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Headed to Startup Land, Obama's Tech Alumni Take the Ground-Game Mentality With Them

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, February 21 2013

Carol Davidsen and Joshua Thayer sat across from one another at a bare desk in a mostly empty room and, despite having just left one of the most closely watched technology teams in the country, said this suited them just fine.

They hadn't finished stints at a flashy startup or a titan company like Google or Twitter, although the stakes were just as high. Davidsen was a project manager and Thayer an engineer at Obama for America, the first presidential campaign to invest as heavily in tech talent as a private company. With the campaign behind them, OfA Tech alumni are scattered across the country — some still in Chicago, some, like Davidsen and Thayer, making a new start in a new city, others still taking time off for travel. In interviews, some of these coders, designers, and product managers said that the campaign was a political break in a career otherwise spent in the tech sector. Others told me their time working for Obama has convinced them to focus on civic life. All of them expressed a connection to their campaign colleagues and to OfA's test-everything, data-driven organizing ethos that, they say, is likely to inform everything they do next.

I visited Davidsen and Thayer in a modest loft space in a Brooklyn building where they have decided to launch their startup, which they describe cryptically, for now, as "a socially integrated marketplace for used goods." They are not forthcoming about how, exactly, the methods they refined on the campaign apply to their new company — Davidsen, for example, applied her background in television advertising to a sophisticated set of ad analytics tools — but they tell me that life in politics has acclimated them to a less ornate lifestyle. Like, for example, their office, which they had not quite finished moving into when I came by.

"If it was the campaign, we'd have 16 or 20 people stuffed in here," Davidsen said.

"And it would be coveted," Thayer added, "because there's a window."

The only real decoration is an inflatable plastic caricature of a moose head, mounted high on one wall, unless you count the exposed pipe that doubles as a coat rack. But that's startup life. After working in close quarters on a crucial piece of campaign infrastructure, a system called Narwhal that allowed staffers to match up data about supporters across multiple databases from different parts of the campaign, Thayer and Davidsen say they're done with politics for now.

They are one team among many.

"We brought together this amazing and kind of huge team of really good technologists," says Michael Slaby, who was the campaign's chief integration and innovation officer. "And they're going to go on and do interesting stuff."

It's common for people to parlay time at a presidential campaign into a top-flight consulting gig or a new firm, and that's certainly been the case this year. Obama's national field director, Jeremy Bird, and battleground states director, Mitch Stewart, announced in January that they have founded 270 Strategies, a political consulting firm. Amelia Showalter, who was Obama for America's director of digital analytics, told me that month that she had set up shop as a political consultant before the campaign and was now returning to that business. And Davidsen and Thayer aren't the only ones going into the private sector. OfA's chief technology officer, Harper Reed, director of analytics, Dan Wagner, and Mari Huertas, a product developer, are all among the alumni who are working on new companies but keeping the exact nature of their new enterprise closer to the vest.

The Obama campaign of 2012 was unique for the amount of private-sector technology talent it brought into politics, and some of those coders say that they now plan to continue to work in the public sphere. Slaby, for instance, also a veteran of 2008, is currently a fellow at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center while he decides what to do next.

"The campaign itself is temporary," Slaby told me in January. "Finding ways to bring the same kinds of commitment to digital technology ... embracing new forms of media and new ways of engagement into the civic and humanitarian spaces -- working with nonprofits of all sizes -- I'm going to be using my time at Harvard to explore some of that, and figure out what's the best way to work on a lot of those problems long-term," Slaby told me in January.

Jason Kunesh was Obama for America's director of user experience. He came to the campaign having run a fairly successful design shop, he told me. But before joining the campaign, his life took several sudden turns that changed his world view. In a relatively short span of time, his daughter was born premature — giving him a harrowing experience with the health care industry and, he told me in a follow-up interview, a new perspective on President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act — and his mother and uncle both passed away. He says those experiences, combined with the experience of working with Obama on the campaign trail, convinced him it was time for a change.

"At that point you really start to wonder what is my legacy, what am I really showing my kids," Kunesh told me in January.

"What is this stuff really about?" He continued, later on in our conversation. "Is pushing pixels really going to have some social impact?"

Social impact is the focus of the startup he's now working on with Dan Ryan, who was director of front-end development on the campaign. Kunesh and Ryan are hoping to build an organization that will develop and maintain technology solutions for non-profits and civil society organizations, applying lessons to the civic space that they learned on the campaign.

Even alumni who are taking a more traditional route say the campaign experience has had lasting effects. Showalter, who is returning to political consulting, says that the Obama campaign changed the way people view the kind of work she does.

"It feels like a new world where people are really curious about data, they want to do more work with data, and that wasn't always the case," she said, explaining that her firm will help clients make test-based, data-driven decisions.

"I remember having to win people over and there was a lot of skepticism," she added.

Obama's 2008 campaign yielded a small cluster of for-profit startups and elevated a few political consultants to the major leagues, but it wasn't the first campaign in recent years to do so. In 2004, Howard Dean's adherents saw that they could capitalize on the way the campaign they worked on proved the value of new technologies and techniques.

"Our origin was within the Dean campaign in 2003-2004 and I think really early on there was a point where I was hanging out with one of the guys who would eventually become my cofounders during that campaign," says Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the chief technology officer and co-founder of Blue State Digital, "and we were having beers or something, and he looked at me and said, 'You know, I think this campaign is going to end in one of two ways: Either at the White House or at a startup.'"

After Howard Dean's campaign reached its end in Iowa, Franklin-Hodge, Joe Rospars, Ben Self, Clay Johnson and the other Blue State first-comers found themselves unaffiliated. They would go on to serve a key role in the 2008 Obama campaign and again in 2012 — joined, each time, by a new crop of businesses that began in the primordial nebula of presidential politics.

"It definitely is the normal pattern," says Johnson, who left Blue State and is currently in the end days of work on RFP-EZ, a project of the White House Presidential Innovation Fellowship. "The anomaly was really 2008 when the startups that came out of that were really platform businesses."

Optimizely, a nonpartisan platform for testing out which messages work best on the web, is the most obvious and oft-used example. But that also includes tools like National Field, a suite of organizing software that was first built during the 2008 campaign. Johnson says that from 2004 to 2008, Blue State and its competitors were solving earlier problems, like making it cheaper and more efficient to donate online. The landmark tools of the Obama campaign — advanced analytics, database integration, and data-driven, social-powered organizing — might become commodities as widely available by 2016 as online fundraising tools are now.

Whatever Obama alumni choose to do, they will not have problems raising money to support it, said Johnson.

"For the next 12 months, people are going to be throwing money at organized groups of veteran Obama staffers," he said.

The glamorous life of the next Blue State Digital was still a glimmer on the horizon when I visited Thayer and Davidsen in their Brooklyn loft in January. The room was so drab it might as well have been black and white. A whiteboard was covered in the kinds of arcane symbols only people like Thayer and Davidsen could reasonably be expected to understand.

But they agree that during the campaign, a network of technologists formed with its hub in Chicago and spokes throughout the country. The people in that network are likely to continue to work together in unexpected ways. And they will work together in a way informed by the Obama campaign's field operation, not just by the mindset of the coders who helped keep its machinery running.

"It was interesting to see the social organizing, and how teams and groups formed," Davidsen told me. "I'm not really entirely sure how that will apply to some of the stuff that we're doing, but it's impossible to not have that be part of your knowledge base at this point and see how the Obama campaign's field staff was kind of amazing."