Why Calling it a “Tech Surge” May Not Be the Best Idea in History

Now that our federal government is back at work and the short term debt ceiling thing is resolved, it should be no surprise that the news cycle is now obsessed with Obamacare and its flawed implementation. Over the weekend I must have seen a dozen articles about this online and in the NY Times, and then I woke up this morning to a bunch of new things about the Healthcare.gov site underlying tech, how screwed up it is, and what / how the Health and Human Services agency is going to do to fix it.

The punch line – a tech surge.

To ensure that we make swift progress, and that the consumer experience continues to improve, our team has called in additional help to solve some of the more complex technical issues we are encountering.

Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the team and help improve HealthCare.gov.  We’re also putting in place tools and processes to aggressively monitor and identify parts of HealthCare.gov where individuals are encountering errors or having difficulty using the site, so we can prioritize and fix them.  We are also defining new test processes to prevent new issues from cropping up as we improve the overall service and deploying fixes to the site during off-peak hours on a regular basis.

From my perspective, this is exactly the wrong thing to do. Many years ago I read Fredrick Brooks iconic book on software engineering – The Mythical Man-Month. One of his key messages is that adding additional software engineers to an already late project will just delay things more. I like to take a different approach – if a project is late, take people off the project, shrink the scope, and ship it faster.

I think rather than a tech surge, we should have a “tech retreat and reset.” There are four easy steps.

  • 1. Shut down everything including taking all the existing sites offline.
  • 2. Set a new launch date of July 14, 2014.
  • 3. Fire all of the contractors.
  • 4. Hire Harper Reed as CTO of Healthcare.gov, give him the ball and 100% of the budget, and let him run with it.

If Harper isn’t available, ask him for three names of people he’d put in charge of this. But put one person – a CTO – in charge. And let them hire a team – using all the budget for individual hires, not government contractors or consulting firms.

Hopefully the government owns all the software even though Healthcare.gov apparently violates open source licenses. Given that, the new CTO and his team can quickly triage what is useful and what isn’t. By taking the whole thing offline for nine months, you aren’t in the hell of trying to fix something while it’s completely broken. It’s still a fire drill, but you are no longer inside the building that is burning to the ground.

It’s 2013. We know a lot more about building complex software than we did in 1980. So we should stop using approaches from the 1980s, admit failure when it happens, and hit reset. Doing a “tech surge” will only end in more tears.

Brad Feld is the managing director at the Foundry Group. This post originally appeared at his site, FeldThoughts.

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  7. Bring Edward Snowden back to work on the O-care website. He’ll fix all the bugs and glitches and get it up and running in no time.

  8. Hope all those additional bodies participating in the tech surge have had their background checked and allowed to handle all that PII.

  9. I agree wholeheartedly with points 1 and 2 – and this is something that should have been done before 10/1.

    They couldn’t do it, of course, for political reasons, having declined the Republican offer to delay.

    It’s not a good reason, but it is a reason.

  10. I had to laugh at the wording “tech surge” like are we racing in to save the Alamo:) It’s going to be a digital illiterate meeting of the minds on October 30th when we have Sebelius testifying at the House Energy Committee. Talk about the blind talking to the blind. What do I know I said in 2009 when she was nominated to please not, put the smart people in office as the big focus was going to be health IT and where we today? Right there and SEC and DOJ have same problem. Bill Gates said it best a couple years ago when he told the graduating class of Berkeley that those in demand will be the “hybrids” out there, ones with more than one viewpoint and focus and they are not always easy to find. Take at look at Dr. Halamka at Harvard, there’s a true hybrid talent and beyond with his expertise.


    So in the meantime, get ready for the show of digital illiteracy to come out in full bloom at the October 30th testimony all the way around, both sides..it’s really a sad reality but the very folks we trust to make laws and run agencies seems to be the ones who resist educating themselves the most and the old paradigm of “its for those guys over there” sadly lives on.