How Did Technology End Up on the Sunday Morning Talk Shows?

It has been two months since the launch and by now nearly every American has heard or witnessed the poor performance of the websites. Early on, only one of every five users was able to actually sign in to, while poor performance and unavailable systems continue to plague the federal and some state exchanges. Performance was still problematic several weeks into the launch and even as of Friday, November 30, the site was down for 11 hours for maintenance. As of today, December 1, the promised ‘relaunch day’, it appears the site is ‘markedly improved’ but there are plenty more issues to fix.

What a sad state of affairs for IT. So, what does the Healthcare website issues teach us about large project management and execution? Or further, about quality engineering and defect removal?

Soon after the launch, former federal CTO Aneesh Chopra, in an Aspen Institute interview with The New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman, shrugged off the website problems, saying that “glitches happen.” Chopra compared the downtime to the frequent appearances of Twitter’s “fail whale” as heavy traffic overwhelmed that site during the 2010 soccer World Cup.

But given that the size of the signup audience was well known and that website technology is mature and well understood, how could the government create such an IT mess? Especially given how much lead time the government had (more than three years) and how much it spent on building the site (estimated between $300 million and $500 million).

Perhaps this is not quite so unusual. Industry research suggests that large IT projects are at far greater risk of failure than smaller efforts. A 2012 McKinsey study revealed that 17% of lT projects budgeted at $15 million or higher go so badly as to threaten the company’s existence, and more than 40% of them fail. As bad as the U.S. healthcare website debut is, there are dozens of examples, both government-run and private of similar debacles.

In a landmark 1995 study, the Standish Group established that only about 17% of IT projects could be considered “fully successful,” another 52% were “challenged” (they didn’t meet budget, quality or time goals) and 30% were “impaired or failed.” In a recent update of that study conducted for ComputerWorld, Standish examined 3,555 IT projects between 2003 and 2012 that had labor costs of at least $10 million and found that only 6.4% of them were successful.

Combining the inherent problems associated with very large IT projects with outdated government practices greatly increases the risk factors. Enterprises of all types can track large IT project failures to several key reasons:

  • Poor or ambiguous sponsorship
  • Confusing or changing requirements
  • Inadequate skills or resources
  • Poor design or inappropriate use of new technology

Unfortunately, strong sponsorship and solid requirements are difficult to come by in a political environment (read: Obamacare), where too many individual and group stakeholders have reason to argue with one another and change the project. Applying the political process of lengthy debates, consensus-building and multiple agendas to defining project requirements is a recipe for disaster.

Furthermore, based on my experience, I suspect the contractors doing the government work encouraged changes, as they saw an opportunity to grow the scope of the project with much higher-margin work (change orders are always much more profitable than the original bid). Inadequate sponsorship and weak requirements were undoubtedly combined with a waterfall development methodology and overall big bang approach usually specified by government procurement methods. In fact, early testimony by the contractors ‘cited a lack of testing on the full system and last-minute changes by the federal agency’.

Why didn’t the project use an iterative delivery approach to hone requirements and interfaces early? Why not start with healthcare site pilots and betas months or even years before the October 1 launch date? The project was underway for three years, yet nothing was made available until October 1. And why did the effort leverage only an already occupied pool of virtualized servers that had little spare capacity for a major new site? For less than 10% of the project costs a massive dedicated farm could have been built.  Further, there was no backup site, nor any monitoring tools implemented. And where was the horizontal scaling design within the application to enable easy addition of capacity for unexpected demand? It is disappointing to see such basic misses in non-functional requirements and design in a major program for a system that is not that difficult or unique.

These basic deliverables and approaches appear to have been fully missed in the implementation of the wesite. Further, the website code appears to have been quite sloppy, not even using common caching techniques to improve performance. Thus, in addition to suffering from weak sponsorship and ambiguous requirements, this program failed to leverage well-known best practices for the technology and design.

One would have thought that given the scale and expenditure on the program, top technical resources would have been allocated and ensured these practices were used. The feds are  scrambling with a “surge” of tech resources  for the site. And while the new resources and leadership have made improvements so far, the surge will bring its own problems. It is very difficult to effectively add resources to an already large program. And, new ideas introduced by the ‘surge’ resources, may not be either accepted or easily integrated. And if the issues are deeply embedded in the system, it will be difficult for the new team to fully fix the defects. For every 100 defects identified in the first few weeks, my experience with quality suggests there are 2 or 3 times more defects buried in the system. Furthermore, if one wonders if the project couldn’t handle the “easy” technical work — sound website design and horizontal scalability – how will they can handle the more difficult challenges of data quality and security?

