Iowans put their tech skills to work for Obama posted

Derek Brooks and Nick Leeper spent long hours writing code for donation and voter websites.



Nick Leeper, left, and Derek Brooks, both software engineers in their early 30s, left good jobs in Des Moines to move to Chicago and work for the Obama campaign. They built software to track voters that helped secure Obama's victory. Photo by Christopher Gannon of The Des Moines Register

Derek Brooks of Ankeny was just one of 10,000 in the crowd last fall when the president urged Iowans to register to vote.

"This is GottaRegister.com," President Barack Obama said at a rally at Living History Farms on Sept. 1, referring to a campaign website.

"I'm sorry, English teachers in the room. It is 'got to,'" he said, acknowledging the correct grammar before again plugging the site. "It is 'gotta' — g-o-t-t-a-register.com."

"I chuckled at the president poking fun at the name," said Brooks, who is married to a Des Moines teacher, "and then immediately pulled out my phone to make sure we were handling the traffic."

Brooks was the lead engineer on the tech team that created the voter registration app — a website that was just one piece of a carefully orchestrated ground game that identified voters, ensured they actually cast ballots and helped secure re-election for the Democratic president.

Brooks and his friend Nick Leeper of West Des Moines, both software engineers in their early 30s, abandoned their jobs, wives, homes and dogs to move to Chicago for 15 months to build software for the campaign.

The pair's experiences shed light on a technology operation that gave Obama an edge and on the life changes required to work on a presidential campaign.

They were part of a 35-member tech team stocked with experienced engineers who were formerly employed with Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Craigslist and other companies and who knew how to create apps for use on a mass scale. They built apps for phone banking, voter registration, voting location look-ups, polling place volunteer assignments and tracking polling place incidents.

"There's sort of a weird story that tech won the election," Brooks said. "We had an amazing ground team who were going out and asking people to vote and going door to door. It was absolutely the ground game that won the election. The things we built empowered some of the things they were doing."

"We were a force multiplier," Leeper said.

Getting their start, long before election
Leeper quit his job writing software for scientists at an Iowa-based company. Brooks left a startup called Dipity.

They headed to Chicago for Lollapalooza and just stayed. It was August 2011.

Incumbency gave Obama's campaign a timing edge over Team Romney, Brooks said. Obama staffers knew who their nominee would be, so they started early and never let up, he said.

By early 2012, the Obama campaign HQ was open on Saturdays.

In late summer, they started working straight through, coming in on Sundays, too, for 12-hour days.

Home became just a bed to crash on. Then it was back to the campaign office.

Brooks, 31, has broken things down in numbers: 466 days as a Chicago resident; roughly 7.19 hours of sleep per night; more than 140,000 lines of code written in six languages to 19 applications; 1,675 updates to publicly published apps; 51 cards and 17 visits from his wife, Kari; one pound gained before returning to Iowa.

Home at first was one level of a brownstone near Lake Michigan owned by a lawyer couple who supported Obama. A few weeks later, Brooks and Leeper rented a house just south of Wicker Park with other campaign tech guys.

"Living the dorm-style life was hilarious, and hopefully something I will never have to do again," Brooks said. But, he added, "I loved not needing a car and being completely dependent on public transportation, my skateboard or my feet."

Engineering how to give, contact voters
Leeper, 33, was lead engineer on technology for systems that allowed the campaign to take, process and report donations.

"It was less visible," Leeper said.

"Don't let Nick discount that," Brooks said. "A lot of people and a lot of money flowed through that."

Brooks was lead engineer for voter contact.

Did you get a phone call from the Obama campaign? Thank Brooks for one of his Web apps, Call Tool, which gave volunteers names of people to call and scripts to read and let them work from anywhere.

"We had a pretty neat story about a war vet who was in a hospital. He couldn't really volunteer for the campaign, but this tool allowed him to actually make calls from his bed, which is pretty neat," Brooks said. "He wrote in a couple times. I was like, 'Wow, this is why we're doing this.' "

They learned early on that there was little room for failure. They had piloted some of the tools in spring 2012 in the Wisconsin Democrats' effort to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Through most of October, they did drills to test systems that needed to work on Election Day, which the campaign considered to be a four-day period of full-scale get-out-the-vote efforts.

They tested Narwhal, the operating system that powered the campaign's technology, and all the apps. They'd pull plugs on the backbones that the systems depended on, then figured out ways to modify them to make them usable anyway.

On one practice day, Leeper was given a scenario: "No donations are coming in. Why?" And he had to ferret until he found the problem that the testers caused, then fix it. The stress was intense.

"It was so real, but it wasn't real," Leeper said. "We treated it like it was real, and at the end of the day I was just drained. Nothing actually broke, but I felt like everything broke."

It's 'like we just won the Super Bowl'
On Nov. 6, Leeper was super relaxed.

"We had always been reassured, 'It's going to be close. Don't panic.' That's our advantage — we know it's going to be close. We're not predicting a blowout," he said. "My family was emailing me or texting me like 'Oh, it's so close!' I was like, 'It's going to be fine, Just relax.' It wasn't like we were invincible, but I knew how prepared we were."

Brooks, though, was super tense.

His team's phone banking app scaled from a few hundred calls per day to more than 1 million Election Day calls by 7,600 campaign volunteers, he said.

