Our Guest This Episode: Gabriel Sterling
The 2020 national elections proved to be divisive and controversial. Join us as we take a look behind the scenes with Gabriel Sterling, who became the face of Georgia elections. Gabriel publicly debunked election conspiracy theories and confronted the provocation of threats against election workers. We talk with Gabriel about people, processes, and technology as he describes the unique challenges he faced as the project manager in the role of Voting System Implementation Manager. He explains the request for proposal (RFP), procurement process, and negotiations on a project that aimed to launch the largest implementation of a technology platform for elections in the history of the United States. Gabriel’s team deployed over 30,000 pieces of equipment to the 159 counties in the state.
Gabriel offers his definition of project success, and he explains the importance of encouraging team collaboration and effective communication in an accelerated timeframe. Some of the demands encountered on this project were effective, real-world testing of new technology, keeping a team motivated in light of threats to their safety, and conveying information in a factual and timely manner to all stakeholders. When the election results came in, Gabriel and his team faced harsh opposition. He explains how his approach to hostility - being straightforward, transparent, and honest in communication - gives credibility when stakeholders are disapproving.
Gabriel Sterling is an American politician and elections official from the state of Georgia. He is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) in the office of the Georgia Secretary of State. In November 2019, he took on the role of project manager (Voting System Implementation Manager) and worked to roll out the use of new voting machines purchased from Dominion Voting Systems for the 2020 Georgia state elections.
Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:
“... we did get in the details, but we didn’t get stuck on the details. And never make the perfect the enemy of the good. ... Strive for perfection, accept excellence in all your projects. You can always make that goal. But if you are trying to get to perfection, and you get so focused on that that you lose focus on everything else, your project’s going to fail.”
“You can always get more money. You can always get more people. But you can never get more time. And on a project, time is the killer. ... Killing time is one of the worst things you can do as a project manager.”
The podcast by project managers for project managers. Join us as we take a look behind the scenes with Gabriel Sterling. He took on the role of project manager under the title of “Voting System Implementation Manager,” and worked to roll out the use of new voting machines for the 2020 Georgia state elections.
01:37 … How Gabriel Got the Job
03:12 … Request For Proposal Process
04:45 … Procurement
08:56 … Team Collaboration
11:15 … Defining the Success of the Project
17:31 … “What Kept You Up at Night?”
20:01 … Conquering the Beast of Long Lines
21:41 … Communication Methods with All Locations
23:42 … Paying Attention to Stakeholders
25:41 … A Risk Event
31:15 … Transparency and Honesty
33:59 … How to Stay Motivated
36:33 … Lessons Learned
38:05 … Biggest Surprises on the Project
41:38 … Final Words of Advice
42:50 … Closing
GABRIEL STERLING: … we did get in the details, but we didn’t get stuck on the details. And never make the perfect the enemy of the good. I know this sounds cliché. Strive for perfection; accept excellence in all your projects. You can always make that goal. But if you are trying to get to perfection, and you get so focused on that that you lose focus on everything else, your project’s going to fail.
WENDY GROUNDS: Welcome to Manage This, the podcast for project managers by project managers. I am Wendy Grounds. Joining me by Skype today is Bill Yates, and we have a special appearance by Andy Crowe in the studio. He’s in town for a little while and just wanted to be part of the podcast today. So we’re excited to have him with us.
And then we have our guest, Gabriel Sterling. Gabriel Sterling is a politician and elections official for the state of Georgia. He was the Chief Operating Officer in the office of Georgia’s Secretary of State, and in 2019 he took on the role of project manager and has worked as an independent contractor for the state of Georgia when they were implementing their new voting system. And he had the title of Voting System Implementation Manager and worked to roll out the use of the new voting machines purchased from Dominion Voting Systems for the 2020 Georgia State Elections. He was put in a very public, high-pressure situation which became a point of national interest as the elections continued. And we want to hear his perspective. Gabriel, welcome to Manage This. Thank you for joining us, and we’re excited to hear your story today.
GABRIEL STERLING: Well, thanks for having me.
WENDY GROUNDS: Project management stretches across all industries. There’s so many different types of project managers that we’ve talked to on this podcast. And you really stepped in the role of the Voting System Implementation Manager for the state of Georgia during our recent elections. I want to know what prompted you to volunteer for this job. What made you take on this challenge?
GABRIEL STERLING: The word “volunteer” is very loosely used at that point by you there, Wendy. Because what happened, when I came to the office, I was the Chief Operating Officer. And I have experience on that. I’ve stood up accounting departments, built out warehouses, put together manufacturing facilities. So there’s various levels. And one of my favorite things to ever do in a million years is to do a facility walk with somebody who knows how those systems work. That’s where you can really get into the weeds of understanding how things happen.
And I used to be a consultant, and one of the great things for any consultant is you look at everything with fresh eyes, and you look like a genius for the first three days you’re there because everybody else is used to seeing things the way they always have been. But what happened in this particular case is I had been on a City Council in Sandy Springs, which is a city just north of Atlanta.
And we did some large projects, and I’ve been around a lot of bidding situations. We had to go out and get the architects and the builders. We partnered with Holder to build out a city center, and that was a $230 million project. So out of the gate, when Secretary Raffensperger was sworn in, we were told, oh, the RFP’s almost done for this voting system. It’s almost there. And then two weeks in we realized, there is no RFP. There had been an RFI, a Request for Information.
