“Within two months of announcing candidacy, the team needs to scale up to 200 people. That’s faster growth than any startup you’ve worked at.”
A great tech team is now table stakes for running a successful presidential campaign, but that doesn’t mean things are easy. Ask Sunil Sadasivan, the Deputy CTO of Cory Booker’s 2020 campaign: “The speed and scale of these campaigns rivals hyper startup growth, but with significantly more intense resource constraints.” By the end of 2019 the campaign had a couple hundred full-time staff with several hundred more volunteers, and Sunil led a tech team of only 5 full time engineers and product folks. With tons of tools to build and very limited time to build them, the campaign had to be disciplined with how they spent their time.
The tools that power presidential campaigns are all about communication. When you’re trying to expand an candidate’s reach every touchpoint matters, and the U.S. is a big place – a limited number of volunteers can only do so much calling, texting, and canvassing. For candidates like Senator Booker, there are “tons of hoops to jump through” just to get on the ballot, in addition to the fundamentals like events, outreach, and fundraising. The tech team was tasked with building tools that enabled Cory and the campaign to spend more time on engaging with stakeholders and less time on manual, repetitive work.
Sunil is the former CTO of Buffer, the forward thinking social media management software that made headlines for their transparent reporting and operations, and had moved to DC a few years earlier to work for the Department of Veterans Affairs. We take tech for granted, but working for public organizations can help you appreciate how transformational the right tools can be: “technology can shape an entire organization if applied right.” Here’s a look into what kinds of tools run a presidential campaign, and how they can have an outsized impact if built right.
Internal tools for presidential campaigns
Sunil’s team used Retool to build the campaign’s communication infrastructure: from reaching out to constituents and contacts to asset management. Senator Booker used the team’s engagement app daily, which was pretty cool.
As a presidential candidate, you need to talk to a lot of friends, voters, constituents, and everyone else under the sun through all different channels: in person, email, and direct mail, to name a few. It’s about being personal, too – it's not always giant mail merge lists. How do you manage all of the people you need to talk to, prioritize which are the most important, and actually get in touch with them?
The tech team used Retool to build a tool that managed this entire process from the ground up:
- Campaign employees and volunteers were able to use a form to add contacts with contextual data around reasons, channel, and priority
- Managers could prioritize and order the uploaded contact requests to make sure Cory was focusing his time on the most important contacts
- Cory used the tool to select who he needed to contact and write an email, text, or make a phone call
The tool that Sunil’s team built was almost like a political CRM; it was a critical part of making sure that the campaign spent time on the right contacts and communication. After campaign team members uploaded new contacts, the tool would pull data from their CMS about who they were, their donation history, and other useful data that the team had pulled from other systems.
If this kind of internal tool sounds like table stakes, you’re right, but that’s kind of the point: Cory was able to contact 3X as many people using the app, compared to the old manual way of doing things, once the tech team got the software up and running.
- Asset Management
As campaigns have started embracing visual design (remember the Obama campaign's hope visuals?), there are more assets like fonts and images to manage. Those assets are hosted in the cloud (AWS S3, in this case), but it’s difficult and tedious for campaign team members to upload and manage them manually.
Sunil’s team built an asset uploader in Retool that allowed campaign team members to upload an image file straight to their object storage (S3) and generate a URL that they could reuse across platforms. The extra frontend layer helped the campaign avoid requiring employees to interact directly with the AWS console.
When campaigns wind down, hundreds of people have to start reorienting their lives and looking for new jobs. When the Booker campaign ended in early January 2020, the tech team built a basic jobs form for volunteers and employees to find their next thing.
Speed and rapid prototyping are everything
With the tight resource constraints imposed by the campaign trail, the ability to quickly learn from customers, prototype, and ship apps is critical. Sunil’s team considered a few different stacks to build their internal tools like Glitch and Netlify, Bubble, and Webflow. On the backend, everything was serverless (AWS Lambda and Step Functions).
Suni’s team setted on Retool because it let them get working UIs out in the wild in just a few minutes of work. “Most of our role was a product org within a larger org - Annie, our Director of Product, and the rest of the eng team were always talking to customers, rolling out an early prototype, etc. It’s not just the tool, it’s how you apply it, and Retool was the perfect tool for this type of lean product development mindset.” Retool let them connect multiple data sources (SQL, NoSQL, and APIs) and extract value from them quickly.