Healthcare.gov – Glitches Should Be Expected, Perfection Shouldn’t Be

There’s been a lot of criticism directed at the rollout of the healthcare.gov signup for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. The website has had a lot of glitches, and now the government is bringing in top tech help to fix the problems.   While some of the criticisms are valid, many are not.  One of the most pernicious is that “private industry would never allow something like this out.”  Speaking as someone with a couple of decades of IT experience under his belt, I can state that that particular line is … unmitigated bullshit.   Private industry does it all the time, in fact, it’s a major surprise if they release something on time and on budget that works out of the box.

Consider Microsoft.  “Windows 2000” was originally titled “NT 5.0.”  It was supposed to be released in … 1998.  XP, the consumer version of it was supposed to be out before 2000.  What happened?  It was a couple of years late, hence “Windows 2000.”  XP wasn’t ready by any means, so “Millenium Edition,” or “Windows ME” was sent out.  It was the bane of most computer techs, and is still reviled as one of their worst blunders, at least until Windows Vista came along. Vista was late too, by about 4 years, and wasn’t even what they’d started out doing.

Twitter?  I remember seeing a lot of “fail whales” there over the years.  That’s what happens when the system overloads and can’t handle all the tweets.  Facebook?  Their database architecture was having issues, and anyone paying attention to the tech press could have told you a lot of stories about “hacks,” bad revisions, overly complex means of setting preferences, and so on.  Every new edition of an operating system, a new version of a web site, new software, you name it, is “buggy” at the start.  If you expect “ideal” or “perfect” out of the box, you’re going to be badly disappointed.   That’s what any length of time in information technology will teach you.

There was a sentence in one of the above news articles which made laugh:

Computer “glitches” seem massive. USA TODAY reports that “the federal health care exchange was built using 10-year-old technology that may require constant fixes and updates for the next six months and the eventual overhaul of the entire system.”

Why was I laughing?  Do you know how many businesses are still using Windows XP, an over 10-year-old operating system?

Microsoft estimates that 30 percent of its small to midsize customers are still using XP. So the end of the product’s lifecycle has created a countdown of sorts for many businesses to make big decisions about how to update their information-technology infrastructure.

That’s not surprising, there was an equally slow move to get to XP.  In fact, my own workplace went to it … 5 years ago.  We’re still using it.  The assumption that private industry would “obviously” be using the “newest and best” technology is laughable to anyone who has worked in business IT.  They’ll move only when they have to, and even then, it’s usually to the next generation “old technology,” not the “newest on the market.”

The other reason glitches were to be expected?  This is a complex undertaking.  It’s linking multiple systems together to provide the information.  I’ve worked on projects like that, and they’re always problematic.  One system’s software doesn’t work and play well with another system’s, so you have to write an interface.  The interface may have glitches in it, or it may not be as smooth as you’d hoped.  In an ideal world, this doesn’t happen, or is planned for, but “ideal” is a rather unattainable goal.  Yes, the projects I worked on had quite a number of those issues, and yes, we were behind schedule and over budget.    Not because of incompetence, but because it was a huge endeavor and we found a lot of “unanticipated problems” along the way.  So it doesn’t surprise me that the government would be having these problems in a “first of its kind” undertaking.

The final “big problem” that’s being held up as “a failure?” Well, that’s actually the result of too much of a good thing.  Too much traffic.  You see,  you plan for a certain number of visitors,  decide to increase that number for “wildly optimistic,” and set your server and bandwidth accordingly.  When you, as happened, get almost 10 times your “wildly optimistic” figure on the first day, things slow down.  Really slow down.  Anyone who has visited an extremely busy website can see it, and sometimes it’ll crash the system.  So the “failure” is actually a wild success.

In reading through all the criticism, I see some valid points.  There were delays in things like regulations that shouldn’t have been.  The groups with the right expertise weren’t called in early on, or put in charge.  Testing cycles were skipped or skimped.  Those are valid criticisms, but “what’s done, is done.”  It’s a lesson for the next time a major project like this starts.  The “repair crews” are working, more technical expertise is being brought on board, and the fixes are underway.  It’ll get better, and the problems will be solved.

But the criticism that isn’t valid?  That it should have been perfect.  That should never have been expected.  Glitches should be, because they will happen.  If there’s anything 30+ years of using and working with computers have taught me, it’s that.  Anyone who says that there shouldn’t have been glitches is just indulging in wishful thinking, demonstrating that they don’t know anything about computer technology, or are just latching on to a convenient excuse to attack the program.

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16 Comments

Filed under Politics, Technology

16 responses to “Healthcare.gov – Glitches Should Be Expected, Perfection Shouldn’t Be

  1. Cappadonna

    Norbook – problem the most salient point about ACA made, spoken like a real techie. Being in Healthcare IT, I can tell you how many times I’ve heard how systems are ‘perfect’ with minimal glitches. That’s hogwash – if a system go-live goes flawlessly, its either a very simple roll out or they’re lying.

