October 16, 2013

Lessons of ObamaWare: How to Avoid Software Development Outsourcing Disasters

If software and digital experiences forever more represent a company’s brand, what does ObamaWare do to the White House’s brand equity? If it were a private or public company, whose fate is in the hands of consumer and customer sentiment, the White House’s business fate would be similar to that of RIM – on its way to extinct.

Health Care dot Gov website mock

The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article last week, “Software, Design Defects Cripple Health-Care Website,” documenting the myriad issues plaguing Healthcare.gov. The Obama administration’s online insurance marketplace is being slammed as a third-world experience, while the Government Accountability Office reports that $500M has been spent to build the White House’s health care exchange.

It could be inferred that the software product development effort was not clearly aligned to the desired business outcome, nor were Agile product development principles leveraged to their fullest to assure not only a working exchange, but an engaging and positive user experience for the constituents who held such high hopes for access to affordable care.

As a modern society driving hundreds of billions of dollars of revenues in the global digital economy, we have become accustomed to anywhere, anytime access to reliable, scalable and secure e-commerce sites. One must wonder why the White House would leave such a critical service for the citizens of the United States to the risk of the inefficiencies of government contracting and services. In a TED Talk from last year on “Coding a Better Government,” Jennifer Pahlka shines a light on just how broken the government procurement process for software development work really is. In the hands of the private sector, where continuous software product innovation is the norm, would an Amazon or Intuit have delivered a more viable ObamaWare?

The New York Times on October 12, 2013 ran a headline of “From the Start, Signs of Trouble at Health Portal.”  The takeaway? Traditional software development principles simply do not hold in today’s digital world. Spending $500M building a software platform in the hopes that once made available in a “Field of Dreams” fashion, the software will function as envisioned and citizens will be flawlessly served is a naïve strategy and one that was doomed from the start.

Amazon and Intuit leverage the notion of continuous software product innovation. They get working software products to market quickly, with the knowledge and commitment that once in market, the product lifecycle has only just begun. Today’s software products require the principles of Agile product development and Adaptive PLM. In an agile environment, where working software is delivered every 2 weeks, one witnesses the product come to life as it is built and problems are surfaced as they arise, not in the end when it’s too late and too complex to fix them.

How could the White House have avoided launching an issue-riddled ObamaWare, and how can other companies avoid similar fates when working with an outsourced product development partner? Surely there are more than three, but here are three that stand out to me:

1.     Take an Agile approach to software development

2.     Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late to Dive in to Development

3.     Test Yourself – Thoroughly – Before Others Test You

Where the rock that is ObamaWare goes from here remains to be seen. Contractors and federal agencies are said to be working around the clock to get it off of life support. One thing that’s for sure is that the launch of Healthcare.gov has been a huge black eye for the Obama administration, and if its problems aren’t fixed quickly, it could put his biggest accomplishment in office – and the reputation of his presidency – on life support.