Finding Problem Solvers Who Provide Big Answers: An Interview with Harper Reed

March 19, 2013 Paul M. Davis

Harper Reed, CTO for the Obama 2012 Presidential Campaign, delivered the keynote speech at EMC Greenplum’s Hadoop: The Foundation for Change event on Monday, February 25. Reed delivered what he called “A Big Data intervention,” urging the audience to move the conversation beyond Big Data, toward what he called “Big Answers.” He noted that technologists are “often bad at listening when it comes to data,” and said that practitioners “should be using these insights from data to do more listening.” He stated technologists must ask themselves, “‘How do we use targeting to have a conversation?’”

Harper powerofdata 1

Running the most data-driven Presidential campaign to date presented unique challenges. The high-stakes contest that is a Presidential campaign demands constant iteration. Reed stated that multivariate user testing and focusing on user experience was key, demanding that his team reap insights from a huge amount of data. This required people who thrived in a high-pressure, constantly changing work environment, facing a hard deadline and with no room for error. It demanded a technology infrastructure that wouldn’t go down on election day. And it required that the campaign run analytics on a wealth of data from many sources — social media, SMS, volunteer canvasing, poll results — and deliver actionable insights in real time.

Before the keynote, Reed spoke with Datastream about how the campaign found the right problem solvers for the job, and his reflections on using data to push the conversation closer to individual voters.

Building a Team of Problem Solvers

“Working for the President, every conversation was sort of like a mic drop. People would ask, ‘What are you doing,’ and I’d say, ‘well, I’m working for the President,’ and they’d drop the phone and show up. For the most part, people wanted the job, so it wasn’t very tricky to hire — people were excited about the job and the problems. What we did to make sure we got the right people is that we really celebrated the problem solving and what we were trying to do. We had 18 months to build a giant platform, it was going to be this billion dollar company, and then we were going to shut it down, and it couldn’t fail or go down.”

“Oftentimes, when you read job descriptions, they talk about your responsibilities. That doesn’t really tell you: ‘What are the awesome problems? What is the culture of problem solving? Why are we here? What are we trying to accomplish?’ We had this big architecture, and we’d see it was going to go down in six months, so we had to make sure it didn’t do that. So how were we going to do that? We used that to sort of lure them in.”

“There’s a book by Daniel Pink called Drive that talks about the motivations of problem solvers and really smart people. What we found was that by creating a culture where they could be autonomous, and very specifically not trying to control how they solved problems, instead making sure that we had goals that they could achieve — for example, ‘this needs to be highly available’ — one team might build that differently than another team.”

“We had to have frameworks for them to do that. One example of what not to do is say, ‘you have to use this tool to solve this problem,’ because then you find people who know the tools, but not how the solve the problems. We focused aggressively on ‘not the tools’. So if you wanted to use Rails, that was great, but if you happened to be really good at Python, there was a whole team that was solving problems in Python, and you could easily do that. It was more about enabling them to do what they needed to do to solve the problem, and not focusing on asking, ’are they solving it the right way?’”

“That was hard, because anyone in this world can name 100 reasons why that’s risky. You’re segmenting your technology, making it harder to maintain, all these things. We had a very scaled-back operation, but like any business, we couldn’t fail.” @harper reed, Obama 2012 Campaign CTO, crushing it as usual. #hadoopSF @greenplum

— Kim Bassett (@kimbrob) February 25, 2013

Big Answers Rather Than Big Data

“It seems to me that the conversation about Big Data came out of it being hard to store. Greenplum is in this business, EMC is in this business. But the thing is, storage doesn’t matter, because these and other companies have solved this problem. Because it’s largely solved, it pushes us to this idea that I think people invest less in, which is Big Answers: How do you couple this data with answers? I think people say Big Data when they really mean answers. This should be a conversation of how you get the best answers.”

“On the campaign, it was very important to us that we focused on the answers, so our analytics team was all about giving us answers. Every day they would give us a brief that would say, ‘we need to put more people in Florida’ or ‘we need to do more media here,’ or ‘when you’re on the TV, here is who your audience is.’ It was about giving us actual information that we could react to and act upon, answers to an actual question. The question wasn’t ‘how big is your database?’ The questions we focus on as technologists, we forget that the reason we’re here is to get better answers and insights.”

From Many-to-Many to Many-to-One: How Data Can Push Conversations Closer to Individuals

“I realized that my entire career has been about asking, ‘how do we push the conversation closer and closer to an individual?’ The idea of microlistening came from Tim O’Reilly. I was at a Foo Camp, and Tim O’Reilly said, ‘I’m tired of targeting, I want more listening.’ I started looking closely at all the listening we were doing, whether it was on Twitter or knocking on doors.”

“If you knock on a door and somebody says, ‘I’m really interested in health care,’ then when you ask, ‘who’s interested in health care in this area,’ you have that person and you have something to react to, and you can move that conversation closer. You can then target them to have a loop, a conversation.”

“People are focusing more on, ‘how can I show them an ad?’ They’ll say that a person needs to see it 12 times or 10 times or whatever to impact them, and that’s great — we still need ads and microtargeting is cool — but I think what’s important is asking, ’how do we have a conversation, and how do we make it so it’s on an individual level?’ So for example, it’s between EMC and Harper Reed, EMC and a programmer, EMC and a data guy — that’s the advertising cycle, that is the loop.”


Trusting Your Users

“If you have microtargeting in your organization, how do you reflect that into listening? First of all, you have to trust your users. You have to want to have that conversation. In a campaign, that is the most important thing, for us to listen to people, because we’re representing people — we’re trying to participate in a representative government.”

“That’s where I think it gets interesting, and technology is bringing us towards that, where we can target so specifically that you start to have microconversations and these tiny, many-to-one interactions. Twitter obviously does this on a grand social scale, and we can take advantage of that, but there’s a lot of opportunities there that people are missing.”

Watch Harper Reed’s keynote on The Power of Data, from Hadoop: The Foundation for Change.

Harper Reed video

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