GOP Hires Silicon Valley Vet to Up the Party’s Tech Game
Ever since President Obama’s deft digital strategy helped him defeat Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee has been working hard to build a strong technological backbone for the party. Now, it’s hiring a new tech industry vet to help lead the charge to 2016.
The RNC has confirmed it’s hiring Darren Bolding, a Silicon Valley engineer and system architect by background, as its new chief technology officer. Though Bolding spent most of his career in the tech industry, he transitioned to the political world a few years back, most recently serving as CTO for Scott Walker’s presidential campaign. Now, Bolding says he’s hoping to continue building upon the tools the RNC has created over the last few years, as well as the technology that he and the Walker team were working on before Walker pulled out of the race.
“To me, it’s about not just getting a Republican in the White House, which is the most important and biggest goal,” Bolding says, “but also, all of the down-ballot races, and trying to build up the infrastructure going forward.”
A Revolving Door
The GOP has had trouble filling its top tech position since the committee hired Facebook engineer Andy Barkett to be its first CTO back in 2013. The decision to create the role came in the wake of the party’s so-called Growth and Opportunity Project, which was an attempt to figure out what went wrong during the 2012 race and how the party could fix its tech game going forward. One of the many recommendations the report made was that the party “should play an important role in building bridges between its digital operatives and the best minds in the Valley and elsewhere.”
Barkett was brought in as CTO shortly after, but his tenure was short-lived. He stepped down from the role earlier this year and was recently quoted saying that the RNC “was a terrible place for a smart technologist to come work,” citing how hard it often was to get political operatives to understand and embrace technology. The RNC’s chief data officer, Azarias Reda, stepped into the role in January but recently announced he, too, was leaving to launch his own political tech startup.
Bolding attributes the turnover to the fact that “tech people move around quite often,” but he admits that merging the tech and political worlds does require going through some “growing pains.”
“The first phase was convincing people we needed to have a technology program,” says Bolding, who worked for the RNC as director of DevOps before joining the Walker campaign. “People knew we did, and that’s why they hired the CTO and had the Growth and Opportunity Project, but I think there was still evangelizing that needed to happen.”
Tech the Vote
Now that the party is convinced, Bolding says, his goal is to build tools that can actually scale in time for the general election. “Scaling is actually very hard. It’s a problem in industry, in startups, and certainly in politics, but it frequently gets neglected as important,” Bolding says. “People talk about applications and data, and how they’re going to put them together, but the reality is: stuff has to stay up.”
By “stuff,” Bolding means new tools being built by the RNC’s data team such as the GOP Data Center, a massive, searchable database of two decades of voter information. Other tech tools are designed to help pinpoint potential target voters who are already connected to the RNC’s volunteer network. Bolding says he’ll also be looking for guidance from the campaigns, themselves, to figure out what tools they’ll require if they end up becoming the nominee.
But one of the most important tasks will be building up the party’s bench of tech talent to include not just Beltway strategists, but also experienced technologists like himself.
“There’s a limited number of people who have been doing political technology to date,” Bolding says. “We need all of them, but we need more. We have to get them somewhere, so we should get the most competent people we can, and that’s probably from the tech industry.”