So out of the gate it kind of fell in my lap to put together a team to do the RFP. And as you know, the RFP essentially is going to set the parameters of your project. And the unfortunate part about our RFP is everybody bidding knew the number. There was no fight over those things. So how do you then deal with that? Because we were going to get $150 million in the budget. Everybody knew that. Everybody knew that was the thing. And the other thing to me is election space. It is a small space with very few players. So they all hate each other, and the knives were out every time.
So there’s almost always a bid protest. But we were on a tight timeline, so I knew there was no way we can afford to have a bid protest. So we had to do a very, very, very tight RFP out of the gate. It kind of sets the ground rules. So when I got here, we started having two meetings a week. Then we started having a meeting a day. My goal was to have the RFP ready to drop, not when the governor signed, but when the final bill passed out of both houses because I was looking at the calendar going, we have a federal statewide election in March. And it was already February.
We were launching what was going to be the largest implementation of a technology platform, essentially, for elections in the history of the United States, in 159 counties that were resourced very differently – some wildly rich in resources, some so poor their elections director is a part-time worker who works 24 hours a week so they can avoid paying them benefits. So you can’t do a one-size-fits‑all.
So we started doing two a days during the RFP, and I had everybody come to our eighth-floor conference room and assigned tasks. We had them at 9:00 in the morning and 2:00 in the afternoon, trying to drive to the goal of having the RFP prepared to go.
And there’s a very arcane system for procurement in Georgia that is under the Georgia procurement law. There’s a thousand-point measurement for every single one, a thousand points. And sometimes you’ll set the price at 500 points. You can set it at 250 points. You can set it at 100 points. We’re trying to say, okay, we want to be able to protect the taxpayer, but we want to make sure we get a quality system. So you couldn’t just lean in on price, solely.
So we set 250 points, which set 750 points left. You had 30 – I want to say it was 34 questions, with a total of around 400 sub-questions. And we were also going to have demonstrations. But the way our procurement rule works, everything has to tie back to the answer to the question. So you had to make sure your questions were very tight and very yes/no with explanations. It gave the evaluators the opportunity to look at it properly.
So we went through that process. We dropped it the day after the thing passed, and then they signed it. So I am, with the lawyers on our team, solely focused on this procurement. We had a relatively quick response time. Four people tried to get into our portal. And we had, you know, the normal come-ask-questions and everything. Our procurement officer, Venicia, was very clear. If you submit it wrong, you’ll be disqualified, if you’re late, you’ll be disqualified. If you do anything outside of the scope, you’ll be disqualified. I mean, it was just like she was very, very clear.
And of course, small universe of people, one forgot to hit the final upload. And they started late. We told them, start doing this a week and a half, 10 days beforehand. Don’t put it off to the end. Don’t be the kid who writes his term paper the morning that it’s due. So one person didn’t make it. They didn’t make it across the line. Just they didn’t upload everything because they started late. Because you can see when they’re in the portal doing stuff. I mean, there was very little sympathy from our end because we literally told them, and even the demonstration, it took four minutes to try to upload a single document. And this was with us in the building.
So we ended up having two bidders out of the three that made it to basically a point where we’re going to negotiate with you. One was the incumbent provider, which was ES&S, who had taken over from the previous holder, which was the old Diebold machines. They used ATMs and everything. And the irony of that was our contract to the original Diebold machines was so sided to the state it literally bankrupted the company. They put a perpetual license in, so there was no money to be made for all the service they were having to do for years and years and years. So they went bankrupt. So you need to be careful in your contracts. You don’t want to kill the people who are providing you services.
BILL YATES: Right.
GABRIEL STERLING: So we did that. And Dominion came in with the best pricing. So they were ahead. But they were number two on technicals. ES&S came in number one on technicals, but they were behind on pricing, but relatively significantly so. And I remember talking to our attorney Ryan because we had to take the meetings with them to negotiate the contract at that point. And we said, who’s going to be the black hat? Because when you do these things, you have a white hat and a black hat. You have the guy who’s the reasonable person, then the unreasonable person. We generally decide.
But we sat down, I was the black hat. It was actually kind of fun to a degree. I walked in to one side and said, “You’re number one on technicals. That’s fine, but these other guys are really aggressive, and they’re already well ahead of you. You’d better clean yourself up, and you’d better sharpen your pencil and get this number better.” Then went to the other side and said, “Hey, you all are number two in technicals. You’d better sharpen your pencil if you’re going to make this thing through because the technicals are set. You can’t change those.”
And I’m 50, so I watched a lot of television growing up in the ‘80s. And some of you all may remember at the end of TV shows sometimes they would have people jump in the air and do a fist bump, and it would freeze on that. When we got their updated bids, the best and finals, one came down like 10 million, and one came down like 9 million. So the initial one, the one with 93 million – and I started with a budget of 150.
Now, I knew that wasn’t going to be the final thing. They were going to find other things we had to do. But I said at that point we can up the amount of equipment. When you have a bigger bucket, and you can get the pricing down, you then have flexibility to make different decisions. And that was a big focus on our points.
So at that point we did that. We did the final negotiations on the contract itself. And the really important thing was there was no bid protest. It was a very tight, very well run thing. And I think they saw there was no real upside to doing a bid protest. There was no at-risk. It’s very scary to think about doing a $100 million project at risk. So we avoided that completely.