These issues will become more apparent in the coming months when the complex integration with backend systems from other agencies and insurance companies becomes stressed. And already the fraudsters are jumping into the fray.

So, what should be done and what are the takeaways for an IT leader? Clear sponsorship and proper governance are table stakes for any big IT project, but in this case more radical changes are in order. Why have all 36 states and the federal government roll out their healthcare exchanges in one waterfall or big bang approach? The sites that are working reasonably well (such as the District of Columbia’s) developed them independently. Divide the work up where possible, and move to an iterative or spiral methodology. Deliver early and often.

Perhaps even use competitive tension by having two contractors compete against each other for each such cycle. Pick the one that worked the best and then start over on the next cycle. But make them sprints, not marathons. Three- or six-month cycles should do it. The team that meets the requirements, on time, will have an opportunity to bid on the next cycle. Any contractor that doesn’t clear the bar gets barred from the next round. Now there’s no payoff for a contractor encouraging endless changes. And you have broken up the work into more doable components that can then be improved in the next implementation.

Finally, use only proven technologies. And why not ask the CIOs or chief technology architects of a few large-scale Web companies to spend a few days reviewing the program and designs at appropriate points. It’s the kind of industry-government partnership we would all like to see.

If you want to learn more about how to manage (and not to manage) large IT programs, I recommend “Software Runaways,” , by Robert L. Glass, which documents some spectacular failures. Reading the book is like watching a traffic accident unfold: It’s awful but you can’t tear yourself away. Also, I expand on the root causes of and remedies for IT project failures in my post on project management best practices.

And how about some projects that went well? Here is a great link to the 10 best government IT projects in 2012!

What project management best practices would you add? Please weigh in with a comment below.

Best, Jim Ditmore

This post was first published in late October in InformationWeek and has been updated for this site.

About Jim D

Jim has worked in the IT field for over 25 years and as a senior leader for over 15 years. He has successfully turned around a number of IT shops to become high performing teams and a competitive advantage for their companies.

This entry was posted in Best Practices, Efficiency and Cost Reduction, Looking Ahead, Project Management and Delivery, Uncategorized, Vision and Leadership and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to How Did Technology End Up on the Sunday Morning Talk Shows?

  1. Amit says:

    Jim, well written article! Given the volatile and dynamic nature of the requirements, hybrid-agile or iterative project management methodology was better suited to manage and successfully deliver this project. In addition to that, I believe they did not create and institutionalized a scalable application and system architecture at the front end, middle tier and back end layer factoring transaction volume, performance, future scale, and ability to add new business functionality or webpages in addition to infrastructure issues you eluded in the architecture .

  2. Amit D says:

    Investing the right highly skilled sme talent, resources, time and cost upfront early in the project life cycle is pivotal to the producing a great end product . Hence my recommendation has always been to get the foundational and design elements well thought out initially.

  3. Jerry says:

    For more crazy Healthcare stories, look into the situation with Oregon and the debacle of their exchange setup by a prominant vendor.


    • Jim D says:

      OMG! I did just check it out… and Oregon is currently having to manually process paper applications because their contractor, Oracle (yes, Oracle), has failed to deliver a working site. How disheartening. Thanks for pointing this one out Jerry.

      Best, Jim Ditmore

  4. Mike A says:

    Good article on “Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?” There are many reasons why, of course, as the Standish Group and others have reported. It is much more in evidence in government contracting where IT project failures are profligate for the reasons you cite. They question is “Why so bad?”

    The answer lies deeper than the obvious. Those skilled at landing large contracts, the so-called, legendary “rain-makers” are rarely the ones who are responsible for actually “managing” the projects after contract award. In fact, many who are good at business development and marketing, are poor leaders, and even worse managers. However, they do land contracts. Unfortunately, contained within the language of those self-same contracts are often the seeds of failure.

    This is particularly so in government contracting despite, and sometimes because of, the rules and regulations aimed at guaranteeing competiveness and project success. In reality, there is little or no check on the BD executives, who are “driven” to win, at all costs, even if it means agreeing to do work they know they can’t do, don’t know how to do, and in some cases, have never done before. For example, take a very deep and detailed look into who was supposed to do what and when on the ObamaCare Web site contract. You asked why when the project was underway for more than three years, that ” . . . nothing was made available until Oct. 1?” Because they won the contract, they had the money, and the key personnel who landed the contract were busy working on winning another somewhere else. They could say “Not my problem. I landed the contract. Now you go figure it out!” Not a criticism, just an observation.

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