Working for the Obama Campaign

I got an opportunity to volunteer for the Obama campaign and donated some custom web application building to the effort. In case you’re turned off by politics, this post isn’t going to be about politics, it’s more about the environment and technical challenges that I experienced. Finally, I want to make it clear that I am only claiming a teeny, tiny part in the effort. The campaign was won by a lot of people working a lot harder for a lot longer, they deserve a lot of respect, even if you don’t agree with them.

About three weeks before Election Day a call for volunteers came my way from a co-worker. The Voter Protection division of the Obama campaign in Pennsylvania needed someone who had experience working with databases.

After talking with them for awhile we distilled down their problems. They had about 6000 volunteer lawyers willing to work 9000 polling places to protect voters from various threats (some of it malfeasance, but more normally a failure of someone to grasp the full set of election law as it pertains to a particular voter.) They were making these assignments by combining information from a central web application with information collected in the field. They were using copies of an Excel spreadsheet they made every night for in-the-field collection. The guy I was working for had to make that spreadsheet every night, and it was obvious that he needed a better way, but he couldn’t just drop what he was doing and knuckle down and do it.

I, having no other responsibilities to the campaign, could.

In the end, from an application standpoint it was pretty basic: 2 tables, 1 linking table for the many to many relationship (multiple volunteers could be at multiple poling locations.) I pointed Squidhead in fkcrazy (foreign key crazy) mode and it did all the work for me. I had to do some custom tweaking of the app, but I tried to do as little of that as possible because I knew that there would be schema changes. I just had that sense. Then over the next few days I responded to various and sundry schema changes (I told me so).

It was a great experience, mostly because as a small database driven application with many schema changes and not a lot of custom interface work, it was the perfect use case for Squidhead. It reminded me just how useful code generation can be.

I finished up work for it in time for the last two weeks of the campaign. The local volunteer staff would use my application to make assignments. Then before Election Day they would upload their work to the central campaign to integrate with the incident tracking system they had.

Over the next few days, I didn’t think about it much, I the usage stats, and got a note from my host which noticed the spike in traffic (but coolly forgave the overage – YoHost Rocks!). All in all I just watched the final days of election coverage, and hoped all was well.

Around 11:30 on Election night I got a text message inviting me to the local victory party. I figured I should go, because with all of the hype, emotion, and passion of this past election season it seemed like an awesome opportunity. I got there; met up with the guy I worked for; and got introduced around. It went something like this:

Hey, I’d like you to meet Terry Ryan.

Hi, Terry. (Polite, but unexcited)

He’s the guy who ran the Numtopia application

Followed by me getting hugged by a total stranger.

I, uncomfortable, dismissed some of the praise because the app was pretty ugly, only to get some very informed feedback:

  • We had a pretty app from Chicago, yours did what we needed it to do
  • We couldn’t even search the other one by “ward”, which made it useless in Philadelphia
  • Yours was blindingly fast compared to the one from Chicago
  • And didn’t you write it in 3 days?

I have never been quite so thoroughly thanked and appreciated for my work ever. It was an awesome feeling. I am so gratified that I could use my skills to do something for the cause.

Now, I saw the “application for voter protection from Chicago” and I have to say it was very beautiful, with a whole lot of cool features.
I don’t want to knock those guys, as dealing with thousands of records on the State level and hundreds of thousands of records on the National level are two different things. Additionally, dealing with the demands of 1 office as opposed to 50 also changes the game. But I will say that in 3 days, 1 volunteer developer using ColdFusion replaced an application built over weeks by a team of paid developers using PHP. (I don’t know the specifics.)

I took a few lessons from my experience:

The constraint of a drop-dead-deadline can be incredibly freeing. I didn’t have time to think about things trying to come up with elegant solutions. Some of my solutions were using query of queries in a way I would never recommend. But I needed to get it done because November 4th was unavoidable.

Compelling User Interfaces aren’t always the answer. Squidhead creates usable and accessible but ugly UI components from the get go. They’re meant to be styled by custom CSS. That they were usable was the users’ only concern. They didn’t care that it wouldn’t win a design award. Their major concerns were speed and predictability.

Squidhead is better than I think it is. I’ve been down on Squidhead for awhile as it doesn’t have the user base that Transfer, Reactor, or Illudium has. Nathan Mische been telling me that the stuff he wants to add will help get the word out, and I think he’s right. However, it did stuff that I didn’t originally think it could do, or thought it would be hard to make it do. It worked flawlessly. I just need to get the word about how powerful the foreign key introspection is.

Working for the campaign was an awesome opportunity. It was pretty fulfilling compared to other volunteer political work I’ve done. But what’s more, it has pushed me to do a bit more, and have a little more confidence about the work I can produce. Expect to hear some new features coming out about Squidhead in the next few weeks.

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