Harper Reed, chief technology officer for President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, speaks along with Dylan Richard, director of engineering. (Reid Compton, For the Chicago Tribune / November 17, 2012)

In spring 2011, Michael Slaby made a pitch to a small group of men at the West Loop offices of Sandbox Industries, a local venture capital firm and business incubator. Slaby, a Chicagoan and the chief integration and innovation officer for President Barack Obama's campaign, was recruiting talent for the re-election effort.

But he wasn't looking for seasoned political operatives. And while the members of the group gathered at Sandbox had interests in civic affairs and social activism, most had never worked on a campaign. Rather, they were friends and professional acquaintances who came up together in Chicago tech circles, honing their software chops at local companies and collaborating on personal side projects, some for more than a decade. Slaby wanted them to deploy their skills in ways that had never been seen before in a political campaign, building technology tools to help Obama for America collect donations, organize far-flung field office workers and volunteers, and get out the vote Nov. 6.

The 2008 campaign, where Slaby served as chief technology officer, had virtually no engineering staff. For 2012, he was seeking a tech team that would operate like a startup company within the traditional hierarchy of a national campaign.

"This time around, partially because I had spent a bunch of time working in venture capital and in the private sector and realized that political technology was way behind the rest of the world in sophistication and capabilities, what I wanted was to engineer our own answers to problems we'd had for years," said Slaby, who after the 2008 campaign worked at TomorrowVentures, the investment vehicle of Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt.

The Obama for America tech team grew to about 40 people. Now, after a grueling 18 months or so in the campaign bunker, many of these engineers are rejoining Chicago's tech community, and the excitement about what they might do next — start new companies, join or advise existing ones — is palpable.

"The people working on the campaign have had an intense year or two developing incredible techniques that should influence the tech capability and marketing scene in Chicago for years to come," said Nick Rosa, co-founder and managing director of Sandbox. "We at Sandbox are very interested in tapping into this extraordinary group of people."

At the center of the tech team was Harper Reed, a longtime fixture on Chicago's startup scene and former chief technology officer of local T-shirt company Threadless. Slaby and Reed were introduced through a mutual contact, and the two met at The Wormhole coffee shop in the Wicker Park neighborhood. It was there that Slaby learned that Reed came with an informal team, a merry band of programmers and designers who had built newly elected Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's transition website in a week. The friends had also, in different permutations through the years, overlapped at Threadless, advised startups at Sandbox and helped each other on small projects.

"We had a team of core people who could really build anything, from the back-end engineering side to front-end development," said Scott VanDenPlas, who met Reed in 2001 and used to work at Threadless.

VanDenPlas was part of the group Slaby pitched at Sandbox. He signed on as the campaign's head of DevOps, meaning he oversaw the cloud-based server infrastructure on which the rest of the software ran. The others also came aboard: Dylan Richard, who became director of engineering; Jason Kunesh, director of user experience; and Aaron Salmon, a user interface and user experience engineer. Conor Gaffney, a self-taught coder who had worked on the Emanuel transition website and mayoral campaign, was committed to a nine-month master's program in history at the University of Cambridge but joined the campaign as a developer after graduating.

"Every single person who was at the first genesis meeting ended up working on the campaign," Reed said.

Reed was recruited as chief technology officer, an offer that surprised him despite his experience.

"Threadless was amazing … but it was a T-shirt company," he said. "What would happen if we screw up the T-shirt company? Christmas is sad. That's literally the worst thing that could happen in a retail organization — you ruin a holiday, you ruin a birthday. And this is terrible; you don't want to do this. But it's nothing like causing or stopping Supreme Court justices that are going to make our country better from being elected. There's a huge difference here."

The nucleus of tech talent that Reed brought to the campaign recruited talent from around the country, mostly through existing networks — "Everyone was no more than two degrees from Harper," Salmon said. The engineers worked with two other teams, one consisting of data scientists and the other made up of digital staffers minding the campaign's websites and social media efforts.

As the team started building the technology to help the campaign's efforts on the ground, it developed a culture that mixed a startup ethos with the constraints of a sophisticated political operation. Some of the entrepreneurial vibe was aesthetic; Kunesh joked that "we're the guys with the beards and you'd see the interns showing up in their seersucker suits."

Other practices were deliberately lifted from the software developer's playbook. Derek Brooks, an engineer who temporarily relocated to Chicago from Des Moines, Iowa, said the group held "stand-ups" every morning. In the software world, these are short meetings where team members share what they accomplished the day before, what they're planning for the day ahead and what their challenges are.

"Just the rate we had to scale and the scale we had to go to was nuts," said Brooks, who met Reed at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, where the campaign chief technology officer was his dormitory resident assistant. "We did everything in an agile fashion."

The areas that VanDenPlas and Kunesh oversaw — DevOps, user experience — are relatively commonplace at tech companies but were new to a political campaign.

Kunesh, for example, was responsible for ensuring that "anything that deals with computers looks good and works well for ordinary people." One challenge he faced was making sure that Dashboard, an online field office tool that allowed volunteers to call voters from anywhere, would work just as well for a smartphone-toting 25-year-old as for a less-tech-savvy retiree. The application also had to work elegantly on desktop computers and mobile devices. Kunesh visited field offices and ran focus groups; he also persuaded more than two dozen usability experts nationwide to give feedback on the tech team's products on a voluntary basis.

In the end, "a lot of the stuff we did for mobile for younger folks was also helpful for older folks because it did some of the same types of things — like we're going to make big buttons and simple, direct calls to action," Kunesh said.

Obsessive stress testing and developing extensive backup systems was also a crucial part of the group's work. VanDenPlas said the team experienced just 30 minutes of total unplanned outages, an amount he called "a phenomenally low amount of downtime." When superstorm Sandy was hurtling toward an Amazon data center in northern Virginia that the campaign was relying on, the engineers were able to replicate every crucial application to a West Coast facility within 24 hours.