Techlessness

Healthcaredotgovhearings

David Auerbach is a tech writer who does a regular column for Slate called Bitwise. This past week he turned in a great piece about the Healthcare.gov hearings. After reading through the testimonies of the different contractors involved in the project, Auerbach traces the technical failure of the site back to inept management from administrative types whose jobs have more to do with extracting huge payments from the United States government and less to do building functioning systems and innovative technologies. I’ve seen this same breakdown occur in various degrees with almost every major IT project I’ve ever been familiar with. The people in charge of these jobs tend to have the least understanding about the work that’s being done of anybody on the team. In IT, you often have non-engineers negotiating the business requirements for a project and then turning around to the people who will do the work and demanding that they find a way to make it happen without having any inkling of whether what they’re asking for is even feasible. Judging from the complete lack of comprehension exhibited by the executives who testified before Congress last week, this certainly appears to be the case with Healthcare.gov. Auerbach takes them to task pretty handedly. He points out that in some of her responses, Cheryl Campbell of CGI Federal, the lead contractor on healthcare.gov, is so clueless that she can’t even pass the buck properly. She simply does not know enough about software development process to be able to summon up the basic excuses that skilled project managers use to deflect blame. One has to wonder why CGI even bothered to send someone like her, a senior executive who had nothing to do with managing the project or engineering the product. That decision was probably derived from the same flawed managerial logic that led them to attach her to the project in the first place. Administrative people like to hire other administrative people and are reluctant to promote engineers into positions where they can actually lead their own projects. There is this belief among the MBA caste that managerial skills are transferable between disciplines and business sectors and that it’s perfectly okay to put someone in charge of a complex development project who has no tech skills whatsoever. Having worked in a corporate environment where management was structured in just this way, I can sympathize with the hapless software engineers at CGI Federal and QSSI, who, I can assure you, are not the ones at fault in this whole debacle. My guess is they had to spend countless hours in interminable meeting teaching the likes of Cheryl Campbell and Andrew Slavitt about the very project they were supposed to be in charge of. To an engineering team, managers like these are like a ball and chain that you have to drag behind you every step you take towards trying to get the job accomplished.

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