Working in a campaign is a lot like swimming in the ocean: it looks fun on the surface but underneath you are paddling as fast as they can to stay afloat and despite your best efforts you never know where the currents will take you.
This is the first of what I hope to be a handful of posts about my month-long hiatus from Google to work for Barack Obama’s campaign in Chicago.
WHY AM I DOING THIS
About a month ago I was one of the lucky few Googlers who got into Charlie's Café to see Barack Obama in person when he came to Google. People were waiting in line outside Charlie's for over two hours before Barack was scheduled to take the stage. I was able to get in by going around to the back and convincing one of the security guards at the rear door that I had a meeting in one of the nearby conference rooms (shh, don't tell on me). After the guard let me in, I meandered my way to an unoccupied seat right in front of about a dozen news cameras and probably two dozen reporters eager to schmooze with Google employees to get quotes for their obscure newspapers from around the country. Before I had a chance to feel guilty for stealing a seat from a poor co-worker who had been waiting in line for hours, I was approached by a woman wearing a lanyard that read EVENT STAFF who informed me that I'm sitting in the photographers walking path and by sitting here I would have to agree to allow photographers to trample my feet as they positioned themselves for the best shot. I acquiesced and braced my feet for impact. Moments later, Barack Obama took the stage. The next hour changed my life.
At least that's how I felt afterward. The hour consisted of twenty minutes of prepared remarks which included an announcement of his Technology and Innovation Plan for America followed by forty minutes of Q&A.
Eric Schmidt started off the Q&A session by asking his usual questions of the candidates who stop by Google. One in particular was pretty amusing at 22:55 into the video:
Eric Schmidt: I like to think of the Presidency as a job interview. Now it is hard to get a job as President and you are going through the rigors now. Now it is also hard to get a job at Google… What is the most efficient way to sort a million 32-bit integers?
Awkward chuckling from the audience and a deadpan stare from Obama before he responds…
Barack Obama: Well, uh, the bubble sort would be the wrong way to go.Uproarious applause as all the nerds in the room simultaneously unite in a standing ovation.
After Eric finished with his questions, Barack took questions from the audience. This is when I noticed something very rare from a politician: Barack Obama looked the questioner squarely in the eyes and answered their question. As simple as it sounds, this really impressed me. Instead of disregarding the question and espousing the same old stump speech, he ignored the fact that there were dozens of cameras recording every word he said and just answered the damn question.
After the hour was over I felt like I was in a reality distortion field. It was similar to what I felt when I witnessed Steve Jobs announce the iPhone at MacWorld. I called my girlfriend and brother and left them enthusiastic voicemails about how this guy was the real deal and how I had never been in love with another man as much as I was that day. I felt overwhelmed with exhilarated. I didn't know how to react. In the back of my mind I was a bit worried that this euphoria must have been similar to the euphoria felt by the masses who were persuaded to follow the ideologies of dictators and tyrants. I told myself to take time to make sure I was making the right decision whatever that decision might be.
In pursuit of learning more about the man I fell in love with that day, I started to read his most recent book, The Audacity of Hope, and one quote resonated particularly well with me: “I would often challenge [people] by asking them where they put their time, energy, and money. Those are the true tests of what we value, I'd tell them, regardless of what we like to tell ourselves.” I couldn't agree with this more. After hearing Obama speak about his ideas for how technology and innovation are going to help solve some of our country's biggest problems I knew I could do more just donate money. I would rather do my best trying to make a difference than do nothing and question myself after it's too late.
Less than a week after reading this quote I was in downtown Chicago looking for the Obama for America 2008 Headquarters standing in snow, freezing my ass off, thinking to myself, what the hell am I doing here?
I arrived at O'Hare International on Saturday night and within a few hours I was standing at the doorstop of where I would spend every waking hour of my life for the next week. I called my contact, a man I had never met, who said he would be right down to let me in. His name was Gray Brooks and he was a tall guy from Alabama only a few years older than me. It turns out Gray was the person who was asked to introduce Howard Dean in 2004 the day Dean announced his intention to run for president. Today he is a staffer in Obama campaign. He had been forwarded my resume by a friend of mine and was eager to meet me. It turns out we had two things in common: he was a huge Google-fan and he, too, dropped everything to volunteer for a campaign.
After Gray brought me up to the 11th floor of a commercial office building in the heart of downtown Chicago I got a better sense of what I had gotten myself into. It was 8pm on a Saturday night and almost everyone was still hard at work. It turns out I had joined a notoriously work-a-holic part of the campaign—the team that deals with everything technology-related to get Obama elected. The team is called the New Media group but that is a bit of a misnomer. Our team deals with everything from social networks, emails, the website, text messaging, online videos to grassroots fundraising campaigns and blogs. My role in the campaign has been to help take advantage of technology the best we can to help get Barack nominated and elected.
The first night at the campaign was very memorable. Soon after my arrival, the team took me out for dinner and drinks at a German Brewhouse in the north side of Chicago. Right from the very beginning I knew I was in the company of a different breed of people. These guys were all extremely smart. But not the kind of textbook computer-nerd smart I was all too familiar with at Google. These guys were quick and witty and informed and worldly. They retorted each others' one-liners with obscure political pop culture references like “don't tase me, bro” (referencing a phrase uttered by a student being detained by police when posing a question at a John Kerry speech). Spending a night out on the town with a bunch of perfect strangers was a great way to jump-start friendships with a group of people I would be spending 16 hours a day with for the foreseeable future.
REALITY SETS IN
The first few days in Chicago my schedule consisted of: waking up, taking a shower, taking the L downtown, working until the wee hours of the morning, taking a cab back uptown, and going to sleep. Rinse, lather, repeat. The adrenaline from being in a new environment with new challenges and new responsibilities kept me going every day like there was a nuclear power plant in my blood. It didn't take long before reality set in. Not that things got boring in the campaign, quite the contrary, but that the idealism and hope I had come to the campaign with began to be tempered by realism and practicality. At this point in the campaign it is too late for radical new directions or risky game-changing ideas. This meant that my role would be to help implement and execute existing plans; not come up with innovative approaches of applying technology to getting Barack nominated and elected as I had hoped. That was okay with me because from the beginning I was ready to do whatever I could to add the most value to the campaign even if that meant licking stamps or going door-to-door in Iowa. Luckily for me, because of my background in technology, the campaign concluded that I would probably add the most value by helping the New Media group reach a larger audience then I would by banging on doors in the Midwest.
STICKING WITH IT
The initial excitement of working in a campaign wears away pretty quickly. After the giddiness is gone all that is left is the desire to have an impact. I see it in Sam, who religiously refreshes the list of YouTube top videos of the day to see how many Obama videos made the top 10. I see it in Alexander, who on my second day on the job stayed up with me until 6am working on the next big email plan. I see the common desire to make a difference in everyone I have worked with on this campaign. But, trying your best doesn't always mean you'll get what you want. The constantly moving ocean of the media and public opinion pushes and pulls us around no matter how hard we try to fight it. It is hard to know whether anything we are doing is really having an impact. Every day I have questioned whether a computer nerd from Palo Alto can join a campaign in the 11th hour and can actually make a difference. I guess we'll find out soon enough.