From Hacker to Obama’s CTO

Harper Reed

Harper Reed is most famous for his role as CTO of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, but he’s served other prominent roles over the past several years, including CTO of Threadless (the t-shirt company) and CEO of e-commerce startup Modest.

In order to operate effectively in such high-profile roles, you can’t just be a great developer—you need to have people skills, including the ability to wrangle some strong personalities. How did Reed develop those skills?

Through a bit of trial and error, according to a new Medium posting where he describes his formative years. Reed got into computers early, becoming obsessed with not only hardware and software but also Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), the ancestors of today’s social networks. At first, Reed didn’t exactly use his newfound know-how for good; in one early hack, he made his school’s computers display profanities, a stunt that cost him school computer privileges for the rest of the year.

After a local kid used instructions Reed found on a website to build a bomb, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms came calling. “Thankfully, I didn’t get kicked off the computers again — because I had already parlayed my experience into running IT for the high school,” Reed wrote, “and thus knew more about the school’s computers than any of my teachers. They needed me.”

Reed believes those early experiences gave him the attitude necessary to run the tech side of Obama’s re-election campaign. “Somehow knew I could do the job,” he wrote. “I attribute that confidence to my experience as a hacker and the subsequent willingness to take risks. If you never break through that wall of doubt, you will never see what might’ve been possible.”

Obama’s campaign deployed dozens of data scientists, developers, and engineers to analyze and work with huge mountains of data gathered from Facebook and other online sources. The data-analytics initiatives included Project Narwhal, which made voter information accessible to campaign workers across the country. It was the sort of job capable of intimidating even the most experienced tech executive, but Reed was evidently well-equipped to handle it, thanks to a hefty dose of hacker attitude.

Image Credit: Modest, Inc.

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