I recently found myself in a peculiar conversation. A software engineer asked to discuss their interest in Democratic politics, but began by saying, “It doesn’t feel urgent anymore — is this still worth my effort?” I wish I could say this notion is rare, but I’ve repeatedly heard similar undertones from technologists for months. I leaned into the question with my anxiety apparent, “Yes! This is all still extremely important!”
The horror that Donald Trump brought to the forefront was a powerful motivator for many Democratic technologists. And while the threat of Trumpism is far from gone — from the hundreds of bills limiting voting access, to the GOP’s all-out rejection of democratic principles — its abstraction means we must work that much harder to bring talent into the fold. We don’t win in 2022 or 2024 if our tech infrastructure stagnates. We know this, and we know that the work cannot wait. It’s on us to reignite that spark. There are a few things on recruitment, talent development, and infrastructure that we need to do now if we want to be successful.
Do things, tell people
Recruiting is hard. Tech recruiting is very hard. Political tech recruiting is extremely hard. Political work will never be able to compete with the tech industry on money or lifestyle, which is why single-cycle turnover is inevitable. But we know that the Democratic space can compete on the mission. Technologists who are attracted to the work don’t define positive change as enriching founders and shareholders. We do this work because we know the outcomes have real impact.
But our messaging falls short on describing what the work is and who is doing it. What does an Infrastructure Engineer at a committee actually work on? What products does a Voter Protection Product Manager own? What even is a relational organizing app? Who are the vendors that build Democratic tech? Unlike much of the tech space, most people have never used our tools, and even fewer know a single thing about our tech stacks. That’s on us. It’s standard practice at tech companies to host meetups and demo their work. It’s not about sales, it’s about recruiting. We can do this too. Talk about what powers that data warehouse. Demo the architecture behind those webhooks. Showcase our new deployment pipeline. Talk about the design processes of the voter protection app. Technologists like working on tech, so we should talk more loudly about the tech.
Create a pathway to leadership
Technologists who came from industry are accustomed to working with technical leaders, but that rarely happens in politics. Now, campaign leadership programs like Blue Leadership Collaborative are trying to address the problem that managers and committee directors largely come from political backgrounds with little experience in technology. In fact, only a few leaders bring technical, digital, or data expertise to these jobs. This creates a rift between expectations and what technologists can accomplish when they arrive.
When leadership is accustomed to approaching every problem like an Organizing problem, they only entertain Organizing solutions. Asking a tech team, “how many people do you need to get this done?” in August before an election doesn’t create effective solutions. Technologists know this: The entire industry is built around iterative processes and feedback channels. But it’s a foreign concept to many in political leadership.
Despite what we like to tell ourselves, not every Democratic problem is an Organizing problem. The flourishing vendor space can act as a problem-solving counterweight, but without technical leaders on campaigns and committees, there will always be misalignment yielding disillusioned technologists after a short stint in the space. A pathway to leadership depends on a pipeline. Paid programs like DigiDems, and volunteer organizations like Bluebonnet Data, are investing in building that bench of technical talent.
Embrace the ecosystem
The future of political tech is straightforward, and we’re already doing it: campaigns should build less tech. A campaign is a terrible place to do software engineering because the incentives are all wrong. Campaigns have a finish line on Election Day, and then everything goes in the trash. When presented with the choice between building something fast or building it well, there’s no choice at all. The software engineers on the Biden campaign had a maxim: “We build bronze-medal software.” I’m proud of that outlook, because it oriented us on getting the job done. But Democrats need more gold-medal software.
The good news is we now have the environment for it. The Democratic tech ecosystem has developed over the last three cycles. With Obama’s 2012 campaign and Clinton in 2016, we saw massive innovations in what campaign tech and data could do, with large in-house engineering teams and collaboration with close technology partners.
After Donald Trump’s victory, the space changed rapidly. Like many Americans, technologists came forward to ask the question: “How can I help?” The Party committees, particularly the DNC, rapidly expanded this work, and harnessed the chance to recruit. Even more technologists, many with support from the new Higher Ground Labs accelerator, launched Democratic tech companies. While presidential campaigns of recent cycles were pushing the boundaries of what they could build, 2020 yielded a catalog of what campaigns no longer needed to reinvent. A robust, enduring, ecosystem gives campaigns battle-tested tech, and it creates an environment for technologists to dig into those hard, enticing, problems.
Keep momentum alive
Our challenges are clear, but if we can better promote political tech work, create a pathway to campaign leadership for technologists, and embrace the fact that we need long-term tech infrastructure outside of campaigns, we’ll be better positioned to maintain momentum. This won’t be easy, but it’s imperative to avoid stagnation that would let Republicans jump ahead and win in 2022 and 2024.
Matt Hodges is the Head of Technology for Zinc Collective, which funds initiatives like DigiDems and Blue Leadership Collaborative, that retain and recruit talent in Democratic politics. Previously, Matt was the Engineering Director for Biden For President.