I owe my career to the Dean Campaign

A couple years ago, the Dean of the Robbins School at University of Richmond invited me to campus to participate in the Robins Speaker Series. (I’m a Richmond Law alum.) I had a great time, especially with a series of excellent questions asked by students in the second half of my talk. But I want to talk about the first 20 minutes or so of the talk, where I talked about a series of entirely unpredictable events that started with a voicemail I left with a long-shot presidential campaign in Burlington, Vermont, and how it led to a career in product management at Google, then led to nearly a decade in venture capital. (Even later, after this talk: I can trace getting appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom to be the Chief Technology Innovation Officer for the state of California directly back to that phone call.) First, the talk (relevant portion starts around the 6 minute mark and goes to around the 25 minute mark):

About that voicemail. Less than a year after I started this blog, I read an article in the Economist about a little-known Governor who was saying things that piqued my interest. (I checked: sure enough, I blogged about it here.) Soon after, I called directory assistance (!) to get a phone number for the campaign – ironically enough, the campaign that would become synonymous with the Internet didn’t have a website yet. The operator actually laughed at me –everyone in Burlington knew the governor, and the thought of him running for President tickled her to no end.

I got an answering machine – it didn’t seem likely that I’d hear back. Surely they had more important things to attend to? But a week or two later, I got a call back from none other than Gov. Dean’s campaign manager, Joe Trippi. I had no way of knowing at the time, but every major step in my career would track back to that phone call. (Farhad Manjoo, writing for Salon at the time, wrote up a good account of those early days.)

Volunteering on the Dean campaign was a phenomenal experience. I worked (virtually) alongside Gov. Dean’s tech team for more than a year; for my birthday in 2003, I gave myself a flight to Burlington and spent a long weekend working out of campaign HQ. After the Dean campaign imploded, some of that team got hired by a state Senator who was a long-shot candidate for US Senate in Illinois, Barack Obama. Because I was in Illinois and the tech team was in DC, the tech team asked if I’d consult; you know how that Senate race played out. Many of the folks – staff and outside consultants – would reassemble in 2008 when Sen. Obama announced he was running for President.

By then, Google had purchased FeedBurner, the Chicago-based startup I’d been working for for three years. Google moved me to California, thwarting my goal of spending every waking hour in Obama HQ in Chicago. After a call with some of the friends on the Obama ’08 campaign (who I’d met on the Obama Senate campaign), I built the superdelegates.org site… which ended up getting featured on CNN by Abbi Tatton:

Ginny Hunt – a friend from the Dean Campaign – was by this point working in Google’s DC office. She saw the CNN piece, and mentioned in passing to her colleagues on Google’s policy team that the Rick Klau mentioned in the story actually worked at Google on the main campus. A week later, Larry Page (yes, that Larry Page) demoed my side project at TGIF in front of the entire company.

That’s how I ended up with a 20% project of my own – managing Google’s partnership at the Democratic Convention in Denver. It was there I met Katie Stanton, at the time a PM at Google, who was also a political junkie. We hit it off. I’d known from the day I started at Google that I wanted to be a PM – but I also knew that my lack of a computer science degree meant that was an all but impossible goal.

Months after the convention, Katie IM’d me out of the blue and told me her friend Joe was looking for a PM on Blogger. I was of course deeply familiar with the product – as mentioned last week, I started my blog on Blogger in 2001. Working on Blogger would be a dream job! But the lack of a CS degree seemed to mean it would be a non-starter. She insisted on introducing me to Joe Kraus, then the VP in the department where Blogger lived. Joe and I met, and not long after, Joe asked Sergey Brin to make an exception to the CS requirement (amazingly, he did), and before the end of the year, I was a PM. Running Blogger. 🤯

Not quite three years later, Joe and I met for lunch. I’d joined YouTube in January to be the PM on YouTube’s homepage, and after I finished telling him how much I loved it, he apologized and said that I needed to join him at Google Ventures. (One more small world connection: while at YouTube, in prep for a product launch, I met with the comms team to do some media training. Leading that training? Abbi Tatton – the same Abbi Tatton who’d profiled superdelegates.org when she worked at CNN years earlier – was now part of YouTube’s communications team. The interview I was prepping for? It was with Farhad Manjoo, the journalist I’d first crossed paths with when he was writing about the Dean campaign.)

2022 Update: I gave the talk above in 2018, when I’d been at GV for just over 7 years. I stayed at GV another two years before leaving… but the Dean campaign wasn’t done with me yet.

In 2012, a friend from the Dean campaign reached out to introduce me to Jen Pahlka, who’d founded Code for America a few years prior. I’d actually met Jen (briefly) at an Obama fundraiser a month before this outreach, but the follow-up introduction was the nudge I needed to get to know her. We became friends. I got involved in CfA as a mentor, and stayed in touch with Jen over the years. After I left Google Ventures, I pinged Jen to let her know that while I had some time off, I was eager to volunteer with anyone who could use help. That evening, Jen connected me to Amy Tong, then the CIO at the state of California. I was on my first call at 7am the next morning; after 6 weeks of 18 hours/day / 7 days/week volunteering on the state’s vaccination effort, I was appointed by Gov. Newsom to my current role. I’ve been here since.

If I don’t make that phone call to Burlington, I don’t meet Joe, don’t volunteer for the campaign, don’t meet the Dean tech team, don’t work on the Obama Senate campaign, don’t volunteer on Obama’s ’08 campaign, don’t manage Google’s partnership at the DNC, don’t meet Katie, don’t meet Joe, don’t go to Blogger, then GV, don’t meet Jen, don’t meet Amy, don’t get appointed by Gov. Newsom.

Who knows what your next phone call could lead to?

Thanks to Tim Urban for the inspiration behind this post:

4 responses to “I owe my career to the Dean Campaign”

  1. Great story, Rick. (And as a Burlingtonian, especially resonant!) I suspect most of us have similar unexpected forks in the road. If I hadn’t mixed up a PM interview at BSchool with Lever Brothers (now Unilever) with one scheduled with Lehman Brothers, then no fintech career and no connecting with GV. As Yogi Berra said, when you come to a fork in the road, take it.

  2. Rick — Just came across your post and had to smile. You remember our meeting at the first Dean Meetup in Evanston in March 2003? And you came to my house once for a Dean gathering or meeting? I was inspired by Governor Dean’s campaign as well, ran for office in Cook County in 2006, served on the Board of Commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago for nearly 15 years, and was appointed by President Biden to serve as Regional Administrator of US EPA, Region 5 last October. I’m still in touch with folks from the Dean campaign. Miss you! And I’m proud of what you are doing. Debra Shore

    • I absolutely remember! What an incredible journey you’ve had – congrats on your appointment, and thanks for your service! Really appreciate you dropping by.

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