One specialist said that as many as five million lines of software code may need to be rewritten before the Web site runs properly.
1. There is zero chance that rewriting five million lines of code is the answer. Either the solution is a lot simpler or there is no solution other than to start over.
My instinct from the outset was that starting over was the right answer. I am not alone.
2. The other day, President Obama said, “No one is madder about the Web site than I am, which means it’s going to get fixed.”
Or, as Michael Palin and John Cleese would put it, Wake up, Polly!
3. In response to the WaPo story, I wrote a letter to the editor, which they published (mine is the third letter on this page). This is not a technical screw-up, and it will not be fixed by technical people. It is an organizational screw-up. And until that is recognized, it probably will get worse. I write,
In my experience, communication failures between technical staff and management reflect an atmosphere of fear and lack of mutual respect.
I call this the suits-geeks divide. I saw it during the financial crisis, when it was evident that many mortgage credit-risk geeks warned of problems at their firms but management went out of the way not to listen. Merrill Lynch and Freddie Mac were particularly well-documented cases.
4. Every year, I have my high school students pair off and present proposals to start a new business. Two questions I always ask are “What are the critical management functions?” and “What would somebody experienced in this business know that you do not know?”
Suppose that President Obama and Secretary Sebelius were in the class, and they proposed starting the world’s largest health insurance brokerage. I would expect them to be able to identify as key management functions: marketing, customer education, insurance company partnership management, pricing and underwriting standards, and operations.
Somebody who had experience with creating a health insurance brokerage business would know that the systems problems are more complicated than just putting up a web site. In the background, the system needs to communicate with the systems at several government agencies and at the insurance companies. That changes it from a simple technical project to a complex, time-consuming, project involving business and technical staff.
You build a complex, mission-critical system through a process of continual negotiations among business units and technical people. You do not treat it as a procurement process. You cannot just write up a spec, put it up for bid, and parcel it out to dozens of contractors.
The development of the computer system probably would fall under operations, but you would want a project executive with a lot of authority to negotiate with all of the business units and to make project decisions. When conflicts arise, the project executive should be able to go straight to the CEO and get them resolved.
The project executive’s main focus is keeping the project’s complexity from getting out of control. The project executive must have the authority to trim features in order to meet deadlines.
You go through a lot of analysis and many painful meetings before anyone writes a line of code. The technical staff have to be able to challenge the business units, because sometimes the business unit asks for something to be done in a really complicated way, when a much simpler solution is available to solve the business problem.
One of the worst things that can happen on a systems project is to find yourself revisiting the business-technical negotiations process after writing a lot of code. If that is what is happening now, this project is in an unbelievable amount of trouble.
5. I suspect that the technical problems are mere symptoms. Probably what is fundamentally messed up in this health insurance brokerage business is the org chart.
6. In business, you need clear lines of authority and accountability. The bureaucratic tendency is to seek the opposite–to blur authority and avoid blame. This is a big challenge in the private sector. However, I think it tends to be even more difficult to overcome in government.
7. For Christmas, someone should give President Obama and Secretary Sebelius a copy of The Mythical Man-month.
[update: good PBS interview with several mythical-man-month allusions]
[update: Clay Shirky’s tweet echoes this theme.