And then, once we inked the deal, they came to that same eight-floor conference room that we’d been working in. And when I came in there, there was a bunch of nameplates of Dominion on one side of the table and a bunch of nameplates for the SoS on the other side of the table. I said, “Nobody sit down.” So I grabbed everybody’s nameplates, and I started doing one Dominion, one SoS, one Dominion, one Secretary of State, one Dominion. And I said, “And now everybody sit down. Now we are going to live or die or sink or swim together. We are a team. So don’t think that this is combative. We are going to be collaborative because that is the only way we can survive and get this done in the timeframe we have. And we know it’s going to be aggressive. So I don’t want backbiting.”
And I said, “This is what’s going to happen. Something’s going to screw up on a project this big. How we respond to it and our ability to respond to it quickly is important.” And the main thing, I said, is “Do not surprise me. We won’t surprise you. Do not surprise me. We can handle anything. Just don’t surprise me.” And that was where we signed it. And at that point I said, “Okay, I’ve got to find a project manager now.” And in my mind I’m thinking, I’m going to find somebody from military logistics, somebody who’s done that kind of stuff before. I’m going to find an engineering firm that manages large projects. And every firm we went to, sales guys always want to do it. You all know that.
BILL YATES: Right.
GABRIEL STERLING: But then legal got it. And legal every time said “reputational risk.” I said, “Even if we paid a million dollars, and their top line income earned off it was $400,000.” One lawsuit, not worth the risk. So it starts to get to be September, then October. And actually it was internal. Somebody said, “Hey, Gabe, instead of you being COO and us trying to hire a project manager, why don’t you be project manager, and we hire a controller and do you your other stuff?” I’m like, I don’t want to do that. I like my job over here. But then it occurred to me there was no way I could train anybody up enough. I already lived and breathed this thing the entire time. It was my baby at that point.
And I said, “Okay, fine, we’ll do that. But obviously you pay for the project manager out of the project budget, which is funded by the statewide bond.” So that’s why I came off to become a contractor. I couldn’t be an employee and have money flow that way. That’s not how the system works. Which was a small bit of a controversy. But anybody who realizes that, knowing the number I got paid, I lost a whole bunch of stuff on my 401(k), my vacation time. I had to pay all my own insurance. And I think I came out ahead maybe $1,000 a month more, at the end of the day, after all that. But that’s how I got to be in the project manager position. And I was very happy to do it.
BILL YATES: Gabe, this is so interesting, and there are so many elements to unpack. I love the description of the procurement process. It cracks me up to hear you talking about black hat/white hat kind of, the different roles with that, and just seeing how that played out.
ANDY CROWE: Bill, does that sound familiar to you at all?
BILL YATES: Yes. Very, very. Absolutely. It’s so intriguing to me, too. I think we got – I’m just going to call them “accidental project managers.” There are people that have subject matter expertise. And like you described, you were there from the beginning of this. You negotiated all the contracts and went through that vetting process. So then suddenly you wake up and go, okay, you know what, I need to be the PM for this thing. And I think many project managers, same kind of thing. They wake up one morning and go, oh, my gosh, because of the relationships that I have or because of the subject matter expertise that I have, now I’ve been tapped to lead this thing. And I just want people to understand how big this was because Georgia’s a little bit unusual. I think you mentioned we have 159 counties; is that right?
GABRIEL STERLING: Right.
BILL YATES: So you’re rolling out a new voting system for all 159 counties that has to work. Is that correct?
GABRIEL STERLING: That’s correct.
BILL YATES: So describe what was success going to look like to you for this project? How did you define project success?
GABRIEL STERLING: Well, we had to focus on multiple layers at the same time. Our biggest goal, everybody was saying, when are you going to get all the equipment out? We never set a target to the world. We had one internally because if you set one to the world and you don’t make it, then you’ve failed. So my internal goal was to try to get all the equipment out. And understand that this is 33,000 BMDs, which includes a touchscreen and a printer. Then there was about 3,100 polling place scanners, and ballot boxes, which take up a lot of room. And then various and sundry other pieces and parts. Election management systems, each county had to have one. They had to be air-gapped.
So we had IT issues with some of these things, too. Over 8,000 iPads that are the check-in devices. Now, two things. We had to physically get them to everybody. And then we had to allow for training on these things. Then our first goal was get everything out to everybody, and we were going to have, in November of ‘19, we had a trial run. We had a pilot in six counties for the municipal elections. And I was basically saying we could have success in all these targets as we go, and learn as we go. Because a system like this had never been deployed before. So there was nobody else to follow. There wasn’t some, oh, grab that playbook.
So, and we lucked out. We had very good logistics guys come in with the Dominion team. And we all worked very well together. And essentially I started having 10:00 a.m. calls with Tom, Tom Feehan, which was the guy from Dominion, every day. Where are we with this? Where are we with that? I also upped the amount of equipment we were going to get and kept it under the same contract pricing, and rolled in the other costs for keeping it active for 10 years. It was a lot of negotiating going on. But at the same time, how do we physically get these things from the warehouse they had put in Marietta out to the counties?
So then I had to set up a grant program because all these small counties didn’t have a lot of money to do whatever they wanted to do. We set up a grant program paid for out of the federal money, which is HAVA dollars. And then we had the bond money itself for the equipment. And then one other gigantic logistical thing we realized at the beginning of this was these printers, they’re laser printers. Laser printers take a ridiculous amount of electrical load when they’re printing because essentially it’s a gigantic heater, which means that you’re loading 900 watts on this thing every time you press it. Which in most of these places where you deploy voting machines would short-circuit them.
