There’s still plenty of disagreement about the ideology, efficacy
and even legality of the Affordable Care Act (i.e. Obamacare), but there’s
broad consensus that the launch of website was a dismal failure.
And like so many tech rollout disasters, this one should serve as a teachable
moment that helps other organizations avoid making similar mistakes. is the federal government’s
health insurance marketplace portal, designed to serve millions of uninsured
people in 36 states. The site was built by CGI Federal, a Canadian company that
is a federal IT contractor. The site crashed soon after its October 1 launch
and has been plagued by technical problems. It has been unable to keep up with
demand, and most users cannot complete enrollment.

According to CBS
, “The White House contended that this
was a sign that demand was high: ‘These bugs were functions of volume,’ said
U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park. ‘Take away the volume and it works.’”

As of November 14, CBS News said the
White House reported that the site could process 17,000 registrations an hour.
With 30 million Americans potentially needing to use the site, it would take
two and a half months to enroll everyone with the site operating 24/7. In the
first month, only 106,000 people enrolled.

asked about the problems with the site, Rachel Maisier, spokeswoman for the
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which oversees the site,
declined to answer specific questions and instead referred to press releases
with directions for using the site. Maisier said, “The total obligation is $630
million for the IT system and we have spent $174 million of that total
obligation. “

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Pro Research turned to IT experts to glean wisdom from the failures of the
rollout. The consensus is that the five key things that other companies can
learn from this site’s failure include the following:

  1. If you’re going to launch a new website, decide
    whether to use in-house talent or outsource. If you opt to outsource, hire a
    good contractor.
  2. Follow the right steps to hire the best vendor
    for the project, and properly manage the relationship.
  3. Have one person in charge of the project with
    absolute veto power.
  4. Do not gloss over any problems along the way. Be
    open and honest about the progress of the project. And test the site.
  5. Be ready for success or failure. Hope for the
    best but prepare for the worst and have guidelines to manage any potential

project, overall, was mismanaged. That has been obvious from the news reports.
Paula Tompkins, founder and CEO of Dearborn, Mich.-based ChannelNet, said, “Management
always seems to underestimate the complexity of getting systems to interact in
a consistent and usable fashion. I have been involved in many large scale
(enterprise) technology based projects that have been mis-managed. I
always recommend that a company doesn’t bite off more than it can chew. You
need to be realistic about what can be accomplished in the time and for the
budget available.”

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Deciding to outsource or go in-house 

It’s important early on to decide whether to outsource a project or go in-house. One of the biggest learning points that other companies can
take from the website’s failure, according to Sanchit Vir Gogia, chief analyst of Greyhound Research in New Delhi,
India, is that “the problems did not crop up due to
massive traffic alone. A number of undetected system glitches existed which led
to the issues. The fact that such massive system errors went undetected shows
that the system architecture had not been tested before its official launch.
This is the biggest learning from the whole incident, that one simply cannot
avoid proper testing before any website or program launch especially when the
launch is on such a scale.”

Steps to finding best vendor

To avoid such problems, a company must hire
the best people for the job. This often means the first decision must be whether
to use in-house talent or outsource. It’s best to stay in-house, but if an
outside vendor must be used, then take care in hiring the best one for the job.

To choose the right contractor, Andreas Grabner,
technology strategist at the Compuware APM Center of Excellence has some
tips. He said, “Experience with large-scale, complex deployments and deep understanding
of Application Performance Management (APM) are crucial for any contractor
engaged in developing and rolling-out a program of this scope and scale. To be
sure the right contractor is engaged, a company needs to dive deeply into their
experience in load-testing, performance, scalability issues, and technologies
to analyze the entire depth and breadth of a site like from the
inside out, as well as from the end-user perspective and identify problems down
to the root-cause, all they way to a single offending line of code.”

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David Packer, a principal
of X by 2 in Farmington Hills, Mich., said, “Choosing a contractor/vendor is very important and very difficult.
Superficial analysis based on marketing materials, sales presentations, and a
few prepared references won’t cut it.  A more thorough analysis and
selection process is needed on important initiatives.  The people
performing this analysis need to have the experience delivering similar
initiates themselves, so they know what to ask and what to look for.  If
you don’t have these people on staff find a strong, objective partner that has
the expertise to help you do this. Why bring the A-team after failure; projects
like this should be staffed with A-team from the get-go.”

Give project manager absolute power

It’s crucial to give one person absolute power over the project. They can veto anything along the way without needing a group consensus.

choose the best project manager to do this, Packer said, “The challenge is how do you
tell the really good project managers and architects from the pretenders and
how do you avoid the administrative PMs that add very little value on important
system implementations.  It’s difficult to tell the difference unless you
are a strong manager and leader yourself. If you have a strong project manager
that you know and trust on staff or available to you, have them help you
interview other PMs for key projects.  They may be able to help spot
important strengths and weaknesses in candidates.  If you don’t have
someone capable to help, do your best to pick project managers and architects that
have a proven track record for delivering projects similar to yours. 
Don’t just go by their resume.  Talk to the key stakeholders they’ve
delivered for in the past.  If they’re good, they’ll have a long list of
customers that are happy to sing their praise.”

Be transparent about project

The next important
step is to be honest about the progress of the project, according to Robert
Kelly, managing partner of Raleigh, N.C.-based Kelly Project Solutions.

“Ethics and
transparency are critical to the success of the project, the PMs career, and the
long-term credibility of the organization. Once organizations accept the
fact that projects are either tackling innovative, new ground or solving issues
that run deep in an organization, then everyone will be in a position to share
the issues. Obamacare appears to have
come down to a political play and the customers (Americans) suffered.  This isn’t far from what happens in other
government agencies or privately owned companies either.  Most surveys show project success hovering
around 35 percent.  If you are an
executive and your project manager isn’t telling you about issues and shifting
dates, then be very careful,” Kelly said.

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To support a spirit
of transparency, “Management must express their understanding of the challenges
ahead for the project team. This isn’t saying that failure is acceptable, but
if the tools are being used and talent is working hard then the company must
support their efforts.”

Kelly suggested
developing a project intranet that stakeholders and anyone else can review to
see how the project directly supports business goals, project plans and weekly
meeting minutes.

“In order to
effectively mitigate and manage failures, companies must hire project
leaders.  It is easy to say that everyone
should accept that issues will happen and management should provide support,
but the project leader must earn/maintain a level of trust for this to
work.  A project leader will not simply
state that an issue occurred and a new date,” Kelly said.

Prepare for success or failure

Vaughn Bullard, CEO and founder of Washington, D.C.-based Build.Automate Inc.,
said, “No matter how much you plan, something will always go wrong. From my
perspective, it looks as though nothing was planned other than the actual
marketing of a website that is, at this point, going on seven weeks into public
rollout and not completely functional. It would appear accuracy, function and
actual workability were sacrificed because the development and launch team were
more worried about the consequences of it not rolling out.  Unfortunately,
the consequences of rolling out not functional are worse than if they had just
shown restraint and delayed rollout of the website.  This should have
never gone public without extensive testing.  The contractor telling the
government that it was ready despite the obvious major flaws in the system is
just baffling to me.  If I had an employee that did something similar, I
would have terminated their employment.  It’s pretty simple.”

it comes down to in the end, Bullard said, is that, “Quality and integrity
count in all things.”