Ex-GOP Chief Tech Officer Has a Political Data Startup
Former Republican National Committee Chief Technology Officer Andrew Barkett has been a vocal critic recently of the party's approach to data and tech. Now he's running a new firm focused on analytics and the backend engineering necessary to make data work for campaigns, including that of GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush.
His biggest gripe about political organizations and their approach to tech: They hire people from politics.
Mr. Barkett, a senior engineer at Facebook before he joined the RNC in 2013, founded Digital Core Campaign in February and the company has operated in near-stealth since. Unlike what he describes as relatively slow-moving tech development operations at the RNC, he has patterned the new firm after the Facebook model of quick, small-scale application launches followed by a/b testing and rapid refinements.
"We really wanted to follow more of what I would call the Facebook paradigm," said Mr. Barkett. "Working with the RNC… I recognized that there wasn't enough core engineering talent." He believes there is a lack of engineering skills across Republican organizations, not just at the RNC.
As an example, Mr. Barkett said that when Republicans he was in contact with suggested targeting TV ads by matching the voter file with set-top box data, the requisite skills weren't there. "I would say, 'Who's going to do that? You don't know how to do it,'" Mr. Barkett said.
"The results of the 2014 elections speak for themselves. We are very proud of the huge strides we've made growing our data and field programs," said RNC Spokeswoman Allison Moore. "Heading into the 2016 cycle we are continuing to build on that success."
In addition to building software when needed, Digital Core Campaign, or DCC, is focused on building infrastructure to handle management and analysis of "multiple petabytes of data," said Mr. Barkett.
Currently, the company's focus is on developing software for matching online and offline data such as voter ID records or data from field canvassing. In some cases, the firm's clients work with Republican data providers i360 and the party-affiliated Data Trust.
DCC, based in San Mateo, has 11 full-time employees in addition to working with part-time contractors; however, Mr. Barkett would only name one colleague, Sawan Tivakaran. He worked with Mr. Barkett at Facebook and has spent time at Apple and, most recently, Box.
"Our M.O. was to start with real first-rate technologists and teach them how to solve the political problem," said Mr. Barkett.
Because the firm emphasizes hiring people from outside politics, flying under the radar is part of its philosophy. "Our company relies on the ability to recruit people who don't think of themselves as part of the political establishment," he said, insisting that they'd rather keep their heads down and work on solving software engineering problems.
Republicans pioneered political campaign microtargeting, but Mr. Barkett said things have come a long way since then, when data was more static and not generated in real-time at high volume and velocity, the key characteristics of big data. "Microtargeting is not big data," he said, noting that yesterday's data models don't apply when new information is available that might recategorize a voter from an unlikely supporter to a donor.
DCC has three paying clients currently and is working with others in preliminary stages. Duf Sundheim, a possible candidate in what should prove to be a tough race for any Republican nominee -- the U.S. Senate seat for California to be vacated by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D.) -- is working with the company to incorporate data collection, categorization and management into the design of his would-be campaign site. He's also using the firm to determine who his potential supporters are and how to reach them.
"The work I plan to do with Andy is going to extend well beyond the campaign to how, as a Senator, I will interact with my constituents," said Mr. Sundheim, a former chairman of the California Republican Party. He said DCC is assisting him in evaluating campaign tools that can actually drive votes as opposed to simply generating media hoopla.