    • Thanks. 😀 My experience with “complex” was working on one of the first big attempts at an electronic medical record. Trying to tie together all the various “best of breed” programs various departments had installed was an object lesson in frustration. To put it mildly. 😉

    • I should also point out that any time a business “upgrades” its computers or operating system, it’s a major undertaking. Not only is there the training to use the new system, you also have to upgrade everything else, or try to figure out how to get some “critical legacy software” to work with it, and then migrate all the data. Not cheap or simple, and that’s why businesses usually drag their feet.

  2. ” One of the most pernicious is that “private industry would never allow something like this out.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong but wasn’t this a private company running this operation that the government contracted with? Clearly the ACA’s critics are hoping the public won’t catch this salient point as they criticize gubbermint for everything they can.

    • There’s a contractor who’s doing much of the overall coding, but there’s still a lot of government programmers involved, along with various systems the government is running which has to be linked in. The contractor’s problems are more “lack of clear direction,” and lack of salient regulations to build in.

      • Okay, that makes sense but whose software is it and where does that factor in?

        • It’s an interface, which has to do a number of things on its own. The first problem is that any time you’re trying to get/send information between multiple systems running different software packages (often proprietary), you’re going to have issues. The second is that it has to do some things on its own, like register people and make some calculations regarding eligibility for subsidies. Some of those calculations depend on which regulations are in place, and if the regulations aren’t in place (the “rules”) in time, or receive last minute changes, then building those in becomes a major headache. Speaking from experience, what would appear to be a “minor change” to someone not a programmer can actually be a major headache in coding to a programmer.

  3. I also work in IT (on the programming end), and I laughed my ass off at the sheer stupidity of these remarks. I do remind myself, though, that even if the Republicans were tech-savvy and knew everything you said in your post, they’d still be criticizing it because Obama. (There’s a design company where I live [Royal Oak, Michigan] that’s getting a lock of flack for the ACA website problems. Thing is, they were only contracted to create the VISUAL design, not the behind-the-scenes coding which probably consisted of a ton of Javascript, HTML, CSS, and other majik juju. I felt bad for them being caught up in this nonsense when they weren’t responsible for any of it.)

  4. tybandit

    I work in the medical field (radiology). Three years ago my health care facility (a group of clinics) installed a new system to integrate medical records with our radiology PACS system. Guess what, it STILL doesn’t work as well as it should. So I laugh when I hear the critics of the ACA rollout. Anyone hear of the problems with Apple’s new I-Phone? Don’t hear many calls for Apple to shut down. Have you?

  5. Snoring Dog Studio

    Critics of Obamacare will reach for anything at this point to demonize the ACA. They’re desperate, ignorant and inane. Can you imagine what it would look like if Medicare had been launched online? It’s not just their ignorance of what it takes to put something this huge online that appalls me, it’s their hysterical urgency to find ways to cast a negative light on the law.

  6. Snoring Dog Studio

    One more thing, I strongly suspect that there’s been a lot of sabotaging done by Tea Party members and others to clog up the system. It just wouldn’t surprise me.

  7. Norbrook, you and I agree in principle: This is by no means a “public sector vs. private sector” problem. Give any group of developers this much time, this many features, and this much money and you would get the same thing.

    I will say, though, that I was shocked at some of what I saw making it into production (I’ve been in IT for 25 years at big and small companies, and worked with the Department of Labor extensively). Things like “for…each” loops that forgot there are 51 “states” (you have to include DC) or “confirmation of change” emails that go to the NEW address, not the old. These are mistakes that anyone, public or private sector, can make, but they are unsettling in a production system, especially one that represents the first major IT civics project in history.

    What should have happened – what probably would have happened in the private sector – is the launch should have been delayed. However, ANY administration – Republican or Democratic – would have no doubt made the same decision to go live. This is too politically charged to think otherwise.

    In the end, there are a lot of people who need insurance who simply can’t get it, and that is a shame.

    (I am running a blog on this and would be happy to provide the link if requested).

    • I agree with you in that it looks like this is an alpha release, not a final release candidate. I’m assuming this is the post you were talking about. This was always going to be a complex system no matter what – trying to be a portal to 51 states, along with required verifications is a recipe for problems in the first place. One thing to remember is that it’s not just the “politics,” there was a hard deadline for “go live,” which was set by the legislation. From the tech standpoint it would have been far and away better to do better code checking as well as test environments and delay release. That wasn’t possible in this case, and in particular given this political environment.

  8. Churchlady

    The entire healthcare.gov IT system was built by a PRIVATE CONTRACTOR. One, BTW, that has done far more work for the GOP than for Dems, and that got the contract as the LOWEST bidder. In CA the same is true – so it might lead us to question the private contractors, but noooo.

  9. Dancer

    I may be repeating myself here…but wouldn’t it be loverly if all who profess a concern for “the people” (talking to you Cruz) worked as hard to make things go well so those uninsured could actually avail themselves of the options they need for affordable healthcare as they do to screw things up!