Hillary Clinton’s technology team has built more than 50 software tools and products to date — a surprise even to the team’s leader, campaign CTO Stephanie Hannon, who for the past 17 months has led the team of nearly 70 Brookyn-based engineers, product managers and designers.
“This has been one of the biggest surprises of this job — I could not have predicted how many different tools and products we would build and launch,” Hannon said during a live chat this morning on Product Hunt.
Hannon, a former Google product lead, is responsible for delivering the tools and technology to power the campaign, including fundraising, organizing (empowering field organizers and helping volunteers be efficient in canvassing and phone banking), voters (registering to vote, GOTV, voter protection), data analytics infrastructure, storytelling and rapid response, engagement and mobile apps. She also heads ops teams that are building an infrastructure to make development easy and fast and to keep everything up and running.
In some ways, her operation sounds like a typical startup. “When new engineers start, I offer them a stack of empty boxes to build their own standing desk,” she said. “We have a Monday-morning scramble to keep our chairs from being grabbed when new people start.”
And like any startup, the Hillary tech team has suffered some growing pains.
One obstacle early on, Hannon said, was sniping within her group — technical one-upsmanship. For example, some Google engineers on the team hadn’t used GitHub before, and “they were made fun of for this by other team members. We also had bad experiences with team members shaming other team members for wanting to use certain technologies that they have experience with, like MongoDB. With such a diverse team, we’ve spent a lot of time working with the team to use inclusive language so that no team member feels less than the others for their background or the technology they work with.”
One questioner asked Hannon about “all the security issues Hillary has had with her emails,” adding, “Did you work on her home email server and help delete the emails she deleted?” Hannon did not respond to that question.
In response to a question from GeekWire, Hannon said that her teams’ development practices come from the world of private industry. Her organization is broken down into “agile teams” that focus on different campaign areas, such as website, data infrastructure and mobile. The group runs “sprints” — that is, deploys staffers in weeks-long, highly focused gatherings to accomplish a given task — and uses Jira, a software-development tool preferred by those favoring the agile approach to software development. It also does “retros” — another agile practice involving a review of what went right and wrong during the development of a software product.
“Cross-team collaboration is accomplished by design reviews, regular show and tells and a very open Slack culture,” she added, referring to the popular group communication tool.
The campaign uses Travis CI, an open-source testing and deployment offering, to make sure its software is functioning properly. It staffs two internal ops teams focused on engineering productivity, to make sure developers can use configurable boilerplate to handle common production tasks. Programming languages in use include Python, Ruby, PHP and Node.
One product she’s proud of is an iOS app that lets Hillary supporters connect with each other, play knowledge-based games and learn about Hillary’s policy proposals. Stressing gaming in the app “helps people do the work” and lets users feel more comfortable than they might working a phone bank or knocking on doors, she said.
The campaign, of course, lacks anything like the infrastructure found at Google, Hannon said. “We didn’t inherit much from previous campaign cycles, and we are supremely cautious with spending our funds, so we’ve had to be creative about bootstrapping and building our infrastructure,” she said.
The team is just under 40 percent female and is diverse ethnically. It celebrate achievement by letting co-workers give goofy awards to each other — like a hat with a pear on it, a pun on the peer bonuses awarded at Google — and by honoring teams that work after-hours or produce a major project.
Hannon said she was approached about the possibility of taking the position by a number of the Obama 2012 Tech alums at ORDCamp (a two-day conference in the Midwest), in early 2015. She had never worked in politics before but “said yes because I thought it would be a massive challenge, a massive learning opportunity and a chance to have big impact by being a part of the team to put the first woman in the White House.”
Before stepping into the campaign, she was the product lead for Google Wave. She said she helped create hosted Gmail, which became Google Apps for Work and Education, and helped launch Google Maps in almost every country in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. She also worked on elections and disaster response and civic engagement at Google.
Hillary herself is not a big technology user, Hannon said, but she knows who the top tech companies are, what they do, and what challenges they face.
Winning the election Nov. 8 is Hannon’s primary goal, she said, but other things matter, too — like “like leaving a technology legacy for the Democratic party and helping this amazing team find their next things.”