Des Moines software developer Derek Brooks never thought he would find himself working on a political campaign. A registered independent voter, he was never very interested in politics.
But over the past year, Brooks, along with fellow Iowan and friend Nick Leeper, was employed by President Barack Obama's re-election campaign in Chicago.
"I was there for the candidate," Brooks said in a recent interview, noting that he voted for Obama in 2008 and carried the same excitement for the candidate today.
"I was drawn in by the unique opportunity to work for a president that I truly believed in," Leeper said in an email interview Monday. He was also excited about the possibility of making connections with the "best of the best."
Making the leap with Leeper
Brooks' journey with the Obama 2012 campaign began without Leeper in the spring of 2011, when the campaign's CTO, Harper Reed, began recruiting him. The two had gotten to know each when they attended Cornell College in the early 2000s.
"We just worked on side projects together ever since college," Brooks said, "so we had been trying to work together on a real job."
When that opportunity came from Reed, however, Brooks turned the offer down. His wife and home were in Des Moines, and he said he couldn't see himself working from Chicago for a year or more.
"I kind of regretted that immediately," he said.
Weeks later, at our Big Omaha event in May 2011, Brooks ran into a mentor of his, Des Moines developer Nick Leeper. He told Leeper he was being heavily recruited to work for the campaign, but had turned the position down.
After conversations, the prospect of working with another Iowan seemed more feasible to the two — their wives were friends and they could split the costs of travel and housing.
The pair interviewed and accepted positions in late 2011, moving their lives to Chicago for 15 months to work alongside developers from Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
Joining Team Narwhal
After working on various projects, Brooks joined Team Narwhal, a now storied group of engineers and data miners who are credited to helping Obama win his second presidential term.
Meanwhile, Leeper worked his way up to become the lead engineer of the finance and fundraising division, developing the application interface that processed campaign donations.
"I also worked on our Narwhal project, mostly on integrating data with our various vendors," he said.
Brooks helped build several applications that allowed voters to look up early voting laws in their state, polling place locations and an application to track voting incidents by county.
"It allowed us to visualize on a map, OK, this county is having a lot of problems, we need to send more help out there. Or there are lots of reports of long lines here, we need to tell people to stay in line there. Things like that," he said.
Brooks said that working on the campaign was an intense and draining experience.
"Toward the end we were working in the office every day, seven days a week, 12 hours minimum. I think the last 86 hours of the campaign I worked 65 hours," he said.
Not every campaign employee got chance to meet the President of the United States, but Brooks said he shook President Obama's hand a few times throughout his work on the campaign. Shortly after Brooks joined the tech team, the President visited the campaign offices in Chicago.
"It felt like I knew him already," Brooks said. "Hearing him talk to us like a normal person was exciting. I felt really good about my job at that point and my decision I made to join the campaign."
Brooks and his wife, Kari, were also present for the President's post-election speech at the campaign headquarters (above), in which he thanked his campaign employees and volunteers for their hard work.
"He didn't want to talk very long because he wanted to personally thank each and every one of us, which he did," Brooks said. "He came by and said, 'Thank you so much for all your hard work,' gave me a big hug, chatted for a second and moved on."
"Winning the Super Bowl of tech"
Brooks remained working for the campaign — remotely, from his home in Des Moines — through the end of the year in order to document the code that was used — which was built from scratch — for future use. But now, Brooks said, like others on the team, he's not sure what he'll do next.
"We're getting pretty heavily recruited by all kinds of giant companies, but no one is really taking these jobs. Everyone's a little shell shocked," he said. "We just did this great thing, it was like winning the Super Bowl of tech having everything stay up through Election Day with no failures. What do you do after this?"
Many of the developers are looking to start their own companies at this point, Brooks said, and that's probably the route he will take, as well.
"It seems like the next logical challenge," Brooks said of starting his own company. "I don't think anyone's gone back to the jobs they left before the campaign. I think I'll likely start a company. If I do, I will likely partner with a couple of engineers on the campaign team."
Leeper has similar plans and is currently working on a new stealth startup in the self-publication sector with former campaign product manager Mari Huertas.
As for working on another campaign in the future, both Brooks and Leeper said it would be unlikely unless they found another candidate they were passionate about.
"I think it would take the right candidate to get me to want to do it again," Leeper said, noting that he underestimated the amount of work and dedication it took to get through a presidential campaign.
"I kind of feel like it's one of those things that I did and I can check it off," Brooks said. "With that said, if there's another candidate that I really stood behind I'd probably consider it."