The odds weren’t in Republican John Albers’ favor when he decided to run for Georgia State Senate from District 56 in May 2009. “I was the underdog in the race,” recalls Albers, CIO at Ronald Blue, a financial-management firm. “In fact, when the race first started out, most people said I wouldn’t get one percent of the vote.”
That’s because Albers was up against Brandon Beach, a former Alpharetta city council member who had the support of the six mayors who serve in north Fulton County, plus years of experience working with state organizations like the Department of Transportation. But despite clocking more hours in server rooms than in public office, Albers defeated Beach with 51 percent of the vote.
Turns out, running an IT shop calls for a lot of the same expertise as running for public office. “A CIO has to have great listening skills, be able to sift through reality versus a vendor’s sales pitch, and be great at negotiating,” says John Reed, executive director of Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing firm. In other words, he says, a CIO is “a natural fit” for public service.
In fact, in today’s Obama-inspired era of digital campaign strategies, firsthand knowledge of innovative technologies is better than any staged photo op. For starters, Albers built a strong social media presence via Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn. At Albers’ website, voters could download a ring tone for their BlackBerry or iPhone, and an iPhone app that lets users follow the campaign’s progress, get Albers’ views on top issues, view videos, donate and sign up to volunteer.
Behind the scenes, Albers set up a small data warehouse and used it to run Salesforce.com’s CRM suite, tracking everything from votes and volunteers to yards signs and campaign-event attendance.
“When looked at it from the outside in, there was no chance I should have won, which is why we had to do things differently,” says Albers. “The traditional methods are still important—knocking on doors, making phone calls and putting out yard signs. But the addition of e-mail, websites, videos, social media and text messaging is huge. We really leveraged technology and were more technologically advanced than anybody running for state office.”
Running for state senator isn’t the first time Albers has used his powers as a CIO for the greater good. In 2006, he launched the nonprofit Alpharetta Public Safety Foundation (APSF) to raise funds, create programs and offer technical assistance to improve public safety. Together, Albers and the APSF have rolled out several high-tech projects, including the Mobile Plate Hunter 100, a $25,000 computer-imaging system that nabs criminals by capturing 1,500 license plates per minute and cross-referencing them against five national law-enforcement databases.
Of course, the ability to convince 6,565 people to vote for you can come in handy in the boardroom. After all, says Reed, “Being a politician is about creating a vision and excitement around a cause. That’s the same case with a CIO who has to rally the troops.” Maybe so, but according to Albers, while his campaign experience has sharpened his people-management skills, Ronald Blue’s IT team won’t be talking politics in the server room anytime soon. “We’re a business and we have to run our business,” says Albers. “Work is reserved for work.”
Cindy Waxer is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.