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.