"Stay up, stay up, stay up," he silently pleaded with the app.

The GottaRegister voter registration app, rebuilt from what Brooks' team inherited from the Democratic National Committee, jumped from handling a few dozen concurrent visitors to 6,400, Brooks said. But it sustained numerous spikes in traffic, generated by TV spots and by the president mentioning GottaVote.com on Reddit and in speeches in Iowa and elsewhere.

A mini disaster struck on Election Day: There was a small database outage at Amazon, Leeper said. But no one outside the campaign felt the effects. The team had insulated itself from problems outside its control, he said.

A year ago in January, when Obama visited headquarters, both Leeper and Brooks got to shake a sitting president's hand for the first time.

"I froze and had no idea what to say," Leeper said. "I said, 'You're awesome.' That's all I could get out. He's like, 'Thanks.' "

The day after the election, the president hugged and personally thanked them.

Leeper and Brooks worked for the Obama campaign for a few weeks more, writing notes so that the next campaign staffers to use the software would know what broke and why they built things the way they did.

What's next for them?

Both laughed.

"We just re-elected a president. I feel like for tech, it's like we just won the Super Bowl," Brooks said. "It seems like the next logical challenge is to start something ourselves. We're likely both starting our own things."

This past weekend, he was at a cabin at Lake Tahoe, brainstorming a new company with friends from the campaign.

By Jennifer Jacobs of The Des Moines Register

comments

  • Having read this I thought it was extremely enlightening.

    I appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this

    informative article together. I once again find myself personally spending a lot of

    time both reading and posting comments. But so what, it was

    still worth it!

    Josh posted

  • The future of heart rate screens, fitnsss bands, and

    activity trackers are on the rise.

    Steven posted

  • If some one wishes to be udated with latest technologies then he must be pay a visit

    this web page and be up to date alll tthe time.

    Abdul posted

  • What's up, this weekend is nice in support of me, because this point in time i am reading this wonderful informative article here

    at my home.

    giving posted

  • This is a very good tip particularly to those new to the blogosphere.

    Brief but very precise information… Thank you for sharing this

    one. A must read article!

    losing weight posted

  • Very nice article. I certainly love this website.



    Continue the good work!

    credit card posted

  • Remarkable! Its in fact awesome article, I have got much clear idea regarding

    from this post.

    home improvements posted

  • I'm amazed, I have to admit. Seldom do I

    come across a blog that's both equally educative and engaging,

    and without a doubt, you have hit the nail on the head.



    The issue is an issue that too few people are speaking intelligently about.

    I am very happy that I stumbled across this during my hunt for something relating to this.

    marketing tips posted

  • This article is genuinely a nice one it helps new internet visitors, who are

    wishing for blogging.

    facebook app marketing posted

  • Great information. Lucky me I discovered your

    website by chance (stumbleupon). I have saved it for later!

    Tia posted

  • This is my first time go to see at here and i am really happy

    to read everthing at single place.

    pulsagratisan.com posted

  • I was curious if you ever thought of changing the page layout of your

    website? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.



    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.

    Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or 2 images.

    Maybe you could space it out better?

    motivation posted

  • Great article.

    Terese posted

  • Undeniably believe that that you stated. Your favourite reason seemed to be at the internet the easiest thing to

    consider of. I say to you, I certainly get annoyed at the same time as other folks consider worries that they just don't know about.

    You managed to hit the nail upon the highest

    as smartly as outlined out the entire thing with no need

    side effect , other folks can take a signal. Will likely be again to get more.



    Thanks

    make money online posted

  • Aw, this was an extremely nice post. Spending some time and actual effort to make

    a great article… but what can I say… I put

    things off a whole lot and never manage to get

    anything done.

    ceiling fan posted

  • Hi there! :) My name is Deloras, I'm a student studying Economics from Newark,

    United States.

    alka tone keto posted

  • Very shortly this web page will be famous amid all blogging and site-building visitors,

    due to it's good articles

    tonneau cover posted

  • If some one desires expert view about running a blog afterward i suggest

    him/her to go to see this web site, Keep up the good job.

    Shela posted

  • Hi everyone, it's my first visit at this web site, and piece of writing is in fact fruitful designed for me, keep up posting these posts.

    tonneau cover posted

  • Thanks a lot for sharing this with all people you really understand what you're speaking about!

    Bookmarked. Please additionally consult with my website =).

    We will have a link trade arrangement among us

    improve marketing posted

  • Merely wanna input that you have a very nice web site, I enjoy the design it actually stands out.

    Pure Reviva Derm posted

  • you are in reality a good webmaster. The web site loading

    speed is amazing. It kind of feels that you are doing

    any unique trick. In addition, The contents are masterpiece.

    you have done a wonderful task on this matter!

    french property posted

  • naturally like your web-site but you need to check the spelling on several of your posts.

    A number of them are rife with spelling issues and I find it

    very bothersome to inform the reality on the other hand I will definitely come back again.

    Lettie posted

  • Excellent post. I used to be checking constantly this blog and I am impressed!

    Extremely helpful information particularly the closing

    phase :) I care for such info much. I was looking for this particular

    information for a very long time. Thank you and good luck.

    start giving posted

  • When some one searches for his vital thing, therefore he/she desires to be available that in detail, so that

    thing is maintained over here.

    s128 sabung ayam posted