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October 2013

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Lessons from the Obamacare Website Disaster

by Glen Emerson Morris
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The release of the McKinsey report on the Obamacare Website disaster came at about the same time as the made-for-cable movie on the Challenger disaster commissions search for its root cause. Though details are different, the two disasters have essentially the same cause, a failure by senior managers to listen and adjust schedules according to the realities of the situation. The truth is, there are Website disasters like Obamacare happening every day, they just don't make the front pages. If you read the Tech or Business sections of CNN you hear about them. And if you read the tech industry user forum traffic you'd know the problem is acute.

Over the past 25 years I've seen a marked decrease in the budgets and resources allocated for testing of hardware and software. It seems each new project has less resources and less time for testing than the last project. So far, most of the time, people manage to get working products out the door, but only by giving up their evenings and weekends. This has encouraged American managers to feel the risk is a lot lower than it really is. The managers of the space shuttle certainly underestimated the risk, and so did the Obamacare site managers. Unfortunately, this is a common problem.

One of the things I always do when I'm interviewing for Website quality assurance contracts is find out what their schedule is like before I commit to the job. Some projects are so underfunded these days that the main purpose of hiring a QA Lead is have someone to blame (and fire) when the underfunded projects blows up on launch. I turned down a very well paying contract at American Airlines for that reason, and it was a lot less doomed than than the Obamacare project was.

Based on the McKinsey report it's clear that the QA team and engineers on the Obamacare site project warned senior project managers that the deadline was unrealistic given the vast scope of the project and the limited resources and time available. The decision to go ahead was strictly political, and not based on reality. And it's clear the project's QA team knew what they were doing.

The Center for Medicaid/Medicare Services operates a very complex Website that gets millions of unique visitors a month. When was the last you heard of the CMMS Website going down? For that matter, did you ever hear of the CMMS site going down at all? Chances are, you never have. On the whole, the CMMS Website is well managed, which is really remarkable when you consider how much of it is done by third party contractors. I should know, I was one of them once.

In 2007 I was QA Lead for a contractor developing a new registration section for the Center for Medicaid/Medicare Services - the same group behind the Obamacare site. The project I worked on went well. We were given a good product requirements document to base our functionality tests on, and the contract with the CMMS even stated what level of load level test it had to pass using the LoadRunner test tool. No major changes were made after development started, and we were given adequate time for functionality and load testing. Not surprisingly, the Website section worked on launch.

What our project had going for it that didn't is that in our case the requirements, design, coding and testing phases were done consecutively, not concurrently. Because of the tight schedule of the Obamacare site, the four phases had to be done at the same time. In effect, the concurrency of phases meant that they were trying to add a roof to a building whose basement hadn't been completed.

In reality, complicated Websites like need to be created in phases, and each phase needs to be complete before the next phase can begin. The architect needs to know how many bedrooms a home will have before they design the basement. Granted, a number marketing and management professionals would disagree, and argue the necessity of having concurrent development phases where building and testing starts before the feature set of the Website has been defined. The argument may seem to make sense, but it's like arguing against gravity. No matter how good the argument is, it still won't stop gravity.

The real tragedy of the Obamacare site is that it's typical of the times; its root cause is a common problem that happens daily. In jobs of every type and level, American workers are being asked to do increasingly more while being given increasingly less resources and time to get the work done. And this is happening when most corporations are making record profits.

The problem is likely to get worse. Some of the major Telecoms are beginning to roll back rates paid consultants by 50% or better. I turned down a contract a Verizon once because even though I would be paid by the hour, I was expected to work weekends for free.

Much of America's senior business management is deluded into believing that attitude and hours are the only thing that are required to accomplish any corporate goal. If you think your project's budget is too small to accomplish the goal, it's because you have a bad attitude and you're not putting enough hours in on the project. The problem is this approach isn't sustainable long term. People only have so many hours to give, and once they're given them, any further workload translates into ever increasing risk.

Glen Emerson Morris was a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law.
He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.

Copyright 1994 - 2011 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved ' keywords: Internet advertising, Internet marketing, business, advertising, Internet, marketing. For more advertising and marketing help, news, resources and information visit our Home Page.

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