count on to run. His point was that some things are best done by businesses, and other things are best done by Public Sector. For example, what company would take on building and maintaining Interstate highways throughout the US? Funny the statement sounde

  • "Specification change you can believe in!"

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The election politicians themselves were boring and predictable. (Well, once the primaries were over. I'm still convinced Herman Cain is actually a comedian who's work rivals that of Andy Kaufmen)

    The stories about the IT side of their campaigns was pretty interesting. Obama's crew put together a really interesting and very modern piece of software that scaled up and scaled down in a way pretty much unique to it's purpose. Think about it. You need a piece of software that goes from zero users, to literally n

  • I rather like paying for my games at valve, that is more honest.

  • I moved from MD (blue state) to PA (toss up to somewhat blue state) right before the election. The DNC knew that we are all registered democrats, and that we had just moved. They sent one person to our house to ask if we were registered in our new state and if we needed help getting to the polls. We said that we were registered and everything was fine so they didn't bother us again. They took their money and resources somewhere else.

    The RNC didn't bother us at all -- at first. Early polls showed mit that PA

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