If you are even mildly familiar with the Chattanooga Web development community, then you’re likely familiar with the name Daniel Ryan, better known as “dryan.” Originally from Florida, Ryan moved to Chattanooga in 2000 and has since served as the advertising and branding chair of Young Professionals Association Chattanooga, the founding director of BarCamp Chattanooga, the technical director for the grassroots community journalism site Chattarati, and an adviser to the 48-Hour Launch.
Toward the end of last summer, Ryan was hired as the director of frontend development for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. Ryan recently chatted with Nooga.com about what it’s like to work for the commander in chief, the sprint to Election Day and his plans for the future.
So, I’ll get right to it … Walk me through how you wound up working for the president.
Much has been made of the campaign’s ability to micro-target audiences for email and social. This was how they got me. I received an email in July 2011 that the campaign was looking for developers. I sent along my info and was in Chicago about a month later.
What was it like meeting him for the first time?
Security was intense. It took several hours to sweep our floor, then we all filed back in through magnetometers and waited. He spoke to us for several minutes then shook hands with those he could. His second visit was the one I really remember, though. It was around his birthday, and he was staying in town overnight. After he spoke to the whole team-around 700 people at that point-he spent a few hours around the office chatting with people and telling stories. One of them has been making the rounds the past few days. He even played a round of ping pong (one of our favorite diversions at HQ). It was really great to see him humanized.
What were your day-to-day responsibilities?
I managed a team of about two dozen people, consisting of developers, QA techs and support staff. An average day for me was about 14 hours of work, mostly at the office, ranging from meetings with my team, other teams in the digital department and other departments in the campaign. I also worked with a large group of outside vendors who provided parts of our overall system. In the closing weeks of the campaign, my main focus was on making sure all of our systems were ready for Election Day and the massive increase in traffic that brought with us.
How closely was he involved with you and your team? How often did you interact with him? How well did you get to know him?
The president had a country to run. He interacted mostly with our senior staff, who set out the goals of the campaign. Teams like mine took those goals and turned them into strategies.
What are some unique challenges that come along with promoting an incumbent president compared to, say, promoting a typical product or service?
The biggest challenge we faced was we had one chance to get it right. While a bug on a typical site might cost some amount of money, generally over time, you can make up for that. We had about 18 months to prep for a six-week sprint (early voting meant “Election Day” for us started in late September). While we did get some chances to test our systems during the height of early voting, we basically wouldn’t know if our systems worked until it was over.
It was also unique to know that we were under such scrutiny, both professionally and politically. My mantra was constantly “don’t be the story.” We could have embarrassed the president or caused an international incident, but we didn’t.
Did you have any particular success moments along the way that you are especially proud of?
Election Day is the obvious one. We had dozens of critical systems interacting with each other and our amazing staff in the field. All of those functioning as expected was an incredible achievement. Besides that, our “Life of Julia” piece was personally rewarding. Our team, the policy team and the design team put a lot of effort into that. It was seen by hundreds of thousands of people and was even the subject of a “Daily Show” segment.
How confident were you that he would win the election? Why did you feel that way?
We always knew it was going to be a tight race, but we had a plan, and we executed it. I think for me it became clear as early voting results came in. The electorate was more diverse than the Romney campaign was telegraphing that they believed it would be. In August, they told the National Press Club that this would be a “wave election.” Masses of voters would switch over to them after the third debate. With early voting playing such a major role, that was far too late to wait.
What’s your strongest memory of your time working for him?
Just how proud I am of my team. We all came from different backgrounds and different skillsets to become a real family of people dedicated not only to the president, but to each other. So many nights, I had to force people to go home and rest; they never wanted to stop. The level of commitment to each other, professionally and personally, was like nowhere I’ve worked before.
You’re back in Chattanooga now. What are your plans? Are you going to stay for a while?
I’m going down to visit my family in Florida for the holidays and figure out what is next for me. Watching the tech community here grow and flourish so much while I’ve been away has me itching to get involved again. I hope to use my experience with the campaign to help elevate Chattanooga’s reputation as a serious place to innovate.
Thanks so much for your time.
My pleasure. It’s great to be back.
Bill Colrus writes about local news, culture, music and media. You can find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter or reach him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.