As some of you may remember, I spent 2009 writing a memoir about my experiences in New York City’s “new media” industry from 1993 to 2003. I’ve often wondered if I would ever write an update.
I might someday, and I might even write about the work I’ve been doing since 2009, when I moved down to Northern Virginia to get married and began working in Washington DC and in Northern Virginia’s tech corridor.
I only write memoirs in past tense, so I won’t be writing about my current jobs and projects anytime soon. But I wish I could, because lately it’s been as exciting as Silicon Alley down in here. The big local story is the epic #fail of the Obama administration’s website Healthcare.gov, which was built by several NoVa firms like CGI Federal.
The website’s crash has embarrassed this region’s entire tech community, especially since a few uninformed commentators have speculated that DC/Northern Virginia doesn’t have the tech skills to build a high-capacity website, and that Obama ought to jet in a team of Silicon Valley hotshots to fix Healthcare.gov.
This is really off base, especially since we build and operate plenty of high capacity websites down here. Let’s see, there was this little outfit called America Online that handled a bit of traffic out in Fairfax. There’s the Pentagon and the FBI and the CIA and the Library of Congress — a couple of demanding customers in town. We have TCP-IP guru Vinton Cerf working in the local Google office in Reston … so, yeah, I think we know a little bit about how to operate high capacity websites down here in DC/NoVa.
So why has Healthcare.gov been such an epic failure? Well, first, they didn’t build the site with open source Drupal software. Terrible decision. Drupal is the most popular web publishing software in the federal government community. (In fact, I only learned Drupal myself in 2009 because it was required at the first job I got after moving down here).
Drupal is free and open source, and it’s a very common choice for new federal government websites. It’s also particularly great for custom user account functionality, which is what Healthcare.gov is all about. So I really can’t understand why the architects of Healthcare.gov decided to go outside the obvious open source software choice for their website. Probably some executive was trying to “think outside the box”.
Or maybe they didn’t want to use free/open source software at all. When I first heard about the healthcare.gov debacle, I didn’t comprehend the dimensions of the project, and I felt confused why CGI Federal couldn’t have built and tested the website correctly. Then I heard the shocking news that the government paid CGI Federal around $90 million dollars to build the website, and then I understood the problem. If they had only paid $5 million dollars, the website would used open source software, and it would have worked. But if you pay $90 million dollars, the big shot wheeler-dealers and corporate snakes get involved, and the money starts to become more important than the website. A gigantic budget can really be fatal to a software project (this was the same lesson I learned while working for Time Warner, as discussed in my Silicon Alley memoir above …)
Because I’ve worked in many industries from media to finance to government, I also don’t buy the idea that the federal government is any worse at running a website than any other high-flying business sector. We’re all terrible at it, and every website launch ever since the beginning of time (okay, the beginning of 1995) has been a stumbling mess. The crashes just don’t usually get this kind of attention.
Especially at the lofty levels when big money gets involved, the federal government’s tech bureaucracy is exactly like Silicon Valley’s or Wall Street’s or Madison Avenue’s. I’m there, and I see it. It’s always the same cast of characters, the same ecosystem, the same bloated egos in the boardrooms, the same servile obsequiousness in middle management, the same Aspergers syndrome in the cubicles.
I am writing this blog post on November 26, four days before Barack Obama’s self-imposed deadline of November 30 for the newly fixed Healthcare.gov. In all seriousness, I pray that the website will stop crashing — and I know that far more than my local Northern Virginia techie pride is at stake. The success of health insurance reform in the USA is also at stake, and that’s a success we really need — for our health.