So on the fly, once we figured out this engineering issue, we got with their team, and we found – essentially we made an old UPS battery backup, changed the software on it to make it a capacitor. And we did this on the fly. So knowing we had to do so much time because, if we didn’t do this, it was eking in a little over 4.5 volts, which means you could plug in up to four BMDs into one 20-amp outlet, or one 20-amp thing in the circuit breaker. Under the old system, it was basically a screen. It pulled no wattage at all.
And so in the previous way they did these things, if they needed to add more, they’d just add more because they just daisy-chained it. It didn’t matter. Now we had to think about this. So that means that we had to do inspections of 2,700 locations with people who knew what they were doing. So I had to go out and find an electrical company that could get contractors on the ground and get these 2,700 places looked at in a period of 3.5 months.
And we did it, and we did it for nearly only a million dollars, which I was shocked. In my mind I was like, this is a $2.5 million deal. I know it is. I think we got it done for 1.3. And we had them take pictures. And we had the inspections, not just for electrical. We looked at their ADA compliance, physical security compliance.
So then we have records of all these locations now, with pictures and descriptions and who’s the key person to talk to. And we’re able to label, if this wall plug doesn’t work, it ties back to this circuit over there which of course anybody who’s had a house longer than 20 years or 10 years knows nothing matches on your board anymore. All the things where it says “dryer and washer,” maybe. Outside of that, nothing matches. So we had to go through all that and get those reports to the counties, while we were training them.
And then we had the November trial run. And in the morning we had a meltdown on the first run because we discovered later on, our way of doing things, which was you had take physical media and plug it into the iPads to get the voter files on, was not the way this was designed. It was designed to work for the Internet. But we were like, oh, no, for security reasons we don’t want to do that. But then, if you did it through the Internet, they have a dashboard they could look at to see problems. Without this, we didn’t have that.
So I remember I was in the car driving to Bartow County was one of the places we had it. And they’re telling me, we don’t know what the issue is. We’re going to try to get – maybe you had to reload it. And I’m like, turn on the Internet. Just turn it on. Turn it on now. Turn it on everywhere. And it fixed the problem. And so what about security? It’s like, if nobody knows we’re turning it on, that’s secure. So we turned it on, loaded everything, turned it off.
But that taught me a strong lesson, that we need to have that availability in case there’s a human error, some other larger situation in the future. So the reason to do pilots like that on any project of that size, especially technology, is to learn those lessons in the real world because no matter how much you test, no matter how much you do stuff, before you’re allowed to prod, you have to be able to know multiple ways to fix things. So that’s why you do pilots, yeah.
ANDY CROWE: Gabe, I’ve got a question for you. You know, when you’re looking at 159 counties, which I heard one time, I don’t know if this is accurate, but I heard that we have more counties in Georgia than any other state except for Texas.
GABRIEL STERLING: Yeah.
ANDY CROWE: That’s an incredible – and I’m sure that complicated because now you’ve got stakeholders in all of those, and you’ve got a much flatter organization probably than you’d like in a case like that. When you’re working with that number of people, I’m curious. Let me tee it up this way. I have family members who’ve managed polling places in large counties in the past.
GABRIEL STERLING: God bless them.
ANDY CROWE: Things go wrong. You know, things happen, even before this, when it was a lower tech solution. You know, and you have to be adaptable, and you have to have the rules and have a good command of the rules and be able to navigate that. I know you anticipated problems. What kept you awake the night before this election? What was weighing on you as kind of the project manager for this?
GABRIEL STERLING: Depends on which election you’re talking about. There was the June election. Then there was a November election. In the June election I was too dumb to know what to worry about.
ANDY CROWE: Right. Naive. Let’s say naive.
GABRIEL STERLING: And there’s the same thing. Equipment works. It just flat-out works. This is certified off-the-shelf stuff. We know it’s going to work. The main weakest point in any system is people. It’s always going to be the people. And in June we especially saw it when Fulton did not staff up properly. Now, part of this wasn’t their fault. They lost a lot of locations because of COVID. The average poll manager age was over 70. So a lot of the stuff, as you pointed out, has zero to do with technology. It’s what systems do you have in place, and what do you do when weird things happen, and how do you respond to that?
But in Fulton they literally did a call for poll workers the Friday before. Zero time to train anybody. And then you have people who aren’t willing to take leadership positions internal to what they were doing. It makes it that much more difficult. If nobody takes responsibility, and nobody wants to figure it out, then problems stack up. And we have a lot of responsibility in the public’s eyes, with zero authority. So, like, we cannot do anything to counties other than retrospectively find them, say they did something wrong. We have no control to say, you need to fire this person, bring somebody else there.
Now, we sort of, in November, asserted ourselves more, and the counties kind of let us because of what happened with Fulton County in June. The underlying thing for me was June was actually wildly successful, other than in Fulton County. Were there other problems, other places? Yes, but they were addressed and fixed very quickly. That’s where we saw some good things.
But November, again the thing that kept me up was people, not knowing if there was going to be issues on the technology side because usually there’s two bottlenecks in this system: the check-in, which is in every voting system in the world, and then for the first time in a large-scale way we were going to have scanners on the back end, which you can have a line in. It really required training to manage that line properly.
