The Clinton Campaign Taps Silicon Valley Talent As 2016 Approaches

Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign is quickly building out its technology wing, recruiting from Silicon Valley in the process.

The Clinton campaign’s CTO, Stephanie Hannon is a former Google executive, meaning that she is well-versed in the arcana of Silicon Valley. Hannon’s job — assemble a world-class technology team on the fly, build a broad set of technology products that help the campaign win, and do it without traditional recruiting tools like stock options — won’t be easy.

The Clinton campaign’s hiring pace is notable, telling TechCrunch that it currently employs around 25 tech workers, a figure it expects to double by year-end.

Those individuals will have a chance to compete on the national stage. Technology has played an increasingly pivotal role in political campaigns. The use of technology to target inner city and swing state voters proved instrumental for George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. President Obama’s use of social media and voter analysis tech is another great example.

Right along with those cases is the failure of the Republican Party’s Orca software that was sufficiently borked to generate its own news coverage. Tech, when not fully understood, can leave a candidate scrambling to save face.

Technology adds a political edge, and one that may be increasing in value as the impact of television slips in the cord-cutting era. If you can’t traditional-media-buy your way into mobile-social-local-emoji-first homes and minds, you have to find a new route.

Tech Buildup

TechCrunch spoke briefly with Hannon, followed by an interview over email. Asked who the campaign is hiring, the CTO dropped a list of roles, including “frontend, backend, security, mobile, data engineers and data scientists and devops.” The implication, so far as this publication can gist it, is that the campaign wants to have something akin to a full-stack in-house shop to build what it needs.

(There is likely merit to the concept. In the wake of Orca’s failure, bickering about who was to blame for the catastrophe swung between outside consultants, and a too-small team on the Romney side.)

The 2008 Clinton campaign was technology challenged. It’s a different story in the 2016 bid. Clinton not only takes several pages from Obama’s digital playbook, she’s pulling in members from the President’s 2008 team. Digital director Andrew Bleeker and Teddy Goff, the Obama campaign’s head of digital operations and several others have joined during the ramp up.

But it also includes fresh hires from Silicon Valley. Osi Imeokparia, Clinton’s new chief product officer, spent the last decade and then some leading product at Google and eBay. Deepa Subramaniam, Clinton’s director of product for the campaign, left charity: water, a non-profit favorite among tech leaders, to join Clinton’s team.

Moving past the backend, TechCrunch asked the campaign about its mobile strategy specifically. Hannon called mobile “an ever-expanding venue,” before dropping an interesting hint about where the Clinton campaign is looking: “As [the campaign] continue[s] to build for mobile and decide when to deploy particular tools, our focus remains on targeting popular mobile operating systems so that we can ensure we have as many supporters engaged in the campaign as possible.”

You can read that as Windows 10 Mobile isn’t getting its own app, it seems.

Competing In A Boom

It isn’t controversial to say that the technology market is in the middle of a massive bull run. Whether the industry is in a new bubble is open to interpretation, but good times certainly abound.

And in technology, when things are hot, salaries are hotter. Every political campaign that wants to assemble a technology team will be forced to not only compete with a hot talent market, but compensation packages that cannot be matched; put more simply, working on political campaigns has never been precisely where you go to make a fortune.

Hannon framed her pitch in terms that many Silicon Valley coders would understand, likening her team’s work to a “nationally televised 18-month long hackathon.” She went on to state that there is “no startup I know of that works harder, ships faster, touches more people, tackles bigger or more interesting problem sets.”

Presumably, political orientation is also a key selling point in campaign pitches to otherwise happily ensconced inside of well-paid tech jobs. It’s likely easier to take a pay cut when you think that you are helping change the world.

Still, the campaign is open to shorter-term workers. Hannon described that willingness as being “open to volunteers, savvy engineers, and designers who moonlight with us for one or more weeks.”

A Tech Election

The Clinton campaign’s hiring is interesting, given that it sets an early tone for what could become a technological struggle between the eventual two candidates. But there’s more to tech than building your own tools.

Rayid Ghani is credited by many as Obama’s secret weapon to winning the 2012 vote. Ghani, a United States immigrant from Pakistan, started researching artificial intelligence and machine learning while attending graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to bring context to large amounts of data.

The nascent field of data science mostly stayed within corporate business at this time. Ghani was one of the first to apply this kind of expertise to a presidential election when he left his job at Accenture to join Obama for America.

Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were becoming more sophisticated. He also utilized open voter data to target those in swing states.

Ghani began looking at who voted the past few election cycles and started asking the Obama support base to reach out to their friends on Facebook. He was also able to work with social media sites such as Facebook to reach fence-sitters, too.

But a lot of Ghani’s work involved good, old-fashioned door-knocking. “It’s not as sophisticated as you might think. You still have to get people in swing states to register to vote and they can only do that by filling out, signing and mailing in a physical paper,” he said.

The key was using public records to find and build a contact list of those either already registered and likely to vote again or heading online and targeting those in swing states who could go either way in the election, according to Ghani.

Obama’s campaign staff utilized social media sites of the day to find these potential supporters. It was a one-to-many network effect back then. The former Secretary of State is now doing the same thing with digital promotion on newer platforms like Instagram and Snapchat.

“Each platform is for a different purpose,” Ghani said. “Instagram you are targeting those who already follow and support you. That’s where you ask for money and the like.” Facebook, and to some lesser extent Twitter and other online forums, Ghani told us, is where using targeted demographic data comes in handy.

Building out sophisticated software and targeted social media tools is tough to do in the short-term. It’s not something every candidate can spare the resources on. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s only opposition at this point, employs an army of tech volunteers building dozens of microtargeted supporter websites to help out.

Enlisted programmers create apps and participate in hackathons to give the left-leaning Sanders campaign a needed boost toward the Democratic nomination. A Reddit forum, Coders for Sanders, helps collaborate on ideas. One thread suggests building out a Sanders social network, another proposes a video for the candidate, based on the School House Rock theme.

Looking Forward

The political technological arms race will only become more acute. That the Clinton campaign wants to staff up early, even before it nominations are secured, therefore, isn’t surprising.

It will be interesting to watch politics increasingly cater to tech-types, people who often are wholly culturally diametrically bass ackwards compared to DC denizens. For now, let the hiring commence.