The Dawn of E-Politics

By Michael Vizard  |  Posted 01-16-2013

The Dawn of E-Politics

By Michael Vizard

When the campaign to re-elect U.S. President Barack Obama got under way, campaign chairman David Axelrod was certain that social media would play a much bigger role in the 2012 election than it did in 2008. Axelrod didn’t know a lot about social media, but he recognized that near-ubiquitous access to Facebook, Twitter and smartphones were changing the way people became informed about events and issues. His insight led to the realization that the campaign needed a CTO who was well versed in the ways of the Web, which led to appointment of Harper Reed, formerly CTO of Threadless.com, an online community for artists based in Chicago, as CTO of the Obama for America presidential campaign.

The first thing Reed says he recognized the campaign needed was a team of engineers who were not only Web savvy, but who would be highly committed to quickly building applications, using iterative methodologies that would give the campaign the agility to respond instantly to almost any event or issue. That decision meant one of the first people Reed hired was Jason Kunesh to be the campaign’s dedicated lead for managing user experience.

What set the Obama campaign apart from that of Republican challenger Mitt Romney was a commitment to building social media applications that helped the campaign quickly target campaign messages to specific constituencies, but just as importantly helped staffers get out the vote on Election Day. Given the margin of victory for President Obama in many key battleground states, it is clear the campaign’s social media applications were a key component of that success.

“We pretty much used the Ladders of Engagement approach as our organizing principle for building software,” says Kunesh.

In fact, Reed says the one thing that really set the Obama campaign apart from the Romney campaign is that on Election Day, campaign staffers were working with applications that had iteratively evolved with a lot of feedback from the campaign staff. In contrast, the Romney campaign used a more traditional approach to developing applications that relied heavily on outside IT consultants and resulted in a set of applications, known as Orca, which the Romney campaign staff didn’t see until election day. With little to no familiarity with the applications or much guidance in the way of user feedback, the Romney social media effort met with predictable results, says Reed.

In contrast, the agile development approach taken by Obama for America put the IT focus of the campaign on the user experience from the very beginning. “When you work from a specification, the application is never going to be right,” says Reed. “To succeed with people with little in the way of technology skills, like campaign staffers, you need to be very iterative.” That approach, says Reed, allows IT organizations to collect a lot of feedback and quickly produce new versions of the software.

The Dawn of E-Politics

What made all that agile development possible was the use of a consistent set of application programming interfaces (APIs) known as Narwhal across all the applications the team built, which the IT operations team quickly deployed on an Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud computing platform. According to Ryan Kolak, Narwhal tech integration lead, those APIs essentially created a framework that made rolling out each new social media application not only a lot faster, but also easier for the IT operations team to manage.

“We had integrated data sets in a central database that could all be accessed via a single API,” says Kolak.

Scott VanDenPlas, the campaign’s DevOps tech lead, says the campaign’s success shows the critical need to make sure that the application developers and IT operations team are able to work hand in glove. That doesn’t necessarily mean putting in place a lot of DevOps structure as much as it does making sure that each team member understands the how dependent they are on each other to succeed.

“Nothing we did was revolutionary. It’s not really about DevOps, it’s about integrated ops,” says VanDenPlas. “Having one level of hierarchy just provides a better way to work.”

Reed says much of the methodologies used by his team have already been pioneered at companies such as Facebook and Google. What the IT team did was leverage an application performance monitoring service from New Relic to quickly identify performance issues and, just as importantly, application features that nobody was using. By aggressively eliminating those unwanted features, the IT organization could ensure that application performance remained consistently high, says VanDenPlas.

In fact, Chris Kelly, New Relic’s developer evangelist, says study after study shows that better application performance leads always contributes to more usage.

“What you’re really trying to do is flatten the IT organization to achieve frictionless ops in a way that enables continuous delivery of applications,” says Kelly. “Monitoring is essential to making that happen.”

Reed says he’s not sure how social media strategies in the next campaign may play out or what he and his team might do next, beyond leaving politics to focus on commercial business opportunities. But it is clear to him the U.S. has entered a new era of e-politics in which getting people to vote for a particular candidate will be similar to the social media marketing efforts that are already being widely deployed across the Web.

“Campaigns in the future are going to involve a lot more math and targeted analytics,” says Reed. “It hard to see how anybody is going to get elected in the future without relying a lot more on engineers.”