Harper Reed: Obama’s Tech Team was Not Diverse, Republicans Have a Tech Advantage in 2016

September 27, 2013

12:14 pm

At a Tech Cocktail Sessions Chicago event last night, in the spirit of owning up to failures, former Obama for America CTO Harper Reed admitted that the campaign’s tech team wasn’t very diverse.

“We did not do a good job [in terms of diversity] on the tech team for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. For the most part, we hired all white dudes,” said Reed. “We didn’t mean to. It was just easier and they were available immediately. If we had to do this again, I would spend more time solving that problem.”

Harper Reed

Reed emphasized that innovation comes from diversity – something that Google has long recognized – and urged the entrepreneurs and tech enthusiasts in the audience to take it seriously. “Don’t be afraid to hire people who look differently from you,” he said, repeatedly joking about his weird red beard. “We all have to be paying attention to this.”

Reed couldn’t predict much about the 2016 campaign, but he did mention that the Republicans have an advantage in terms of technology: Andy Barkett, a former engineer at Facebook.

“The Republicans have a tech edge on the Democrats. They have a very good CTO that came from Facebook and the Democrats are just like, ‘We’re awesome, we did it in 2012,’ and the Republicans are like, ‘Never again,’” he said.

Reed started off his keynote talk with a shoutout to the Chicago startup scene, which has grown significantly since he last gave a talk at Tech Cocktail. Just yesterday, for example, Braintree was acquired by PayPal. “Chicago is creating products. We’re shipping startups. This is what I want to see,” Reed said.

He also didn’t say much about his latest venture, Lunar Technology Corporation, which is working on mining the moon, a mobile commerce platform. Instead, he retold the story of the Obama campaign – how his massive team of 120 tech staff build solid platforms that were the foundation of apps for volunteers. They amassed lots of data to send targeted emails, which estimated the exact amount of money you would contribute and knew whom you influenced on Facebook.

But in the end, the campaign wasn’t about technology, he said. “We couldn’t innovate on technology; we could only execute.” It was actually about people: a great team of A players, always being creative, taking lots of measurements.

Reed reiterated that he won’t be going back into politics again: the long hours are only worth it for a candidate like Obama whom he believes in.

“It was really great to win, it was really great to interact with the smartest people that I’ve ever interacted with, and I would do that again. I was there for the president, and the president can’t run again.”

“It’s the craziest thing I’ll ever do,” he said. “You have more pizza than you ever thought was possible, you stay up later and you get up earlier than you ever thought was possible, and then it’s very rewarding. And when certain things happen, everyone cries because you’re so happy and you’re so excited, and it’s very positive and it’s really fun. I would recommend it one time. The problem is once you’e done it, you’ll do it again because you’re like, ‘I did it already, I already saw the hard part.’”

“That’s my worry – 2016’s going to come around and they’re going to call me and I’ll be like, ‘I’ll be right there.’ So I’m saying publicly no right now.”

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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