Sunday, October 27, 2013

As Falters, Silicon Valley Cringes

This week, as programmers in Washington scrambled to fix the glitch-ridden, the centerpiece of the Obama administration's Affordable Care Act architecture, their counterparts in Silicon Valley viewed the situation with a mixture of rolled eyes and sympathy.

Many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have experienced a flawed launch of a big product, accompanied by unexpected delays and over-budget implementation. It's the way things go here, and failure is often embraced as a learning experience. Still, around the coffee shops of San Francisco and the tech campuses of the South Bay this week, the topic of the government's health-care push often elicited cynical jokes — one tech worker quipped that a Stanford computer-science class could have built for a thousandth of the reported $400 million–plus budget — and confusion. How could a project involving a budget of that size and five years of lead time fail so badly? What was so hard about building, as some have called, a Kayak for health insurance?

Matt Mullenweg, the co-developer of WordPress (the open-source platform that five states are using to run their own health-insurance exchanges), was among the confused., the largest chunk of which was overseen by Canadian IT firm CGI Federal, "gets more money than all the revenue of most Silicon Valley start-ups combined," he said. He added that although "start-ups have failed launches all the time" — citing Twitter as an example of a site that was "unreliable for years" — the scale of the health-care site, and its importance to the Obama administration's policy aims, should have made transparency a priority.

"If the government is going to spend that much money on something, it should be open source," Mullenweg told me in a phone call. "How cool would it have been if the site launched, didn't work, and some passionate coders came in and said, 'Oh, here's a problem, and here, and here?' But the people who want to help aren't able to."

Eric Ries, the author of The Lean Startup and a member of Silicon Valley's cognoscenti, echoed Mullenweg's concerns. Speaking after an event in San Francisco's Soma district that was filled with tech types, Ries told me that the botched rollout was emblematic of what he called "state-of-the-art incompetence." He explained that the old-school approach to the site's development, which relies on a management system known as the "waterfall model," and whose back-end database appears to run on Oracle software, had all but ensured it would run over-budget, late, and riddled with technical problems:

"You could take any engineer on the street here and ask them, 'I have a friend who works for a private company — don't mention the government — who's thinking about a five-year, $100 million Oracle installation, and they've hired an outsourced contractor to build it for them. It's going to be proprietary, hosted in their own data center, Oracle-based, with waterfall management. What are the odds that it's working on Day One?' And everyone here will tell you: zero percent."

But while Ries blames the specific structure of for its failures, other programmers, perhaps sympathetic to Silicon Valley's emerging suspicion of government, see it as symptomatic of the government's ham-fisted approach to technology. The site is "only the latest episode in a string of information technology debacles by the federal government," wrote Clay Johnson and Harper Reed, two programmers with political pasts (Johnson was Howard Dean's lead programmer in 2004; Reed was the brain behind Obama's 2012 digital campaign) in a Times op-ed. The pair went on:

This latest failure is frustrating for us to watch ... We must find a fix to the federal procurement process that spares the government’s technology projects from the self-inflicted wounds of signing big contracts whose terms repeatedly and spectacularly go unmet.

The White House has promised that a "tech surge" of the "best and the brightest," including from Silicon Valley, has been brought in to repair the health-care site. But nobody knows, or is telling anyone, who those people actually are. Contractors grilled at a congressional hearing this week wouldn't name names, and several tech executives questioned yesterday said they had no inside information on the makeup of the government's emergency coder team. Verizon has reportedly been tapped to help with the revamp, but the extent of its involvement isn't known. Former budget official Jeffrey Zients is overseeing the rescue, but since he's not a known coder, his role is limited to managing the project.