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Joshua Sharf

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October 10, 2013 - 12:00 pm
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By now, it’s hard to decide if the launch failure of the Obamacare exchange websites isn’t funny anymore, or just keeps getting funnier.

Sites went down — including the individual state sites for states that are running their own exchanges. When people weren’t getting “due to an extraordinarily high volume of calls” errors, they were getting 404 Not Found messages, and pages were finding new and creative ways of erroring out. Even Wednesday afternoon, I was getting server errors just trying to finish the account creation process on the California site.

Almost as quickly as the train wreck itself unfolded, so did the explanations for it evolve. First, both President Obama and then Press Secretary Jay Carney claimed with straight faces that the failures were a result of the massive interest in the exchanges. Then, others claimed that these were normal rollout errors that occur with all large, complex systems. Finally, as the engineers rolled the platform back to the hangar for retooling, there was no hiding the fact that this was indeed a software failure, not just a set of normal launch “glitches” (to use the press’s word du jour).

The exchanges’ bad day brought to mind a number of other high-profile website failures, including the Romney campaign’s spectacular white elephant of a killer whale, Orca.

I’ve been in web development for most of my professional career. I’ve participated in successful launches, and launches that needed to be rolled back and fixed. I’ve spent very long days dealing with one error after another, and equally long, uneventful days waiting for the deluge that mercifully never came.

It’s always easy to criticize someone else’s failures, and with my luck, tomorrow the QA guys will rain down trouble tickets on my head like nobody’s business. Nevertheless, it remains inescapably true that while there were reasons this happened, they weren’t good reasons, and could have been avoided. Given three years and hundreds of millions of dollars for development, they should have.

Here’s why, and how.

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Top Rated Comments   
"If nothing else, the administration's Google and Facebook buddies could have set up the sites."

Of course not! That would involve wasting less taxpayer money! ;-)
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (34)
All Comments   (34)
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I agree with many of the technical problems described here, but one glaring set of problems remain. The politicians lack the discipline and grasp of details and hard definitions to establish the ground rules for the programmers and system designers. They may have had three years, but there were likely changes up to the last minute. And the accuracy and reliability of the definition of the data were woeful. The best next step may be to throw away all the applications now entered and retool the entire system. Anything short of that will ensure that the system is never workable
25 weeks ago
25 weeks ago Link To Comment
Nice analysis. History has shown that projects with too many disparate components such as this one often fail, as the communications requirements grow exponentially as each component is added to the project. Best to start small and build out in stages, testing as each component is developed. Takes longer but it works and probably costs less.
25 weeks ago
25 weeks ago Link To Comment
For those with a bit of programming experience: have you looked at the code? Shocking.

http://ricochet.com/member-feed/Obamacare-Coders-Would-Fail-a-101-Class
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
Come on, give our underpaid, overworked government workers a break. They only had 3 1/2 years to work this out and test it, and of course millions upon millions of dollars, friends, buddies cronies, favorites, and of course ignoramuses.
Wait until da guvmint gets it's hands on medical practice & treatment. That should be a doozy. Are all the LittleLefties out there happy, wait, it will get better.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
I have not been able to access the federal site at all to the extent required to actually look at plans. I keep getting the exact same errors over and over which suggests to me the people working on it are either furloughed, or don't have clue what they are doing.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
Does anyone else see the cosmic irony in the attempt at a tyrannical takeover by the government being thwarted by incompetent government workers?
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
IMO you need to hire people who have created applications of similar scope before, and I really doubt that happened judging from the results.

You can test all you want, but if you don't know the pitfalls of multiple-server, multiple-tier apps, you may not code/test for the right thing, which is a lot of concurrency, load and transaction issues. It's a knowledge and experience issue, and of course design.

I consider myself to be a good developer, but I could not take on designing something of this scale.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
Here's the thing. If they don't sign up 7 mil. people by the end of March, they run out of money ( I assume 7 mil PAYING customers) and the whole thing goes caput. It seems almost insane that they believe young people, who so far have not signed up for insurance that costs $50, are going to flock to sign up for $300.

Although as I write I think the Republicans will find a way to get them more money. That's what they do.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
No, they will not run out of money in that eventuality. A lower number will be embarrassing, and I don't expect more than 4 million to sign up by the end of March. More important, however, will be the distribution of those who do sign up, be it 4 million, 7 million, or 10 million. The lower the aggregate number, the more likely the pool will skew towards being more unhealthy and costly to treat since that is the group with the biggest incentive to sign up in the first place, despite the inconvenience the sites are putting in their way.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
March is a long way away. For all the fubar, it is the first week of a big system. It could probably be rewritten entirely by a competent crew in six weeks and still make its targets.

But it may not BECAUSE THE CONCEPTS AND ECONOMICS OF OBAMACARE are even worse than their coding skills.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
If the US gov spent $600 million on the Obamacare web then this is the biggest IT design, development, and roll out failure in IT history. I have 35 years experience and for that amount of money I could have fielded a web application thirty or more times larger.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
Something I want to say about "test test test."

My measly experience in software development got me closer to the testers than anyone else. The work of those people is tedious, ingenious, thorough, creative, relentless, essential, non-stop.....there are more adjectives, but I'll stop there.

I'd say QA takes on more risk in signing off on a product than R&D.

What happened on this rollout? Here's my guess: some number of shrugging, go-along, perfect for government contract types are saying "I ran the scripts and filled out the forms, so" (shrug). And some competent few are shedding tears and saying "I tried to tell them!"
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
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