After witnessing the debacle in Iowa, campaign decision-makers across the country are wondering just how good is the engineering behind the software they purchase for their campaigns? And for good reason: the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to suss this out in the evaluation and procurement stage with a vendor. Slick branding, a jazzy demo, and a bargain price are designed to entice. But these attributes don’t tell you how the software will hold up in the heat of an election.
Political technology is notoriously difficult to build and test, partly because usage of the software goes from zero in the off-season to 100 mph on Election Day.
No software is bug-free, but you can reduce the likelihood of problems by making informed decisions during the vendor evaluation process. Here are some ways to vet the engineering capabilities of your vendors to know if you’re buying smoke and mirrors, or battle-tested software.
Ask questions about the engineering team.
How many total years of engineering experience does the team have? What companies have they worked for in the past? Companies like Google, Facebook and Netflix have well-earned reputations for training high-quality engineers. Engineers who are fresh out of coding bootcamps should only be a small minority of the team. Off-shore development teams are difficult to vet and introduce security concerns.
How many election cycles has this software been through?
With a fresh technology, you should expect growing pains once the software is exposed to high usage for the first time. Software that has been through a cycle (and ideally two or more) should be more robust, since the kinks have had time to have been worked out.
What security processes does the vendor have in place?
SOC 2 certification is an industry standard and should be high on the checklist. Be careful with open-source software. While software like Linux, which has been developed over many years by world-class engineers, is a solid and secure choice, newer open-source software can be vulnerable as the source code is public and likely hasn't been thoroughly vetted.
How good is the technical support?
Guess what: issues will arise. You’ll need to get in touch with your vendor’s support team at some point. Your vendor should be able to tell you their historical support ticket time-to-first-response (how long it takes for someone to write you back after you contact support) and time-to-resolution (how long it takes to resolve a question).
If the price sounds too good to be true, well, it probably is.
Software development takes a lot of time and requires specialized work. Engineers and technical workers command high salaries. Making margins on low-priced software means cutting corners somewhere, which is usually non-customer-visible technical infrastructure.
Low-cost vendors will likely do their best to hide these issues during the pre-sale process. Think of it like buying a used car with a faulty transmission and electrical problems, but with a bright new coat of paint. Try to get a look under the hood.
Roddy Lindsay is co-founder of Hustle and the inventor of peer-to-peer text messaging.