Engineering the re-election of Obama
The director of engineering for the online campaign was Dylan Richard, who attended the Dublin Web Summit
Dylan Richard at the opening day of the Dublin Web Summit at the RDS in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Anyone who has read Race of a Lifetime will know all (maybe too much) about the backroom political operatives who propelled Barack Obama to the White House in 2008 – the strategists; publicists; pollsters; propagandists; spinners; the guys who were responsible for chicanery.
But just as important (if less colourful admittedly) was the role of the engineers who ran the massive, complex but ultimately smooth-as-silk online operation. The director of engineering for the online Obama for America re-election campaign was Dylan Richard. He was responsible for a system that co-ordinated a most complex set of challenges, including messaging, fundraising, data gathering and communication, but particularly co-ordinating the vast scale of data in an accessible and useful way.
Richard has been at the Dublin Web Summit this week, sharing his expertise and experiences, having come up with a hugely successful and bespoke solution for a successful presidential campaign.
He is a techie and was not particularly politically active before the 2012 campaign. His background was one of pure technology, having been responsible for building the technology for two significant US commercial retail operations: Crate and Barrel, a homestore operation, and the fashion retailer threadbare.com.
His entry to the world of politics came when he and his senior colleague at threadbare.com, Harper Reed, left the company to pursue their own projects. Reed was eventually recruited by the Obama campaign as the chief technology officer. Richard quickly followed and took charge of the back-end stuff.
If Richard was not political before then, he quickly became political, and the 16- to 18-hour days over a period of 18 months hinged on his charisma and communication skills.
What he inherited, though, was a massive network that was patchy and disparate, and had systems that did not speak to each other. Richard and his team worked on getting systems to interlink better and refactoring back-end issues, so that people could do more and new things with the terminals, databases and systems that they had.
It also meant building up more in-house technology. “At our peak we had 300 code repositories; 200 released product, about 3,000 servers and were servicing over a million volunteers.
“It was like building a Fortune 500 company but in about six months, then running it for a year and dismantling it.”
Before embarking on the project Richard had no idea how vast its scale would be. One of the great innovations was a tool his team built called “Dashboard”, which allowed people to contribute data, notes and other information online.
“It had some unintended consequences. It was empowering people who were great supporters. We had notes from veterans who were quadriplegic and stuck in hospital that they were able to help further the cause by accessing Dashboard.”
Richard said it was the first time there was a real engineering culture in the Obama campaign and it allowed them push the technology and the scope of the project to an extent that had not happened in the campaign four years earlier.
His verdict: “What we did was a good theoretical template. If another campaign followed what we did to a T, they would lose. We did what we had to do to help a Democratic win in 2012.
“You do exactly then what at a later date may fail.”