As featured in the Sunday Economic Times of 22.12.2013 (Page 10). Complete article appears after the image:
If I told you that learning to play cricket in India was impossible, you would laugh at me. So, if I told you that the President of the United States of America was not able to build a critical website to serve his citizens, then would you believe me?
Along with you, no one; not a single mammal on the planet can believe that the President of the land that gave us Google, Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Yahoo and Microsoft has failed in his attempt to build the government’s Insurance website healthcare.gov .
Just look up “What went wrong with Obama’s Health Care website” and you will have enough reading material to last you three life imprisonment terms. Since its launch in October, the website has crashed, been inaccessible to American users, has spewed out erroneous information, has wasted millions of hours of people’s time and has frustrated the common American. Worse, it has appeared like a guillotine for Obama’s greatest contribution in his Presidency - Obamacare – that was supposed to completely resurrect the way Americans were promised medical aid as citizens.
We are not Americans and Obamacare or healthcare.gov does not apply to us. However, the lessons learnt from this fiasco promise some incredible learnings for anyone in a leadership position who has been entrusted to deliver a technology solution to help consumers. Some of these lessons are:
1. You can’t outsource being the bridegroom.
Can you imagine asking someone else to represent you at your own wedding? Well, that is what Obama did, metaphorically. He was so ‘hands off’ the most important consumer-impacting project of his career that he has now plummeted to the bottom of his popularity.
If you are in charge of a business that is going to be transformed by technology, then get involved. Roll up your sleeves, imagine that you are the consumer, touch and feel the project yourself. Honestly, technology is not intimidating if you think of it as a tool towards achieving your goals rather than the goal itself.
One of the greatest examples of a “non-tech” CEO rolling out some of the most complex pieces of hardware and software is Steve Jobs. Even though he was not an engineer, Apple’s performance of its iPods, iPhones and iPads sold to millions of users, remains flawless.
Steve Jobs managed to deliver because he pretended to be the consumer – not the CEO. He tested, tested and tested his products with so much rigour that they turned out to be perfect. A famous example - he cancelled the launch of the first iPhone just a few weeks before the D-Day because the glass of the test iPhone he was carrying in his pocket had been badly scratched by his keys (in the same pocket). He said, “This is how Americans carry their phones and keys and this is not what I want the iPhone to look like”. The fix created ‘Gorilla Glass’ by Corning Company that is now used everywhere!
2. Beta is the new Gold
Most CEOs can’t accept things to be ‘in trial’ for a long time. They want it be ‘commercial’ and rolled out.
Unfortunately, technology can’t seem to get it right in the first few attempts. It always needs to be tuned and further fine-tuned to begin to sing a tune. No wonder why the mighty Google labels many of its projects ‘beta’ even though they are a few years old!
Obama could have vastly benefited if he had limited the exposure of the site, tested it thoroughly with only a few users (a couple of states?) and then slowly, but surely, rolled out the site across national level.
If you are instrumenting technology that will change the way your consumers transact with your Company and its business, then do so slowly. There is no heroism in doing everything together. Remember that the tortoise won the race.
3. Don't treat advisors as fathers-in-law
I say this assuming that most people don't listen to their fathers-in-law despite having them around. Obama is the President of a nation that put the first man on the moon and delivered the first driverless car. Why did he not consult and employ the world’s greatest technology entrepreneurs to help build his insurance website?
Many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have loudly complained that Obama didn’t involve them in the healthcare.gov site despite them making many overtures to help. I mean, imagine folks from Amazon and Ebay on his side! How could he have failed?
Highly accomplished, pro-bono advisors are irritating because they are usually right and say things you don't want to hear. Their advice is painful because it means changing a lot of what has already been decided and implemented.
If you are a business leader, take advice before you start. The world has become extremely specialized and you will never know everything about everything. If an expert is willing to help for free, send your ego to the dry cleaners and sit down with him.
4. Don't get plumbers to write your code.
The Obama website has been terribly handled by both the contractors involved and also the government officials handling the project. The entire project is messed because of bad planning, untimely feedback, multiple changes and horrific decision-making.
Technology is a dragon that needs a special kind of rider to tame it. Don't put in familiar faces and people you “have known for a while” because they are not used to riding dragons. They will get eaten up.
As a business leader, find a twin of yourself who speaks your language, looks you in the eye and tells you the truth. Then put him in charge of your mission critical technology projects.
Steve Jobs was so obsessed by details that he even designed the interiors of the buses that transported Apple employees from train stations to office. Some called him mad but I think Obama would have another view.
