How the 2020 Election Changed Tech in Politics Forever

Cybersecurity is Everything

When I’m asked to reflect on my role with the campaign, I tell people one of the ways it was unique was that it was a 300% job. For the entirety of the primary (and the period where we’d cleared the primary field but it wasn’t yet the general), I filled the roles of CTO, CIO, and CISO. One hundred percent of my time went to all three roles, but most days I was also 150% focused on cybersecurity.

Remote First

Campaigns of the future may go back to the old ways of working, where a thousand people cram into an office building and run 18-hour days, but tech teams will never be able to go back to that. The simple fact is the tech talent that is needed to run a safe technology footprint is distributed across the country, and 2020 was the model for how to make a remote team work.

  1. We quickly became over communicators, and on a variety of mediums. For reasons not worth getting into beyond “it was expensive”, we didn’t have a campaign Slack for most of the cycle, which made it difficult to communicate quickly and directly with people outside the tech team. On the tech team, however, we used Keybase as a stand-in, and created a set of shared chats between the different teams. This worked pretty well, and we got to a point where even when we were sitting right next to each other we would talk on chat as well.
  2. We set up a “perpetual” Google Hangout and we had a TV at the end of the row where the tech team sat. Matt could easily drop-in at any time to just be a part of the environment and participate in side-bar conversations that maybe didn’t raise to the level of chat (e.g. where are we going to get lunch?).
  3. Daily stand-ups and tracking work items in GitHub. We created project boards for everything we were doing and wrote down even the most inconsequential task so that we could track it. Anybody on the team could quickly and easily get a grasp of what was going on, who was working on what and so forth. This helped a lot as we had conversations with people outside the tech team.
  4. Bringing a laptop or a phone to unplanned events and making sure anybody remote could be dialed in to participate. When the boss would visit the office, there would often be a group huddle in the middle of HQ, and I wanted to make sure anybody who wasn’t on-site that day could participate. I’d often just FaceTime or setup a Google Hangout and hold my phone up so they could see and hear everything that was going on.
Joe Biden stands left of Dan Woods. Dan is holding his phone with Matt on the screen to meet the boss.
Taking Matt to meet the boss during a surprise visit on Jan 1, 2020.

Tech, Research, and Comms in Lock Step

I can’t emphasize enough how during the 2020 cycle it was so important that the research and comms teams had a direct line of communication with the tech team, and that their priorities were our priorities. There are a lot of specifics to the work between the three teams, but it is suffice it to say that some of the biggest challenges we face on the technology front now and in the future has to do with how the opposition disseminates dis- and mis-information.

Microservices

Every bit of advice that was given to me coming onto the job is that you should not focus on building software, you should focus on building the glue that ties together vendors. That’s a good idealistic mentality, but the truth is there are a lot of things that don’t exist in the world, are not well suited for the campaign, don’t conform to the cybersecurity standards, or so forth. We ended up writing a lot of software that was more than just glue. But, it’s important to say up front that this wasn’t innovation simply for the sake of innovation — we built software because there was a very real need for us to build it.

Conclusion

In the future, we should expect more of the same for what we did in 2020. The way we approached every aspect of tech’s role in the entirety of the campaign is the model for how it should be going forward. A strong emphasis on cybersecurity, a channel to build a remote-first tech team, and an acknowledgement of the expectations for how software is built on a campaign are now the basis for how to build a successful tech operation.

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Dan Woods

Dan Woods

Dan Woods was CTO for Biden for President during the 2020 election. Previously he worked building tech for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign.