Two years ago, Nathaniel Koloc, cofounder and then-CEO of ReWork, a recruiting firm that matches people looking for meaningful jobs with companies doing good in the world, was showing his friend how to use Twitter as a networking tool.
His friend loved politics, and it was right after President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, so Koloc tweeted the campaign’s COO, Ann Marie Habershaw, and asked how they hired their staff. “Political campaigns have to hire so many people so quickly, and there is so much at stake,” Koloc said, so surely she would have tips that could help his friend. It took two minutes for her to tweet back, and one day to hop on the phone with the then 27-year-old, who had no experience in politics.
What she told Koloc, who today is the director of talent acquisition and development for Hillary for America, shocked him: Political campaigns typically don’t have anyone dedicated to hiring. Department heads individually bring people on as needed, and usually those people come from their inner circles. “The thing about politics is that it is really a word-of-mouth game,” says James Hohmann, national political correspondent for the Washington Post, who has rubbed shoulders with countless staffers in the three presidential elections he’s covered. “A lot of times people get put in important positions because they happened to show up or they know a friend . . . there is a really ad hoc nature to how it works.” The problem with inner circles, of course, is that they tend to look like the (white male) people at their centers, potentially perpetuating the lack of diversity—an acknowledged problem in the tech space and elsewhere.
That was vastly different from how Koloc approached hiring. A company is only as good as its talent, he figured, so hiring should be approached with the same vigor as categories like marketing or sales. Since starting his company after college, he had created a list of best practices for companies to follow to get the exact people they want and need. Nothing was left to chance; everything from where to look for new hires to how to write a job description was done intentionally.
Koloc forgot all about his conversation with Habershaw until this February, when he received a call while walking home from work. It was from David Levine, the deputy COO for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, who had gotten a tip from Habershaw about him. Levine wanted to know if Koloc would consider serving, should Clinton run, as her director of talent acquisition and development, a role no one I spoke to can recall a major political campaign ever having—and one that has transformed the demographics of the people working on Clinton’s campaign. “It was wild,” says Koloc. “I was so excited to figure this out.”
Clinton’s campaign headquarters are located in Brooklyn Heights, a tony New York City neighborhood close to Brooklyn Bridge. The scene inside resembles a somewhat jumbled WeWork office, with slews of eager, diverse, busy people working intensely on bean bag chairs or cobbled-together standing desks, pausing occasionally for karaoke night or a round of air hockey. If Koloc’s goal was to fill the campaign with a racially, ethnically, and gender-diverse staff, at first glance it appears he has achieved it.
Each department boasts steals from impressive firms including IBM, General Assembly, Etsy, Yelp, Google, Gawker, Facebook, Kiva, and DreamWorks. The digital team has talent from the New York Times and the analytics team from New York University’s formidable think tank on housing policy. The number of people from within politics is striking—for being so low. Less than half of the analytics team and almost none of the tech team ever held a campaign position.
“It’s the most diverse and capable team I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with some amazing engineers,” says Deepa Subramaniam, a 33-year-old who serves as director of product, a role she held previously at Charity Water, where she built an online fundraising platform to raise money ($27.9 million in 2014) to deliver clean water to the developing world. Before that she was at Adobe, where she tackled projects like the Creative Cloud and the open web platform. “We have people from public sector, private sector, media companies, big startups, and much smaller startups,” says Koloc. “We have folks from all different angles coming in, many of them taking pay cuts to work much longer hours.”
The campaign’s diversity extends far beyond career history. Over 50% of the campaign is female. Of the campaign’s more than 500 staffers nationwide, more than one-third are people of color; nearly 40% of Hillary for America’s senior staff are people of color. Regional press secretary Tyrone Gayle points out that these numbers roughly reflect national demographics.
Hillary for America is hardly the only political campaign to attract capable people from varied industries. Bernie Sanders has been making headlines for the slew of programmers coming his way. And President Obama led the way in luring top players from America’s white-hot tech industry to spend a few years helping Washington “fix things” (starting with its initially botched launch of Healthcare.gov). Obama also appointed the first, second, and third U.S. CTOs, as well as its first chief data scientist.
Now, Clinton is taking a methodical approach to hiring a high-achieving team that also reflects America’s demographics. “From the earliest days of our campaign, Hillary for America has adopted a state-of-the-art approach to hiring, allowing us to hire a talented and dedicated staff,” says Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager. “We’re always on the lookout for new talent—whether they come from the private or public sector, media, tech, or are a veteran of the political world.”
Everything Koloc practices originates from his experience founding ReWork in 2011 in Boulder, Colo., at age 25, after he completed graduate school in Sweden at the Blekinge Institute of Technology. Koloc (whose undergraduate degree is from the University of Vermont) noticed his friends were either accepting jobs they didn’t find stimulating, or not settling and remaining unemployed. At the same time, there was an uptick in industries like sustainability, organic food, wellness, and social enterprise. ReWork was founded to match people looking for meaningful, stimulating jobs they actually believed in, with the growing number of positions available in those industries.