And we saw no problems in either one of those things. In fact, on the night of November 3rd, I’ve said this before, I was sort of in victory lap mode because we slayed the beast of long lines. The returns were coming in relatively quickly. We did not have any major technology issues at all on that day. I mean, even on the day in June we did a trouble report versus the number of transactions. And it was like .014%. Yeah.
BILL YATES: Gabe, one of the things I was going to mention, I recall hearing the statistic for the November election that the average wait time in Georgia was three minutes.
GABRIEL STERLING: Yes.
BILL YATES: That’s remarkable. You know, I think about key metrics that we measure as a project manager to see if a project is successful or not, that’s got to be one of the top five metrics that you and your team were interested in. Three-minute wait time is remarkable. So that had to make you guys as a team be giving high fives to each other, I would assume.
GABRIEL STERLING: Oh, it absolutely was. I mean, and it was across the board. It was everywhere. I mean, there were some places had longer wait times just because of volume. And part of that was politics where people had decided I’m going to go vote Election Day. But there was no hour-long waits anywhere. And if there was, it was momentary, and the lines drew down. So we did a really good job. In Georgia we have lots of opportunities to vote. You have no-excuse absentee. You’ve got three weeks of advance voting. So again, 75% of voters had already voted by Election Day.
BILL YATES: Quick follow-up question on this. You mentioned 2,700 locations, 159 counties. To Andy’s point, there’s so many stakeholders. What was your communication technique or method for you and your core team staying in touch with those locations to make sure that, okay, you’ve got volunteers, you’ve got paid for staff. How do they know what the game plan is, and how do you know that they’re on the ball so that you end up with the results that you did?
GABRIEL STERLING: Well, there’s a couple of things. We did regular communication with the counties through county calls. We were doing it by region. Then we started doing it with everybody there because we were basically saying the same thing over and over again, and the questions were always the same, so it didn’t really matter as much. On Election Day we did deploy a new technology which we had not used previously, which I had wanted to use, but we were so focused on COVID that we did – there’s only so much bandwidth. And it was a GIS system that was downloadable to phones for our technicians.
And we had field techs which were deployed in each of the polling locations, or just about each one of them. Then we had the next level of people who understood the whole system. The field techs would just know, if this thing happens on this piece of equipment, do these three things to fix it. If those don’t work, then we elevate it. So we had the same thing that did our wait times also did our deployment on those things. We were able to talk directly with the counties. And we had straight visibility, which in the past we’d never had. We could see every call that came in. We saw where it was prioritized. And we saw the time it was taking. So we had a lot of visibility was happening on the ground.
Fortunately, it wasn’t so voluminous that it became unmanageable, although we had a tiered system ready to go of liaisons looking over their regions to make sure that the volume of those things didn’t knock it out of control. It never did. We were prepared to do it, but we never had to do it. So we had basically a howitzer aimed at something that probably needed a rifle. But at this point I would rather have overkill on preparation than struggling to catch up. And that was what we were really focused on.
ANDY CROWE: We have a saying around here: Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. So that was right in the spirit.
GABRIEL STERLING: There we go.
BILL YATES: With so many stakeholders and such a diversity, and some of these being very public, very high-power officials, how did you know who to pay attention to the most? How did you figure out who were the primary stakeholders?
GABRIEL STERLING: Well, for us, I mean, it depends on how you want to measure it. But voter experience was we were very voter-centric, making sure that the counties were trained properly. But we knew who our problem children were. And that’s what we focused a lot of our energy on was the problem children. I hired an outside project management team to go to the five biggest counties and look at their processes and help them and map their stuff out. And some had good processes. Some had no processes. Some had good written processes that we’ve all seen before are not followed by actual human beings. So we were able to really hone down a lot of that, especially when it came to ballot handling and who’s in charge of what.
Because for a lot of these guys, when we’re looking at this new system that had never been used before, adding the paper element was something that people thought, oh, this is like the old system, but with paper. It’s not. It is a whole different kind of beast. So we were focused on the problem children because also that meant, if you take the five largest – it’s the big four plus Chatham, which is basically Cobb, Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, and then Chatham. Those were our problem children. Then you had sort of our big counties that we knew did a good job, we knew had really strong leadership, like the Richmond Counties, the Muscogee Counties, they had very strong managers there. So we didn’t worry about those as much.
And when we changed anything or did anything, we went to some of those really good elections directors, and we’d listen to people on the ground who actually have to implement this stuff because trying to do this on high, I’ve never run a precinct before. I can read the book that says what to do, but I’d rather talk with people who have to hire and train and deal with people who do have to do that. So always look for the subject management experts, if you can, because they have real-world things that you’re never going to get from having read a book or not having an applicable situation. So we really focused on keeping them in, and it also gave them equity. If they were in on the decision-making side of it, they couldn’t then complain later on. Well, they could, but it’d be harder.
ANDY CROWE: So Gabe, we’ve touched on people and processes and technology, which are really kind of the three legs of any project stool. Everything that happens sort of rests on those. But then you had a risk event, and things got crazy all of a sudden.
GABRIEL STERLING: I like the term “risk event.” You know, from a book, this is a risk event, when a President of the United States says “You’re full of crap.” I don’t need to have that as a risk event, but I understand, I like…
ANDY CROWE: That wasn’t one of your identified risks ahead of time. It just happened.
