By James Bach
The failure of Healthcare.gov is probably not because of sinister people. It’s probably because of the innocents who run the project. These well-intentioned people are truly as naive as little children. And they must be stopped.
They are, of course, normal intelligent adults. I’m sure they got good grades in school– if you believe in that sort of thing– and they can feed and clothe themselves. They certainly look normal, even stately and wise. It’s just that they are profoundly ignorant about technology projects while being completely oblivious to and complacent about that ignorance. That is the biggest proximal cause of this debacle. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger syndrome (which you can either look up or confidently assure yourself that you don’t need to know about): incompetence of a kind that makes you unable to assess your own lack of competence.
Who am I talking about? I’m talking to some extent about everyone above the first level of management on that project, but mostly I’m talking about anyone who was in the management chain for that project but who has never coded or tested before in their working lives. The non-technical people who created the conditions that the technical people had to work under.
I also blame the technical people in a different way. I’ll get to that, below.
How do I come to this conclusion? Well, take a look at the major possibilities:
Maybe it didn’t fail. Maybe this is normal for projects to have a few glitches? Oh my, no. Project failures are not often clear cut. But among failures, this one is cut as clearly as the Hope Diamond. This is not a near miss. This is the equivalent of sending Hans away to sell the family cow and he comes back with magic beans. It’s the equivalent of going to buy a car and coming back with a shopping cart that has a cardboard sign on which someone has written “CAR” in magic marker. It’s a swing and a miss when the batter was not even holding a bat. It’s so bad, I hope criminal charges are being considered. Make no mistake, the people who ran this project scammed the US government.
Did it fail because it’s too hard a project to do? It’s a difficult project, for sure. It may have been too hard to do under the circumstances prescribed. If so, then we should have heard that message a year ago. Loudly and publicly. We didn’t hear that? Why? Could it have been that the technical people kept their thoughts and feelings carefully shrouded? That’s not what’s being reported. It’s come out that technical people were complaining to management. Management must have quashed those complaints.
Did politics prevent the project from succeeding? No doubt that created a terrible environment in which to produce the system. So what? If it’s too hard, just laugh and say “hey this is ridiculous, we can’t commit to creating this system” UNLESS, of course, you are hoping to hide the problem forever, like a child who has wet the bed and dumps the sheets out the back window. I suppose it’s possible that Republican operatives secretly conspired to make the project fail. If so, I hope that comes out. Doesn’t matter, though. Management could still have seen it coming, unless the whole development team was in on the fix.
Were the technical people incompetent? Probably. It’s likely that many of the programmers were little better than novices, from what I can tell by looking at the bug reports coming through. It was a Children’s Crusade, I guess. But again, so what? The purpose of management, at each of the contracting agencies and above them, is to assess and assure the general competence and performance of the people working on the job. That comes first. I’m sure there were good people mixed in there, somewhere. I have harsh feelings for them, however. I would say to them: Why didn’t you go public? Why didn’t you resign? You like money that much? Your integrity matters that little to you?
Management created the conditions whereby this project was “delivered” in a non-working state. Not like the Dreamliner. The 787 had some serious glitches, and Boeing needs to shape that up. What I’m talking about is boarding an aircraft for a long trip only to be told by the captain “Well, folks it looks like we will be stuck here at the gate for a little while. Maintenance needs to install our wings and engines. I don’t know much about aircraft building, but I promise we will be flying by November 30th. Have some pretzels while you wait.”
Management must bear the prime responsibility for this. I’m not sure that Obama himself is to blame. Everyone under him though? Absolutely.
What About Testing?
Little testing happened on the site. The testing that happened seems to have confirmed what everyone knew. Now this article has come out, about what’s happening behind the scenes. I sure hope they have excellent Rapid Testers working on that, because there is no time for TDD or much of any unit testing and certainly no time to write bloated nonsensical “test case specs” that usually infect government efforts like so much botfly larvae.
Notice the bit at the end?
“It’s a lot of work but people are committed to it. I haven’t heard anyone say it’s not a doable job,” the source said of the November 30th deadline to fix the online portal to purchase insurance on the federal exchange.
