Former McCain staffers on ditching politics for Silicon Valley

November 5, 2014, 12:00 PM UTC
“People who go into politics have a very high tolerance for risk because fifty percent of the time, you’re not going to win," says a McCain staffer-turned-techie.
Photograph by Getty Images

The legions of campaign workers whose candidates lost an election on Tuesday need not necessarily worry about finding their next gig. As other publications have noted, technology companies are more eager than ever to snap up Washington insiders with expertise navigating the Beltway, hiring at a clip that shows losing a campaign can be the beginning of a career in a whole new industry.

Companies from Airbnb to Uber have been poaching political staffers, many of them female, as lobbying legislators and influencing regulators becomes more integral to their businesses.

To name a few: Jill Hazelbaker, the national communications director for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign joined Snapchat in October to head the company’s communications and policy efforts (Hazelbaker had previously been Google’s senior director of communications and government relations). Katie Biber, senior legal advisor to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign is now in the same role at Airbnb. Niki Christoff worked on the policy side of John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign before decamping for Google (GOOG), where she now heads communications for the East Coast.

But campaigns also seem to attract and develop a certain type of character well suited to Silicon Valley. It’s no surprise that hiring managers look for political experience: both sectors are fast-paced and high-stakes, attracting people who are highly motivated by risk and reward.

“People who work on campaigns tend to be scrappy, to work really hard and to be entrepreneurs,” says Christoff. Women who cut their teeth in the rough-and-tumble world of politics emerge from campaigns uniquely suited to the demanding, stressful and high-risk environment at growing technology companies, she adds.

Despite the public’s focus on Obama’s digitally savvy team, former McCain staffers like Christoff seem plenty appealing to Silicon Valley. Christoff’s colleague Samantha Smith is a manager for Google’s global communications and public policy team, after working on the McCain campaign’s communications team and serving as press secretary to Sen. Richard Burr (R – N.C.) as well as communications director to his 2010 reelection campaign.

Studies have shown that women are less inclined to take financial and career risks, but “with big risks come big rewards,” Christoff says. “People who go into politics have a very high tolerance for risk because fifty percent of the time, you’re not going to win.”

Campaign staffers are conditioned for chaos, which helps develop skills that translate to the breakneck speed of the technology industry, Smith says. Fast-paced, high-growth and closely scrutinized, “political campaigns are the ultimate start-ups,” she says. “Success requires responsiveness to user feedback, in this case the voters.”

The migration from politics to tech, of course, is not limited to women. In September, Uber, the car-sharing service treading piecemeal regional regulations, snapped up David Plouffe, President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, as its senior vice president of policy and strategy. Facebook (FB) has made several hires from Capitol Hill, including Joel Kaplan, White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy to President George W. Bush—who was promoted last month to the social network’s vice president of global policy. And there’s Tucker Bounds, a McCain campaign spokesperson who left Facebook in September to work on a startup called Sidewire.

Given the spate of hires and promotions this fall, Silicon Valley’s interest in Washington shows no signs of flagging. “Tech and politics at their base level are similar,” Christoff says. “They’re not about money but winning hearts and minds.”

Related: What does an election cost? A look at the numbers

An earlier version of this article did not include that Hazelbaker worked at Google before joining Snapchat.

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