Obama’s former chief technology officer talks innovation, entrepreneurship

Amulya Yalamanchili, Reporter

The chief technology officer for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign spoke at Northwestern on Wednesday about his experiences in technology and entrepreneurship.

About 40 students and faculty members gathered in Harris Hall to hear software engineer and self-proclaimed hacker Harper Reed speak. Before working for the campaign, Reed was the CTO at the clothing company Threadless. He is currently founder and CEO of upcoming startup Modest, Inc.

Reed spoke about his experiences at Threadless, explaining the company’s strategies behind product creation and delivery. The company is an online clothing retailer that holds competitions for user-generated designs, which are voted on by the online community.  It then prints and sells t-shirts and other merchandise based on the winners and shares royalties with the artists.

“We accidentally invented crowd-sourcing,” Reed said. “People like you designed the shirts.”

When discussing his transition from CTO of Threadless to CTO of Obama’s re-election campaign, Reed described the technologies he helped create and implement while working for the president. He said in order to succeed, the campaign needed people who were passionate about using technology to engage voters.

“The campaign really needed technology, but it wasn’t a technology organization,” Reed said. “In order to get the technology they wanted and needed, they needed to go to the engineers. We had to do real enterprise-level technology. No one had ever done this before.”

Using a micro-targeting strategy, one application used for the campaign raised $615 million and encouraged voting by implementing quick donation and voting technology customized to each voter, Reed said.

Reed explained his keys to success, such as the importance of communication and building a strong team.

“You have to think big, get your big thoughts out or no one will care,” Reed said. “When building a team, look for the people who are better than you, and who are stronger than you.”

The event was organized by the Contemporary Thought Speaker Series, a student group that brings speakers from various fields to campus, in conjunction with the Offices of the President and the Provost and the Division of Student Affairs.

Weinberg senior Victoria Zuzelo, an organizer with CTSS, said the group asked Reed to speak at NU in order to appeal to the cross section of the student body interested in technology and entrepreneurship.

“We want people to think critically about different topics,” Zuzelo said. “Our hope is that eventually, students will come to our events even if they don’t have a particular interest in the topic so they will be encouraged to think with a broader perspective.”

Weinberg freshman Edwin Wu, who attended the speech, called Reed’s presentation “entertaining and insightful.”

“Harper really connects well with a college audience, and I was very entertained by his casual approach,” Wu said. “As someone who is interested in technology and business, I loved hearing about Reed’s experiences in a tech startup, as well as his work on Obama’s campaign.”

The talk was followed by a question-and-answer session.

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