Obamacare, IT, and magic thinking

| October 21, 2013


A very common pattern in a IT project such as the Healthcare.gov website is that those in the trenches know how bad things are, but those at the top don’t — or don’t want to know, leading to a phenomenon I noticed many years ago and named “the thermocline of truth“. What usually happens is that the ‘truth layer’ moves up the ranks as the scheduled deadline approaches, and the whole project is suddenly delayed just weeks or even days before going live.

Sometimes, however, the folks at the top insist that the system go live, even though everyone below them knows the system is not ready for prime time (or ready for late night or even ready for the wee small hours of the morning). They have this wishful belief that any “kinks” or “glitches” can be worked out after the system has launched, possibly by taking it off-line from time to time late at night or over weekends. They also believe that the vital importance of this system means that it just must somehow work, and that their sincerity and good intentions will overcome any technical issues.

This is, of course, feeble-minded crap. Software is very, very unforgiving, and if you haven’t taken the right approach to ensure proper functionality, performance, and quality, no amount of wishing and hoping and planning and dreaming is going to make it work right.

Here’s what I wrote in a rather blunt assessment of a troubled IT project at a major financial firm (my third such review of that same project in three years):

Such assertions don’t hold water. I can be in a great mood and have a team of very sincere and committed people, but if we try to build a commercial airliner without the proper expertise, requirements, engineering, materials, and testing, the plane will crash and people will die, assuming it ever gets built and off the ground (which is extremely unlikely). The fallacy that software is somehow different is just that — a fallacy, and one that costs corporations millions (if not billions) of dollars a year in missed schedules and failed projects. When it comes to engineering, sincerity and commitment, while important, can never substitute for expertise and quality of work.

Likewise, when problems do arise, there is this similar wishful belief that just a few more “bug fixes” and “enhancements” will clear everything up. This was the case in the project I mentioned above, and the client was very unhappy to hear me say just how far back to the beginning they were going to have to go to make things work. They refused to do so, and the entire project was cancelled within a year.

We are currently watching all of this writ large with Healthcare.gov. The comments and leaks coming out from a hundred sources make it pretty clear that this project was going to face a disastrous launch, particularly with the insistence on an October 1 go-live date. Furthermore, it is also becoming clear that the problems with the architecture, design, implementation and testing of Healthcare.gov are so fundamental and deep that the current system many never work satisfactorily — that it may, in fact, be infected with “septic” code, design, etc. I believe this was known by many inside the project, and yet it went live on October 1st anyway — truly wishful, or if you will, magic, thinking.

Magic thinking is, of course, a very common phenomenon of the Left, for all their claims of being more “rational” and “scientific” and “objective” than the Right. You can see it in their beliefs that the passage of Obamacare and their own good intentions and righteous cause would somehow negate the laws of economics, psychology, biology, medicine, and unintended consequences. What is happening with Healthcare.gov is that same magic thinking phenomenon in a very public, mechanistic, and immediately testable environment. Even the media is losing its ability and desire to cover for the spectacular failure going on.

My best guess is that sooner or later, the ‘Apply Now’ section of Healthcare.gov is going to have to be shut down for an extended period, and that will set an interesting chain of events into motion, including a possible delay of the individual mandate. With the just-this-weekend-announced “surge” effort, it appears that the Administration is finally taking the problems seriously.  But that effort will take time, particularly to the extent that the system has to communicate with various existing Federal systems. It also invites the wrath of Brooks’s Law:

Adding manpower to a late project makes it later.

— Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., The Mythical Man-Month, 1975.

Bring in the best and the brightest, and all will be fixed in days if not hours? More magical thinking.

Interesting times. ..bruce w..

P. S. Click here to see all my Obamacare posts.

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Category: Healthcare Reform, Information Technology, Liberal Meltdown, Main, Obama Administration, Obamacare

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.