"Good management consists in showing average people how to do the work of superior people." --John D. Rockefeller
"Good management is the art of making problems so interesting and their solutions so constructive that everyone wants to get to work and deal with them." --Paul Hawken
Yep. I'm back at this well. Partially because it's a great way to boost hits (I don't use ads, but I do have an ego) but mostly because I've been there. Not in a project this size, but I've lived the nightmare. Maybe someone that can affect this boondoggle
This one is coming from a New York Times article titled Inside the Race to Rescue a Health Care Site, and Obama. And again, whether Ms. Stolberg and Mr. Shear realize it, they paint a picture familiar to many IT veterans.
Failures of TestingI've written about the technical failures of the development teams but what has been written in this article serves to underscore something all development teams know, but fewer do. Testing. From the article:
"To do that, they would have to take charge of a project that, they would come to discover, had never been fully tested and was flailing in part because of the Medicare agency’s decision not to hire a "systems integrator" that could coordinate its complex parts."
"The website had barely been tested before it went live, so a large number of software and hardware defects had not been uncovered."
"'There’s so much wrong, you just don’t know what’s broken until you get a lot more of it fixed,' Mark Bertolini, the chief executive of Aetna, said on CNBC."Regression testing. Unit testing. User Acceptance testing. I can't think of a better way to talk about the dangers of not budgeting time to properly test your project.
"In Herndon, as engineers tried to come to grips with repeated crashes, a host of problems were becoming apparent: inadequate capacity in its data center and sloppy computer code, partly the result of rushed work amid the rapidly changing specifications issued by the government."Code reviews and proper architecture concern would have prevented the "sloppy code" issue. The rest of this segueways nicely into my major point, thought.
Failure to understand a software development projectClearly, project management didn't know how to manage a large-scale project. I've said before that the evidence could not be clearer that this project was managed Waterfall-style. And while the far-preferable Agile development style can also struggle with changing requirements, the iterative workflow, combined with constant checkpoints with the business stakeholders allows for better options for dealing with the fact of life that is spec change. Here are a few examples from my playbook:
"No, we will not change specifications in mid-sprint. If you want this change, submit it to the Icebox and give it a priority. We will then do the design and estimation work and add it to a future sprint."
"No. This is a two week sprint. We will not finish early. We will not rush. We have a planned amount of work that will take two weeks to deliver properly."
"No, we will not add to this sprint. The sprint covers an amount of work that can be accurately delivered in two weeks."
"No, we will not include this work into a sprint until there is proper user acceptance criteria attached. The delivered code will then conform to the acceptance criteria listed. No more, no less. I'm here to help you write good acceptance criteria."
Enforcing this kind of project discipline is crucial. It should be well-communicated up front. Everyone should know what an iceberg is. And once the expectation is set, that expectation is enforced. But even with that, the problem runs far deeper. Some quotes from the article really chilled me:
"Out of that tense Oval Office meeting grew a frantic effort aimed at rescuing not only the insurance portal and Mr. Obama’s credibility, but also the Democratic philosophy that an activist government can solve big, complex social problems."
"'We’re about to make some history,' she (Ms. Sebelius,) said.
"...reveals an insular White House that did not initially appreciate the magnitude of its self-inflicted wounds"As any regular readers know, my overall philosophy comes from Marcus Aurelius:
“This, what is it in itself, and by itself, according to its proper constitution? What is the substance of it? What is the matter, or proper use? What is the form, or efficient cause? What is it for in this world, and how long will it abide? Thus must thou examine all things that present themselves unto thee.”By itself and in its proper constitution, Healthcare.gov is a website that allows people to purchase health insurance. It is not a justification of a political philosophy. It's not about making history. Those are incidental. You cannot make good decisions if you don't understand the context for those decisions. You can't make good decisions about a development project if you see it as anything other than a software development project. And don't think for a second that minimizes its importance somehow. Most developers I know care a good deal more for their code than they do your politics. But if management mistakenly sees a project as some kind of ideological movement or as setting their legacy then they aren't making project management decisions.
Finally, what may be the worst failing of the management of this project. It's culture. The standards management sets for its operations. The only place I've ever heard of management leading so poorly is in Dilbert. For example:
"For weeks, aides to Ms. Sebelius had expressed frustration with Mr. McDonough, mocking his “countdown calendar,” which they viewed as an example of micromanagement."Mocking other stakeholders. Ignoring, for a moment, the notion of expecting professionals to not act like spoiled children, why was this behavior considered acceptable? Management sets the standard for how people act. A good manager understands this. A good manager sets an expectation of professionalism. Complaining is one thing. Open mocking should be the sort of thing people are embarrassed to do, or even to listen to.
"Contractors responsible for different parts of the portal barely talked to one another, hoping to avoid blame."There's enough written about how a management culture of blame creates a toxic environment. Problems aren't addressed. People pass the buck rather than address problems. The concern is to not be left holding the bag, rather than making sure work is done well. Fear does not create quality. And clearly, this is not known here.
"Mr. Obama, meanwhile, was under assault. After years of telling Americans, “If you like your insurance plan, you can keep it,” he was being accused of lying. On the night of Oct. 28, Ms. Jarrett, one of Mr. Obama’s closest confidantes and a guardian of his personal credibility, took to Twitter to defend him — and to shift the blame.
“FACT,” she wrote. “Nothing in #Obamacare forces people out of their health plans. No change is required unless insurance companies change existing plans.”
The tweet touched a nerve; it was not the first time the Obama White House had used the insurance industry as a scapegoat. Ms. Ignagni’s (chief executive of America’s Health Insurance Plans,) members were furious. “Here it comes — we knew it would happen,” one executive recalled thinking."The Obama administration built support for the ACA by building hostility to the insurance industry, with whom they must now work. So, in essence, the Obama Administration has taken every opportunity to publicly condemn the insurance industry and is now relying on that same industry to launch not only it's centerpiece website, but the validation of their political philosophy. A management team that does not treat their vendors with respect will find themselves very lonely once they need their vendors. UnitedHealth and CIGNA have already "mostly shied away from the online marketplace" (From the article). To assume this has nothing to do with the administration's clear contempt for their vendors is folly.
I have a difficult time summing up my shock at the sheer number of leadership failures involved here. Not just in knowing how to run a software development project- clearly Medicare and the Dept. of Health and Human Services considered this a "Fire and Forget" project and that they were absolved of all responsibility to be involved once the project started. More disturbing, though, is the culture that management allows. Childish behavior and finger-pointing should not be acceptable. And that attitude starts from the top.