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Big answers trump Big Data

The CTO for Obama's re-election campaign, Harper Reed, explains why he is no fan of the 'Big Data' buzzword.

Harper Reed, the CTO of President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, is no fan of the technology industry buzzword: Big Data.

“It was called Big Data because it was hard to store, and now it is no longer hard to store,” says Reed. “Right now, what is exciting about data is it leads to answers. So we need to start focusing more on answers.”

His message for CIOs? “I would love to see a conference called ‘Big Answers’ that talks about how we got those answers and how we were able to make and react to data.”

During the 2012 US presidential campaign, he says, “The data didn’t matter. What mattered was the answer. And I think that is true of all businesses.”

“But we focus so often on the things that are surrounding the data like, how is it stored? How fast do we get it out? Is it redundant?”

He says these questions are largely solved and no longer require a lot of innovation. “We need to be focusing on how do you use this data to make an action. How do you create more data that you are able to get answers from?

“That is what makes it exciting for me, how do we build more answers,” says Reed, who had also worked as CTO of Threadless, a Chicago-based firm that used crowdsourcing to design and sell shirts.

In an interview with CIO New Zealand early this week in San Francisco where he spoke on “the power of data” at an EMC Greenplum event, Reed explains he is playing a more entrepreneurial role these days.

“I am now focusing on startups – both my own and helping other people achieve what they are trying to achieve, and then as much as I can, helping other companies grow, using what I learned in the campaign.”

“We were all about innovation,” he says of the 2012 campaign. He says the dollars they raised were used for better content distribution and targeting the right people for content. “We built all the software to really work with data – big data.”

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He says the campaign staff used both physical and digital methods to gather information.

The volunteers who knocked on doors took data and wrote notes. “Our volunteers were essentially a sales force,” he says. “We did a lot of asking, in places where we didn’t have data, we asked for it.”

“We are often bad listeners when it comes to data, we are not interacting with users,” he says. “Force yourself to listen, really take a lot of time thinking what that means.”

Building the right team was another major takeaway from the campaign.

“One of the big innovations that I brought to the campaign almost above all other innovations, was the team,” he says. “How do we hire those people? How do you keep them there? How do you make sure they do not leave and are not unhappy?”

Drawing on his experience as an engineer, he says, “We created a culture of problem solving”, an approach that can also work with leaders of technology teams.

“I think back when I was a 24 year old engineer. I was relatively fresh out of college. My interests weren’t aligned with the company’s interest that I work for. It wasn’t because I was a bad engineer, it was because they were giving me problems that I didn’t care about.”

Applying this insight today, he says, “For example [if] you are trying to hire me, [you will say] 'Harper, we have this software that was built in early 2000 and needs to be upgraded. We want it to be modernised and we need you to help solve this problem with a team of engineers'.

“Suddenly you are giving me a problem to solve.”

VIDEO: Harper Reed talks, over on CIO's Facebook page, or watch below

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