Koloc and his ReWork colleagues honed techniques for getting the right people in the right jobs, though he is mum on how exactly he does this within the Hillary campaign. “The little things add up,” he says. For example, wording a job description so it highlights an individual’s opportunity to leave a legacy can go a long way in attracting ambitious people who want to make an impact. Another approach is to give job candidates sample work to complete during the interview process. That allows the company to see if this person can actually do the work, and allows the person to see if they will enjoy doing it. He looks for talent outside of the circle of current employees, perhaps in other industries that draw on similar skills. He sees who is talking about issues important to the campaign on Twitter.
At Hillary for America, Koloc serves as more of a resource for senior staff than a line recruiter, imparting his acquired knowledge and letting them implement it. Max Weselcouch, director of analytics communications, came to the campaign from NYU, where she directed the Moelis Institute for Affordable Housing Policy at NYU’s Furman Center. As she’s staffed up, she’s successfully used the sample-work approach recommended by Koloc to weed out unfit candidates. “We will get excuses 10 minutes after someone received the test,” Weselcouch says. “They say, ‘Oh, I actually just accepted a job.’”
Marlon Marshall, Clinton’s director of state campaigns and political engagement, who directs the field operations, says Koloc has helped him find volunteers and staff in places he never would have looked. “I think what happens on a lot of campaigns is you reach out to networks of people you know, so who has done a campaign before, or here is my social network,” he says. “Nat has thought of ways to get nontraditional people involved. Also, how do we make sure to reach out to communities of color to talk about the different opportunities we have?”
Attracting the right staff leads to the campaign tackling problems in new and different ways. While the campaign won’t reveal most of what they are working on, they gave a few hints.
Mina Markham, a 30-year-old software engineer who came to the campaign from IBM, where she was a product designer and front-end architect, says she is using her skills and experience to streamline the process of how code gets written. If she can crack this problem, the tech team will be able to build products—like ones that tell field organizers about potential donors on the ground, or micro-websites that target specific demographics of voters—much more nimbly.
Weselcouch, meanwhile, is drawing heavily on her background in analytics. “One of the things we look at is our field organizers and what they are doing every day. How many people are they calling? How many doors are they knocking on? Then we aggregate that data and present it in tiny little nuggets that senior staff can look at on their phone and understand in 10 seconds.”
Call it a dashboard for democracy.
It’s not easy to recruit for political campaigns, says Sasha Issenberg, the author of The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. Campaigns grow quickly when the need arises or when the money comes in. It’s also hard to convince good people to leave stable, well-paying jobs for a gig with an expiration date. For this reason, he says, “Campaigns have never done a consistently good job at hiring people from outside the world of politics.”
The Clinton campaign is hardly the first to try to overcome the challenges. Both Obama campaigns, for example, experimented with different kinds of recruitment in certain departments. Teddy Goff, who led the famed digital campaign team, drew from unusual sources of talent, says Jonathan Alter, who wrote about it in his book The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies. “He had two professional poker players, a nuclear physicist, and several other people with varied backgrounds who worked in ‘The Cave,’” he says. “They ended up doing an amazing job.” Meanwhile, Dan Wagner, Obama’s head of analytics, only hired people who could complete his complex problem sets.
But no campaign has tried to tackle the problem with a tailored, top-down approach until this one.
Koloc has a few things going for him. First, unlike some campaigns, Clinton has the money and staying power to recruit talented staff. “She knows she’s going to win [the primary],” says Hohmann. “She is going to raise a lot of money and set fundraising records, so she has the luxury.”
Clinton is also benefitting from excellent timing. Obama made campaigns sexy again, opening up the path for her to recruit the young and upwardly mobile. “That’s an enduring post-Obama change,” says Issenberg. “I do not think 12 years ago that people thought working on John Kerry’s or Al Gore’s campaign was cool or interesting. I think the innovation culture around the Obama campaign—which has gotten tons of media attention—[amplified] the idea that the things that happen in political campaigns are innovative and potentially at the cutting edge of fields unrelated to politics.”
Subramaniam agrees. “The campaign is dealing with the hard problems that whet every product manager, designer, and engineer’s appetite,” she says. The analytics team is working with massive data sets to mine for useful insights. The communications team is trying
to get a message across to millions of people about a candidate they will never meet in person. The products team is trying to build websites that appeal to the public and educate them.
But even with these advantages, Koloc still has his work cut out for him. He has to reach a new type of candidate, some of whom don’t even realize the campaign needs their skills. Markham said she didn’t even realize political campaigns hired staff engineers. “I didn’t even know that was on the radar; I’ve never been in politics before, so it wasn’t in my realm of experience,” she says. “When they contacted me, I was shocked, and then really, really excited . . . something like this doesn’t happen very often, the chance to be part of something potentially historic. This is the job you dream of having; you can make such a big impact.”