GABRIEL STERLING: Right. So as I said earlier, we were sort of in like victory lap mode, knowing we executed well, we hit all our marks, we had a good successful election. And it was really funny. Early on, one of the guys who’s left us now, but had gone up to the Elections Assistance Commission, said, “Well, what happens if it’s a really close race for President, and you get two Senate runoffs?” And they’re like, “Oh, come on. That’s never going to happen. That’s crazy talk. There’s no way that can happen.”
And then lo and behold, when it rolls around to November 4th, and I’ve been around this for a long time, and I’m looking at the numbers, going, oh, crap. I call everybody in in the afternoon. I said, “We’re going to have to be ready for some stuff.” And, like, “What do you mean?” It’s like, “The President’s about to lose by about 10,000 votes.” And I was off by only 2,000, so I felt pretty good about my basic number. And then I said, “It looks like we’re going to have two Senate runoffs.” Which was the worst of all worlds from our point of view.
But what happened was it was so close that neither side was willing to really attack the state yet because both still potentially could win. So you can’t really be attacking a state for running a bad election if there’s still a possibility you might win. So we had sort of a reprieve for a while, we were trying to keep everything really tight. And they were arguing internally because in our law, you have to be able to do an audit. And we decided early on, back in like early May, on something called a “risk-limiting audit.” Which normally means you have an algorithm, you apply math to it, and you get to a certain amount of ballots you’re going to count.
So then the crap starts hitting the fan, it’s a rigged election, all this stuff’s happening. The big claim originally was that these Dominion voting machines are flipping votes. Now, I knew what had happened in Antrim County, where essentially this goes back to people executing and then causing problems for you. There was one clerk in Michigan. She had 14 scanners. And to run an election, you’ve got to understand, there’s a database you run on them to make all your media for all of your scanners. She forgot to put on a school board race on one of the scanners. So she calls her person, says “Hey, I need to add the school board race.” “Okay, we’ll add the school board race. But it changes your whole database. So remember, you’ve got to reburn media for all of your scanners now. Very important.” She didn’t.
So essentially, to explain this to people is kind of like, if you have a spreadsheet, and you’ve got formula set, and you just take out a column, the whole thing goes to crap. So that’s essentially what happened in Michigan. And that’s where this whole cascade of Dominion voting machines flipping votes came from because this one poor woman forgot to change the media on 13 machines. Now, she went back in. They caught it that day. Ended up that Trump won the county like he was supposed to with 62% of the vote. But the damage was already done, hit social media, had gotten out there.
So we’re down here in Georgia and saying, oh, these Dominion machines are flipping votes. I remember I went to bed one night – because we were arguing over which race do we do, how do we do this? And it was a secondary thing where under Georgia and federal law we have two different standards for when runoffs happen. Because we have another law that says we have to do a rollover list, it would have crushed the counties to get the 600,000 ballots out for the State Public Service Commission race, then run their early voting, and then get another 600,000 ballots out. It would have been impossible. So we had to merge those two races together like we did in June.
And I remember I walked in, we were having the conversation, and it’s like, okay, look. Take politics completely out of it. What is the best election administration, what’s the right thing to do? And we’re like, move the race and do the recount, retally on the presidential. They’re like, “That’s going to be very hard.” I’m like, “Yes, it’s going to be hard. We don’t have a choice. This is the only way.” If we cop out and do the other race, the only option we had was the Kelly Loeffler race, which is going to runoff anyway, so what does it matter if the machines tally properly?
And we knew by the margin of the race that we were going to have to look at every single ballot. We said, well, let’s do that. I remember I bet a guy in D.C. a bottle of very expensive whiskey. There’s no way you can get this done. It’s like, I’m banking on the people on the ground to do this. We’re going to give them the rules, and they’re going to set up, and then we’re going to livestream it. So we did it. We set a time. They got the people done. I mean, the large counties really stepped up; but the small counties, too, that are under-resourced, figured out how to do it in a public way.
And it’s one of those kind of things where here’s the goal, here are the parameters, go do it. If you give people enough direction and let them figure out the details, micromanaging would have killed that. You had to have the faith in the ability of these professionals to execute that, even though they were tired. They wanted to defend their own system, as well. So we started getting the stuff back in, and it worked. And that showed that the machines did exactly what they were intended. They counted the ballots as cast.
And most studies showed in hand counts you’re going to have a 1% to 2% difference from those things. In our case, we had a .1053% difference in the number of ballots cast and a .0099% difference in the margin. Which is essentially identical. It showed the machines did exactly what they were intended to do. And that really started to take some of the air out of the balloon. That one went away.
They still kept on coming. People kept on talking about Dominion. But for anybody willing to listen to sense – and that’s the problem. No matter how much data you show, no matter how much you show some people, it was an emotional gut response. There was no evidence they were going to see that they couldn’t justify away in their head. But we had to keep on doing what we were doing.
So that’s part of the reason I was doing the, it started off as daily press conferences, and then started doing twice a day to explain this is where we are in the process. This is what we’re doing. And it’s funny. One of the things I think most people realize now that I was sort of a political junkie growing up, and I watched a lot of “West Wing.”
But I remember in the final season Alan Alda was the Republican nominee for President, running against Jimmy Smits the Democrat, and there was an accident at a nuclear plant that Alan Alda’s character had helped to get built. And his staff’s all saying, oh, you’ve got to run away from this. You’ve got to get away. You can’t get near this. He’s like, no. I’m going to run straight into it. And he did a six-hour standing news conference and answered every single question. And if you go back and look at my first press conference after the crap started hitting the fan – and it was really funny. It wasn’t planned, necessarily. But like you had said earlier, Bill, I kind of lived with this stuff. I knew all these things.
