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Leader of the (geek) pack

“Being an engineer with a reporter and photographer walking behind you is not normal.”

Harper Reed ’01

Obama Tech Team

It was like Homecoming in December for Harper Reed ’01 (left), Derek Brooks ’03 (middle), and Ian Dees ’06 (right). The trio were busy during Homecoming proper, with all three working on President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, but they were invited to visit in early December to re-connect with faculty, talk with classes about their work on the campaign, and hold a panel discussion about careers in technology. Brooks and Dees were software engineers for the campaign, and Reed was the chief technology officer.

Harper Reed ’01 didn’t get into software engineering for the publicity, but it found him in a big way.

Reed, who graduated with a degree in computer science, spent most of the past two years as chief technology officer for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. The campaign used technology more than any in history, and Reed was responsible for overseeing the massive undertaking. The team of 40 engineers included two other Cornellians, Derek Brooks ’03 and Ian Dees ’06.

The three returned to the Hilltop a month after the election to re-connect with faculty, talk with classes about their work on the campaign, and hold panel discussions on technology careers and personal marketing. They painted a picture of an enormous project—as major political campaigns often are—with people from tech companies across the nation there to work toward the re-election.

“It was ridiculous,” Reed said. “We had people from Craigslist, Google, Facebook who had seen everything. I’m proud of the team. They were the best in the business. We helped re-elect a president and the technology worked great.”

A devotee of what he refers to as the real-time Internet, Reed spent four years as CTO of Threadless, a Chicago-based company that sells hip T-shirts and was among the first to use crowdsourcing to determine which designs to sell. It was an enormous success, with Reed estimating five million T-shirts sold in his four years. Since then, he’s worked with hosting provider Rackspace, with venture capitalist firms, and done plenty of personal projects.

Those personal projects show how civic-minded Reed can be. That isn’t surprising, considering that in college he helped form a group called Jugglers Against Homophobia, which did pretty much what you’d expect a group so-named to do: juggle and protest people like Elizabeth Dole. In 2010 Reed, along with Everyblock co-founder Dan X. O’Neil, launched CTA Alerts, which uses data from the Chicago Transit Authority to keep commuters informed of trouble spots and travel times. Reed and O’Neil also built a site that keeps track of payments Chicago makes to vendors.

If that work, and the writing, reading, and critical thinking skills he learned at Cornell, all prepared Reed to be the Obama campaign’s CTO, it didn’t prepare him for the side effect: constant media attention. Despite efforts by the campaign to keep the focus on the message and not the technology, the work Reed and his team were doing to connect people, to raise enormous sums of money, and to get voters turned out and active, was a lure for journalists looking for new stories. But the team never really got used to all the attention.

“Being an engineer with a reporter and photographer walking behind you is not normal,” Reed said.

Maybe not normal, but Reed became something of a media star in the days and weeks leading up to and then following the election. He was pictured and mentioned in Time’s Person of the Year issue, which focused on Obama and his re-election effort, as well as by Mother Jones, Wired, The Atlantic, and hometown paper the Chicago Tribune, among others.

Reed said Cornell’s liberal arts education has helped him. It wasn’t technical knowledge—computer science classes were more about fundamentals than learning a particular programming language—but the writing and reading, the critical thinking, and the exposure to different disciplines. The rooting in technical learning combined with the liberal arts makes a well-rounded person, Reed said, one who can build and participate in communities. And, as Reed noted, it helps you find jobs based on skills rather than degrees. Take his wife, Hiromi Nakazawa ’01. She majored in art, and has a master’s degree in art history, but now she works for Deloitte Consulting and prepares tax returns for expatriates—technical, detail driven work, and not art-related at all.

Now that the campaign is over, it’s on to the next thing for Reed, though what that next thing is isn’t exactly clear yet. First on the agenda is travelling, and going on vacation sans electronic devices for the first time. Then he plans to start a business with Brooks and some friends. He’s not sure what that business will be just yet, but given his track record, it will be something to watch.

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