Can’t Avoid The Subject… Let’s Talk Obamacare IT

What would you do with $1b?
What would you do with $1b?

I have been pretty supportive of Obama. I am not too much into politics, being still Dutch, I am not allowed to vote and because of that I do have to admit I have less attention for politics than I actually should. Even the concept of Obamacare is one that I do get, but it is a long, long way to go before it is a good solid product.

Especially with the website fiasco that forms the front-end of this program. Now, here it gets my interest. For years and years I have been working with a major IT consultancy firm and we were often the go-to place for the government to have their productions done. And building or maintaining and IT production for the government is a nice cushy job. They pay on time, and usually, once you get the job and not totally mess up, you keep the job. And the government is not afraid to spend money. Not at all.

Now, you have to first see a couple of things in the right perspective. First of all; the government is not an IT professional. Just like you and I hire  a plumber or a car mechanic to do the things we don’t understand or cannot do ourselves, the government needs to hire their IT personnel. They may have some personnel in-house, but usually they don’t get paid the competitive commercial salaries, and usually they will leave because there is a lot of opportunity out there.

So the government needs to hire. And they have to hire a stable, well respected company that has earned their stripes. And here it is where things go wrong. IT has become a normal business. It is not the world of digital hero’s and IT super geeks anymore. You don’t make a lot of money anymore being a web developer or programmer. If you did not get your top-notch salary back in the day, it is a lot harder to get that now. Also, nowadays most of the newcomers are school-trained. That is good, but it also has the problems of any career that relies on school-trained professionals; they do things by the book. And IT still needs some mavericks to do things the right way. And those old-school mavericks are hard to find. Every good team needs at least one, and that is not doable anymore.

Then, you have to understand that a commercial company needs and wants to make money. No-one does things for free. But usually a team is put on a project. But to do things right, that team usually exists out of one project leader, and a production team. But that production team, when lucky, exists out of at least one ‘maverick’ and the rest are drones. They do the work the ‘maverick’ will teach them to do.

But a team in these companies is often put together by pure logistics. You need programmers, a designer, a production designer, quality assurance (if you are lucky) and a handful more. You can check their credentials, see if these people are available, and in a project management tool this might cover up the whole spectrum of required workforce of your product.

But once the team is brought together, all those Microsoft Certified Developers and what kind of ISO 9001 standard your company might have, running your productions on Rails or Rational Rose in management… it does not matter. And here is where it goes wrong. You might have the ingredients, and you might have the recipe for a production; if you lack the chemistry, you will fail.

A team needs to work together, and needs to work like a well oiled machine. People should enjoy working together, appreciating and respecting each other. And a team manager should know their people inside and out, knowing what keeps them awake at night, and not be afraid to deal with personal issues.

In my whole life of 20 years of work in the IT, I only once had a team manager that really understood this, and our team was rock-solid. Everyone stood up for each other, and we were there to make things work. It went so well even, that now, 10 years later, I still am in contact on a regular basis with the client of ours, a world-renowned teaching agency working and educating universities around the world. Better yet, our $250k production, built on a now extinct platform, is actually still being used, and still handling itself perfectly fine.

We were not the best in what we did. But together, we did probably the perfect job. It was just 2 months, 7 people, a good project and most of all, a lot of fun too.

But there are enough projects that I remember that were the typical government jobs. They usually lacked any direction, any motivation, and people were simply getting paid. No matter if you actually were working at all. And the government? They just needed to be sure we were ISO 9001 compliant, and kept our reputation high. Oh, we did. We delivered in time, and it worked. Not perfectly, but for that, the government would hire our company to maintain it. That is how we made money. And with 16,000 of workforce running around, that added up to a nice amount of income. With our suits, the brand new cars, yes, I’ll bet we made the right impression. But who was there to tell us differently? Our competitors were just as bad. And to be honest, there were not a lot of commercial private commercial companies that would want government jobs. They just don’t work out nicely in your portfolio if you want to climb to the top fast.

And keep in mind, the government is right to not hire small but innovative commercial companies. Although they should want them, they should not hire them. They are too unreliable. They can easily go out of business, or try things that might be still unproven or too new or not legacy compatible. The best insurance? Dealing with – well, there you have it – a certified, big-name stable client. And you are back at square one.

But even then! Even we dared not to charge the government for a paycheck that was initially paid with the development of the Obamacare website. Even our biggest government productions did not rise out above the five or six million dollars, and then we are talking PK securities, dealing with social insurances and keeping people’s private information secure for at least 16 million people. Or building the tax systems. Our company built insurance tools, the tax reporting systems, even the systems that should keep the country from flooding in certain areas, and we did not charge anywhere even remotely close to what the government was charged.

I personally think that even Google, Microsoft and Apple altogether were watching with a feeling of shame when the government decided to cough up the dough for the Obamacare project. And then it failed. It failed miserably.

Oh, I still support the concept of social healthcare. I grew up with it, and I understand how it – even though it will be in many years – will be good for this country. But it will be a painful upward battle to get there. And this site… well, it hurt more than just $1b. It crippled the project right at the launch.

Will it survive?

Well, it is a government project; they cannot take it off life-support.

They are not insured for that.


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