And my boss, Deputy Secretary Jordan Fuchs, said, “Hey, guess what, you get to do the press conference.” Like, what press conference? All those cameras out there, I had walked past them coming in, assuming Brad, the Secretary was doing it. And I said to myself, I’m going to punch them out. I’m going to sit there and take every single question they had. And at the end of it, if you go back and watch it, I said, “Did I punch you all out? Is that it? You got nothing else?” Because, I said, it’s the only way we’re going to get people to believe us is if we answer every single question as best we can and as thoroughly as we can. And I took that lesson.
The other thing that I tried to do was, if you remember “Clear and Present Danger,” both the book and the movie with Harrison Ford, there was a scene where the President had been close to somebody who ended up being tied up with drug dealers. And they were like, “Say you were acquaintances. You kind of knew each other.” And then Harrison Ford’s character, Jack Ryan, says, “No, we were best friends. We were lifelong friends. There’s nowhere else to go.” If you lay everything out there and give nobody else anywhere to go, where does the story go?
So transparency and honesty is much better. People try to shade and spin and do things in these kind of situations, you’re going to fail because it’s going to be disingenuous, and no one’s going to believe you. Straightforward, yes, this worked; no, that didn’t work. This is where we are. Gives you the credibility when things go wrong.
BILL YATES: This is outstanding advice to project managers. When stuff hits the fan, one of the best things that we can do is step in front of the camera, step in front of the microphone, step in front of those key sponsors or stakeholders and let them know what’s going on. My boss Andy has a quote to me about “Bad news doesn’t get any better with age,” yeah.
GABRIEL STERLING: It gets worse. It was like I said in that first meeting, “Don’t surprise me.”
BILL YATES: Exactly.
GABRIEL STERLING: We can handle anything as long as we’re honest, but don’t surprise me. And I saw that on a project I was on one time. It was a building project. And we figured it out that it was a problem that had started four months earlier. And the builder’s like, well, we always thought we could get back ahead of it. No. That’s the wrong way to do it. Just tell us. We’ll work through it. There’s always a path.
WENDY GROUNDS: Gabe, I have a question. You had personal threats. You had a lot of negativity thrown your way. How did you keep yourself personally motivated during this time? What kept you going?
GABRIEL STERLING: It never occurred to me not to do it. I guess naivete was what you called it earlier, I believe. And I knew I was doing the right thing, so I had an internal drive that was there. I knew I was protecting the Office. And the good part was to me I was battling against disinformation and people undermining democracy. As I said, I was a political junkie growing up. No one’s going to mess with my democracy. So that was part of what it was. And then, you know, I got letters. I’m looking at a stack of letters over here that were all positives. And I got threats. It kept my ego in check, at least, you know. “You’re saving democracy.” “You should go die in a fire.” It keeps you even. Kind of balances out.
And it just didn’t occur to me not to do it. This was a project that I had sunk two years into. And despite the people lined up – and some of these were friends, people I’ve known for 15, 20 years. I remember at one point it was even a family member. And I said, “Okay, so you either believe I’m in on it, or you think I’m stupid. Which one is it?” And they said, “Well, neither.” Like, okay, if we both agree it’s neither, then what’s the situation you’re seeing on the ground? Is it possible you could be wrong?
And that’s one of the things when you’re dealing with people who don’t believe in what you’re saying, if you flat out say you’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re never going to win them over. Ask questions to make them think about it thoroughly. It’s better to push the responsibility back on them to think it through. And one of the situations you have when you deal with technology is we’ve been raised in a culture now for the last 40 years, we’ve all watched “NCIS.” We’ve all watched “Law & Order.” Oh, they hacked in. Oh, there’s a backdoor. Oh, you can get to the Joshua backdoor from “War Games.” Any new technology, there are smart people who could hack and do things that we’ll never understand and never see. And they all believe it’s true.
It’s very difficult to do that in real life. But because of plot twists in the movies and TV shows, we’ve all been accustomed to it. It’s not real. But we’ve all been told this can happen. We’ve all seen people do things. We all know that there’s attacks that can happen, and there are hackers who can do stuff. But I remember one of the things I had to debunk was, well, the machines were hacked with the Internet. They don’t have modems. There is no interface to do that. It can’t happen. You’ve got to continually respond. Even when they’re silly things you have to respond to, you have to respond to them.
But this all goes back to what I said in the beginning meeting with them. There’s going to be stuff that happens. As long as we’re honest with each other and know the truth is on our side, then we can get through all of this. And this, too, shall pass. Even if you come up with the short end of it, there’s always the next project.
And you can take lessons from all of these. And I’ve taken a lot from this particular project. You need to know the details, but don’t get stuck in the details. Don’t major on the minors. As a project manager you’ve got to make sure not to do that. You pay other people to major on the minors. You’ve got to say, what’s that end goal? How do I get to that end goal? And keep looking at that final thing. Because if you get caught up in the minor details, that’s when big things get past you. Don’t get lost in them, but make sure you hold people accountable along the way. And nothing is incapable of being overcome.