Awesome Post Sir. Thanks for sharing!
no should now complain for IRCTC .!!!
But thats not an excuse to be bad...
Sir i was joking ,!! it was on lighter note
Thanks for bringing this to some front and center attention Alok. You make some great points in the article and do a nice job of explaining the debacle thats ensued in the after the rollout of the healthcare.gov. However, I think there are some points that need a bit of clarifying from the other side.
Just to preface before my entrepreneurial Indian life I worked at Deloitte Consulting and was involved with many of the programs states implemented leading up to the giant healthcare.gov rollout.
1. You can and should expect outsourcing to the fullest effect
first lets be fair, Obama isn't a man of technology. Let's not confuse the point that he embraces it (reddit ama, huge social engagement, etc) with the point that he knows little to nothing about it. He's the president...he's not expected to as there are kind of a few other pressing matters. So to compare him to Steve Jobs, the president of a one product at a time hardware company who could step out of CEO affairs and yell at a dev team for 6 months, isn't very accurate.
Yes healthcare.gov was supposed to be a crowning achievement for the Obama administration but its not about legacy anymore, or saving face, its about accomplishing the end goal which is insuring as many americans as possible. With such a huge endeavour, with so much riding on it, it would be irresponsible NOT to entrust every bit to experts of the field aka the outsourced. I mean come on... I dont think anyone expected Kennedy to be in the trenches at NASA after he proclaimed that we shall have a man on the moon. Similarly how can you expect Obama and his administration to be in the project rooms during highly sophisticated integration discussions of getting such a massive system online
2. Government Beta...
This would have been a great idea, unfortunately its not one that really gels with a consumer facing government website. A big bang roll out was neccesary for a few reasons, not great reasons but yea a few. First, timeline set forth in the Affordable Care Act (obamacare is a colloquial term used primarily by the republican administration to constantly tie obama to the forever debated cons of the law) required that the site be live. timelines...tis a bitch, not an excuse but yea sucks and one the administration had to stick to so that they didn't rock the boat any further with the crazy republican side. second, and maybe this is more of a contractor issue, you are never hired to deliver a beta. sure a phased or pilot rollout but never beta. Phased certainly seems like it would have made more sense, starting with smaller regions like alaska or something but the assumption is that time again won out here.
In the end... it wasn't a true big bang as parts of healthcare.gov were tested and piloted across states for over a year. the issue was the final implementation bringing everything together and this brings us to point 3
3. Trust the advisor when he's done it 20 times and knows you better than you know yourself
The big tech guys can whine all they want but the truth is there is very little they could have done. The issues lie in the integration, and for healthcare.gov it was a pretty massive one. The contractors that were hired to handle it were most likely done so because they were already very intimate with the existing decrepit legacy systems. Under the extremely tight timeline you cant expect the whiz kids, regardless of how cool they might be now, to come in and learn stuff their dad's built and build something on top with tech they have never used and have no idea how to use. I mean for projects like this Bezos doesn't go to his tech team, he hires 3 or 4 firms to figure it out. So its tough to really say that their expertise would have at all changed the outcome... maybe it would have but in such an important implementation you have to trust experience. these are tax dollars, not your own seed funding to play with.
4. when your code is shit...kinda need plumbers to clean it out
so your absolutely right in that its most likely the fault of the contractors and the officials in the end. In my experience its almost always the lack of communication between them and the constantly changing poorly understood requirements that lead to a failed project or missed deadline. But again, given the timelines, i think it would have been a very tall order to expect people who were not involved with originally building the pipes to understand how they work, clean them out, and rebuild them. At least they could save step one...
That being said, healthcare.gov is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, single consumer facing web project in the history of the US. meaning it came with quite a pricetag (i delivered a project that served 3000 people for $30Million...imagine one that served 300M) that a lot of companies chased very very hard after and promised completely unattainable deadlines based on completely messed up requirements with neither side truly understanding the level of effort required. Maybe that was the time to bring in some experts from outside for a fresh perspective... I don't neccesarily think its silicon valley. regardless, thats where things should change but fast talking giant firm partners wining and dining the right people seems to always win out. I left consulting for many of these very dirty, seedy reasons.
anyhow, this post was in no way discounting the fact that healthcare.gov is a complete failure and a huge embarassment. but i guess to defend my homie obama and the very hardworking consulting companies that are given little to go on and expected to churn out gold in the time it takes to make maggi.
thank you! A solid retort indeed that makes me acknowledge your point of view!