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," 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' —"

"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 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


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