BILL YATES: I appreciate your response. I have never had my life threatened because of a project I was leading, or just been under the incredible scrutiny that you were with this project. And really even beyond how you personally reacted to that, I appreciated your leadership in stepping up for your team and having their back and publicly defending them and telling people to back off. I thought that was a great lesson learned for our project managers. Hopefully it won’t be to that level, that national level of publicity.
But there are times when I’ve remained silent in front of my customer or in front of my sponsor and let them bad mouth when I really needed to step up and go, okay, whoa, you know, you’re stepping over the line. Now, maybe I need to do that in front of the team; maybe I need to do that privately. It all depends. That’s some of the art of project management. But I have to commend you for leading well in that situation, not just looking out for your own self-preservation, but looking out for your team, volunteers all the way down to 20 year olds. And so I appreciate your response on that.
I wanted to ask, and I know there were a lot of surprises in this project, but was there a big surprise in the project, in that implementation process, that you kind of look back on and go, wow, didn’t see that coming, that we haven’t already talked about?
GABRIEL STERLING: The biggest one was the engineering and cost problems with having to do those battery backups. But we addressed it quickly. In fact we had changed suppliers partway through. The ones we used for the pilot were not the ones we ended up using because it was really funny, there were some problems with it. And I said, guys, the only thing that’s different is that VPS, so that’s where the problem is. Their engineers spent two months, okay, it was like, it wasn’t that hard to figure out. The ones that were plugged in directly didn’t have it. The ones that that were in that one did. So we found a better, more solid-state one, and it worked great.
But then little things like how do you move the screen? So part of the bid process was they had to have the soft bags. We had to redesign the Styrofoam inserts into another rolling bag for the printers. And I had them bring those to me. We looked at them. We played with them. And we got into the details. One of the things the team appreciated was we did get in the details, but we didn’t get stuck on the details.
And never make the perfect the enemy of the good. I know this sounds cliché. Strive for perfection, accept excellence in all your projects. You can always make that goal. But if you are trying to get to perfection, and you get so focused on that that you lose focus on everything else, your project’s going to fail. Your people are going to fail. They’re going to be stressed out. They’ll say there’s nothing I can do for this person that’s going to make them happy.
And one of the most gratifying things to me was two guys, that one of them had been doing this for 35 years, one of them been doing it for 30, one from the Dominion side and one from the SoS side, we were kind of leaving after a lot of this happened one day and said, “Look, you are literally the best leader we’ve ever had on this stuff.” And I was like, “Okay, I appreciate that, guys.” Those two guys telling me that were as important, if not more, than all the letters and everything else, and accolades and interviews and the stuff. Knowing the people you are with and in the trenches for over a year and a half for both of these guys, two years almost, that was the best validation I had.
And it makes me excited for the next big project we can try to do. And I’ve got a project, it’s not project management. I’m managing a large part of the agency that we’re trying to fix that is a thing that’s been built up over a hundred years. It’s about licensing and letting people work in this state. And it’s hard. And we’re trying to find ways to fix it. I’m trying to apply some of the same lessons learned. In fact, we have a new executive director who is monitoring it for the board, and somebody from another office was yelling at her. And I said, “That’s not going to happen again.” I said, “They can’t yell at you. You’re on my team.” So you’ve got to be in the tent. You’ve got to defend your people.
There’s times to cut people loose, too. We’ve moved some people out in some of the places. You’re not in the business of saving souls. You’re in the business of getting projects done. And there are some times you can just get rid of people altogether; there are some times you’ve got to find different places for them where their skills are better suited. But the wrong person in the wrong place can be like a cancer that can kill your project. So always be aware of your people. That’s very important.
And one of the really big things that I’ve learned, especially in the government space and in large firm spaces, people are scared to make decisions. If you’re willing to make decisions, you will move up. If you make the wrong decision, we can fix it. And if you make the right decision, we’re in good shape. If you make no decision, we’re stagnating. You try to make the best decision you can. But don’t delay things. You’re never going to get perfect information. You’re never going to get perfect insight. And you’re never going to get any more time.
You can always get more money. You can always get more people. But you can never get more time. And on a project, time is the killer. That is the thing you’re trying to get through. That’s what causes cost overruns. That’s what burns people out. That means you have to change people out and lose subcontractors because they’ve got other jobs they’ve got to do. Killing time is one of the worst things you can do as a project manager.
BILL YATES: I agree.
ANDY CROWE: We do appreciate you. Thank you for sharing your expertise. But thank you also for the integrity you brought to this whole project and this process. And, you know, when that was called into question or when you were pressured to call that into question, I’m proud of you for not. So thank you.
GABRIEL STERLING: Somebody put it well because they were always trying to explain what Brad was doing. The Secretary is an engineer. He’s a structural engineer. He doesn’t care what the answer is. He just wants it to be the right answer. The numbers are the numbers. Like you said before, Bill, their brain is wired to let me get to the appropriate answer based on the data that we have. I do not care one whit one way or the other what the answer is. Just what is it? So…
BILL YATES: Yup, that’s it.
WENDY GROUNDS: We really appreciate you being with us today and talking and just being so open and honest and giving some insight into what really went on behind the scenes. It’s been fascinating. So we really appreciate your time.
GABRIEL STERLING: Well, I appreciate the chance because project managers make the world go around. If you didn’t have project managers in place to do things the right way, a lot of stuff wouldn’t happen at all levels – in government, in the private sector, and even really in the charity sector, as well. All those things require people who can manage people and manage things and manage time and manage money. And you need all those skills to do the job right.
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