Learning from the e-lection
Even before the dust had settled after what appeared to be one of the most closely contested Presidential elections in history, thousands of media outlets were streaming stories rationalizing Romney's loss: He was out of touch with the youth, He alienated Latinos, He spooked women, Hurricane Sandy killed his momentum, etc.
But while we nodded our heads with a collective “duh”, an entirely differently picture emerged in the high-tech Hipster media—a picture built from “insider” stories that provided a behind-the-scenes view into an alternative set of mechanics that may have been instrumental in determining the outcome of the election. These stories didn't talk about Roe vs. Wade, nor did they revolve around ideologies and politics; instead, they spoke of Narwhal vs. ORCA. They spoke of digital strategy and technology deployment.
The stories told of brilliant engineers from Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist and Google hired by the Obama administration to help build “Narwhal,” one of the most sophisticated real-time, data-driven, software architectures ever designed, one that completely redefines audience micro-targeting, online fundraising and social media activation. But there were also stories that told of Romney's mission-critical mobile application code-named “ORCA” (named after the predator known to prey on the Narwhal) that failed to deploy on Election Day as a result of a poor planning, training and testing.
While there is data to show that Narwhal's sophisticated algorithm allowed Obama to purchase media that was both more targeted and cost-effective—resulting in raising more money than any candidate in history and perhaps mobilizing the base that won him the election—many believe that it was Romney's failure to deploy his own technology solution effectively that may have cost him the Presidency.
What exactly did the candidates do differently—and what can we learn from it?
On November 3, three days before the election, thousands of Romney volunteers were sent a 60-page PDF to explain the mission-critical mobile web app that they would be using on Election Day to help activate votes where needed. However, the app (ORCA), launched on at 6 a.m. on Election Day, was inaccessible because the wrong access pin was sent out. Even once this issue was resolved, the app continued to crash because not enough servers were procured to support the traffic load. The list of spectacular failures goes on.
The Obama Team went through a very similar experience. Josh Thayer, Narwhal's lead engineer, experienced a total software failure: data packets were lost, databases crashed. The underlying web services powering the entire campaign failed.
But Thayer's nightmare unfolded on October 21, 2012—17 days before the election. On this day, Harper Reed (CTO of the Obama campaign) was doing everything he could to destroy the system in what is known as LARPing (live action role playing), running insanely complex scenarios for the purpose of putting the system to the test. It was this process of “fire-drilling” that led the Narwhal team to create backup systems, scenario planning models and strengthen the team's mental muscles so that they could deal with almost any challenge they would face on “Gameday.” On Gameday, they executed flawlessly and Obama won.
As Benjamin Franklin once said: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”Fabio Gratton is Chief Experience Officer, Ignite Health