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Engineering in a Political Crisis

GrowSF Clubhouse series

Engineering in a Political Crisis

When: Wednesday, February 24, 5PM PT

Guests:

Hosts

Notes

Engineering on the Hillary Campaign

Overview of running the technical org in a political campaign

  • Primary responsibility is to enable other teams with technology
  • There are 9+ teams - content operations, email, field, finance, fundraising, etc
  • Examples of how technology assists with teams
    • Content - maintained the website and ability to push content
    • Field - build apps for volunteers to coordinate door knocking, automate and digitize manual data entry, convert data entry into models
    • Finance - built a system called bundler to track high dollar donors
    • Election Day - built software for volunteers and poll watchers
    • Email - maintained CRM

Tech Stack

  • Data warehouse in HP Vertica - contains all voter files / registered voters in the country
  • EC2
  • Wordpress
  • AWS, Python
  • Several internally built tools

Crises Faced

  • Every day is actually a crisis in a campaign
  • Primary milestones in a campaign are driven by fundraising deadlines
  • Every quarter is a fundraising deadline to report to FTC; most of donations come on last day of the quarter
  • One big crisis they had was the email server going down the last day of the quarter
  • Had to rebuild the email tool from scratch in under 3 hours, but it succeeded

Challenges faced by a Political Campaign

  • A lot of software is built internally, and then thrown out at end of every campaign
    • Very little is re-used in next campaign
    • Campaigns are 1.5 years long
  • Comms plays the role of compliance in other context - always derisking messaging - control the images used, etc - important because one image can destroy a campaign
    • Fun fact: their team A/B tested a lot of photos for emails/website; photos with a spouse or doing normal things (like playing basketball) perform a lot better
  • Hiring is one of the biggest challenges
    • Had to hire a 80 person team, but takes a long time to hire
    • Engineers dont get equivalent salary or benefits to Silicon Valley, so difficult ask
    • Other non-technical teams have career campaign employees because they hope to get into the administration, but technical talent goes back to private sector; this results in other departments fully staffed from day 1, but tech is 0 staff at day 1
    • Solution was to hire people who really believe in a mission, but still very slow to change next time

Things

  • Buy more OOTB software, not build from scratch
  • Have 80 engineers from day 1, not incremental throughout the campaign

Engineering on Healthcare.gov

How is the team structured

  • There were only 4 engineers and 1 eng leader fulltime
  • The rest of staff are 1000s of contractors

Challenge

  • No product / political project manager to guide technical development
  • Too many organizational layers
    • Too many acronyms, too many orgs
    • No context on the line of command, who is responsible for what
    • No clear decision maker for things
  • Compliance
    • Lots of regulatory protocols requiring approval
    • Note: there are no compliance protocols in a political campaign
    • To get approval to transition to AWS took 6 months