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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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