Exactly. That’s exactly the problem, Mr. Source. This is what I mean by the tyranny of the innocents. If no one is telling you that the November 30th deadline is not doable, and you think that’s a good sign, then you are an innocent. If you are managing to that expectation then you are a tyrant. It’s probably not doable. I already know that this can’t possibly leave enough time for reasonable testing of the system. Even if it is doable, only a completely dysfunctional project has no one on it speaking openly about whether it is doable.
What Can Be Done?
Politics will ruin everything. I have no institutional solution for this kind of problem. “Best practices” won’t help. Oversight committees won’t help. I can only say that each of us can and should foster a culture of personal ethical behavior. I was on a government project, briefly, years ago. I concluded it was an outlandish waste of taxpayer money and I resigned. I wanted the money. But I resigned anyway. It wasn’t easy. I had car payments and house payments to make. Integrity can be hard. Integrity can be lonely. I don’t always live up to my highest ideals for my own behavior, and when that happens I feel shame. The shame I feel spurs me to be better. That’s all I’m hoping for, really. I hope the people who knew better on this project feel shame. I hope they listen to that shame and go on to be better people.
I do have advice for the innocents. I’ll speak directly to you, Kathy Sebelius, since you are the most public example of who I am talking about…
You’re not a technology person. You shouldn’t have to be. But you need people working for you who are, because technology is opaque. It may surprise you to know that unlike building bridges and monuments, the status of software can be effectively hidden from anyone more than one level above (or sideways from) the programmer or tester who is actually working on that particular piece of it. It’s like managing a gold mine without being able to go down into the mine yourself.
This means you are in a weak position, as an executive. You can pound the table and threaten to fire people, sure. It won’t help. The way in which an executive can use direct power will only make a late software project even later. Every use of direct power weakens your influence. Use indirect power, instead. Imagine that you are taming wild birds. I used to do that as a kid in Vermont. It requires quietness and patience. The first part is to stand for an hour holding birdseed in your hand. Stand quietly and eventually they are landing in your hand.
To have managed this project well, you needed to have created an environment where people could speak without fear. You needed to work with your direct reports to make sure they weren’t filtering out too much of the bad news. You needed to visit the project on a regular basis, and talk to the lowest level people. Then you needed to forgive their managers for not telling you all the bad news. It’s a maddeningly slow process. If you notice, the Pope is currently doing something very similar. Hey, I’m an atheist and yet I find myself listening to that guy. He’s a master of indirect leadership.
You did have the direct power to set expectations. I’m sure you realize you could have done a much better job of that, but perhaps you felt fear, yourself. As your employer (a taxpaying citizen), I bear a little of that responsibility. The country is getting the Healthcare.gov site that it deserves, in a sense.
If you are going to continue in public service, please do yourself and all of us a favor and take a class on software project management. Attend a few lectures. Get smart about what kinds of dodges and syndromes contractors use.
Don’t be an innocent, marching to the slaughter, while millions of dollars line the pockets of the people who run CGI and all those other parasite companies.
– Sincerely, James
My Political Agenda
I have $200,000 of unpaid medical bills due to the crazy jacked up prices and terrible insurance situation for individual citizens in the United States. I am definitely a supporter of the concept of health care reform, even the flawed Obamacare system, if that’s the best we can do for now.
I was pleased to see the failure of the Healthcare.gov website, at first. A little failure helps me make my arguments about how hard it is to do technology well; how getting it right means striving to better ourselves, and no formula or textual incantation will do that for us.
This is too much failure! I want it to stop now. Still, I’m an adult, a software project expert and not in any way an innocent. I know it’s not going to be resolved soon. No Virginia, there won’t be a Healthcare.gov website this Christmas.
Summers wrote a memo to the President in 2010 suggesting that HealthCare.gov was not something the government could handle and he needed to bring in experts.
While Summers would not provide details about internal discussions, he said Tuesday, “You need experts. You need to trust but you need to verify. You can’t go rushing the schedule when you get behind or you end up making more errors.”
Damn straight. If this is true then I’m sure glad someone around Obama had basic wisdom. I guess nobody listened to him.