Dynamist Blog

More on Obamacare, I.T. Glamour, and the "Magical Database"

In my most recent Bloomberg View column, I argue that a big reason for the disastrous startup problems experienced by HealthCare.gov was that even smart people who aren't I.T. pros tend fall prey to what TV Tropes calls the "magical database." It seems that the president of the United States and many around him simply have no idea how complicated the systems they were demanding would be to design. Here's an excerpt:

Looking back, it seems crazy that neither the Barack Obama administration nor the public was prepared for the startup difficulties. There’s no shortage of database experts willing to opine on the complexities of the problem. Plenty of companies have nightmarish stories to tell about much simpler software projects. And reporting by the New York Times finds that the people involved with the system knew months ago that it was in serious trouble. “We foresee a train wreck,” one said back in February.
So why didn’t the administration realize that integrating a bunch of incompatible government databases into a seamless system with an interface just about anyone could understand was a really, really hard problem? Why was even the president seemingly taken by surprise when the system didn’t work like it might in the movies?
We have become seduced by computer glamour.

Read the whole thing here. The "nightmarish stories" link goes to this tale of the famous I.T. disaster that made Hershey almost miss Halloween in 1999.

In response, I received a number of emails from I.T. pros, adding their perspective to the argument. One of the best came from Jack Simmons of Denver (emphasis added):

Whatever the merits or demerits of the ACA, your description of the grasp of the common person regarding computer systems is spot on.
People really do think of computer systems as some sort of magic easily configured and implemented.
I think back on some of the experiences I've had trying to diagnose and correct relatively simple computer failures. In one case, it took over forty hours of effort on my part to discover a 4 had been entered in a key index definition instead of a 6. The result was a complete systems shutdown for fours days on the accounting system of a major phone company. That was a long weekend.
The Jean Luc Picard analogy was very funny because of its accuracy. I love to tease people with the phrase "make it so" whenever we're discussing the potential solution to a problem.
I really believe Obama thinks all he has to do to solve a problem is do the same thing. He has obviously never worked on a system. If he had done so, he would realize it's going to take more than a campaign speech to get these systems up and running.
To be fair, there are many managers I have met who had no grasp of what was being asked of their systems folks. It was only when their jobs were on the line they took the time to actually sit down to understand the intricacies of even a simple computer system. Some of them didn't make it.
Computers force one to really define what is to be accomplished before beginning. Most times it is not until the system is up and running that the systems analyst really understands the requirements. This is followed by the realization of how many mistakes were made in building the system and how many mistakes still reside within the system.
Anyway, excellent article.
Life is messy and so are our computer systems.
I don't think we're going to get the health care systems up and running in any sort of reasonable time frame.
I would love to work on the systems, but that is not going to happen.

Don Smallidge wrote:

As a software developer who has written similar kinds of software (knitting data from different sources to service a web application) I am well aware of the challenges the administration faced in creating this web site. Certainly I have never been involved with any project on this scale, but I think the issues and decisions required to bring such projects forth as live interactive tools is something many web developers can relate to.
I think your article caught the essence of the problem very well. The comments on the Bloomberg site were more about Obamacare and people's political opinions, not on why the website is having so much trouble (this solution to our healthcare needs has people so polarized they are generally unable to just focus on the specific technical issues at hand). Thanks for bringing this aspect of the program to light.

You can support Obamacare, in other words, and still acknowledge the problems created by the magical database fantasy—as well as the administration's downplaying of the transition costs and tradeoffs.

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