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Will the rush to correct the health care website problems add more complication?

October 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Obama administration has said it is making efforts to improve the health care website, but tech experts warn the problems are far from fixed. For more on what contributed to the flawed launch and the challenges ahead, Hari Sreenivasan speaks with John Engates of RackSpace and Bill Curtis of CAST Software.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now a technology-focused take on the troubled launch of the health insurance exchanges.

The Obama administration conceded today it didn’t adequately test the website beforehand. It announced new tests are under way. White House officials also said other changes are being made to the site’s basic architecture.

We look at those possible fixes and what has gone wrong with two software experts who have been looking at the problem, John Engates, chief technology officer at Rackspace, a cloud computer service company — computing company — and Bill Curtis of CAST Software.

Thanks for joining us.

Bill, I want to start with you. You have seen a little bit of what the administration says they’re doing. In plain English, is this the right direction? Will it be enough?

BILL CURTIS, CAST Software: Well, it’s the right direction, and they have got an awful lot of money to fix things, but there’s an awful lot of fixes ahead of them. It’s going to take quite a lot of time to fix the entire system. It’s not just a web interface problem. There are a lot of problems we’re seeing behind the web, behind the interface.

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HARI SREENIVASAN: John Engates, kind of explain that to us.

Early on, there was this analogy of saying it should as easy to compare government insurance plans as going online and comparing prices for airline tickets. And I think the critics have seized upon that and said, how is it so complicated to build a website in 2013?

What’s the difference between this website and what we’re used to seeing and doing online?

JOHN ENGATES, Rackspace: Well, what the difference is, is that when you go online to a website like Amazon or your airline, the data behind those websites is completely under the control of that one company or that’s entity.

In this case, you have a massive integration project that spans across numerous states. There’s 30-plus states, plus multiple federal agencies, and, therefore, you have got data spread all over the place. And you have to pull all that data together to actually execute one of these transactions to get somebody signed up.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Bill Curtis, you know, we — there is a leak of congressional testimony that is planned for tomorrow, and you already see the basis of finger-pointing from one contractor to another.

What are the challenges of pulling together 55 different contractors? And was the HHS is in a good position to lead them and pull them all together?

BILL CURTIS: Well, the challenges are enormous, all that coordination.

But they didn’t have enough time to make it all happen and get it tested adequately. They basically let the American people do the testing. So, they just simply didn’t have enough time to pull off a system this big and this complex. In fact, it’s sort of wrong to say it’s a system. It’s actually a system of systems.

We’re trying to integrate an awful lot of systems, as you just heard, from a number of different sources, and that’s a huge integration problem. And in many cases, the government doesn’t have people that are used to managing that level of complexity.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Bill Curtis, staying with you for a second, if essentially the users, that is, all of the American public, that tried to log on have essentially been the user testers for the site, have they essentially broken everything that could be broken, and now does that mean the worst is over and we could actually have more information to fix the problems?

BILL CURTIS: No, they have just broken the performance problems at the web interface.

There’s an awful lot of challenges behind it. Any time there is a system this big, there’s — once you fix some problems, it opens up a whole new wave the problems that sit behind that. So, we’re going to see more problems with data integration, with logical problems, with coordination problems among all these different systems, and we’re just now starting to get into that part of the system.

HARI SREENIVASAN: John Engates, how much of this is trying put software development into a political timeline? There’s an October 1 deadline. There’s a December 15 deadline, a March 15 deadline that are very important for the American public, but that’s not necessarily how software development works.

JOHN ENGATES: Right.

Software development is a complicated process. It’s hard to accelerate that process by throwing bodies at the problem. Oftentimes, that can actually slow things down. So it’s a difficult challenge to meet somebody else’s timeline, especially if you have changing requirements along the way. And I understand that some of those requirements were changing.

In fact, one of the requirements changed right up near the launch, which is basically changing from allowing users to browse the choices without actually going through the transaction process to actually requiring them to go through that sign-up process first before they are able to browse.

And I think that one change right there could have actually saved a great deal of load and strain on the system, and if that changed really soon up — right before the launch, that could have been a major challenge for the contractors involved to really meet that requirement in that short time frame.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Bill Curtis, what about those shifting schedules, looking at the political timelines, but also being held off until an election, the right kind of requirements not coming into play, but really still having that end goal still be the same point regardless, and all the software engineers having to perform that task?

BILL CURTIS: Well, just as you just heard, you’re not going to get a…

(LAUGHTER)

BILL CURTIS: You’re not going to get a baby in one month using nine women. It’s going to take a full nine months.

So — and that’s the problem we had here. They tried to do it too fast. My guess is they were well aware of many of these technical problems. They were hearing about them from the GAO, from the insurance industry, and this was a political decision to keep driving against this line to get something in place so they had a fait accompli.

It was there. People were using it. It’s hard to back up from that. So, and they’re willing to pay the cost, and it’s going to be exorbitant, to get all of this fixed and all of this working over the next some period of months. We don’t really know how long it will take to get it all put together.

HARI SREENIVASAN: John Engates, we have heard that the administration has now assigned a point person. They’re calling in whoever it is from the Silicon Valley, their sort of tech surge.

But there’s a software principle called Brooks’ Law that says adding more people doesn’t necessarily make things faster. Are they likely to complicate themselves or can we actually meet these sort of December 15 and March 15 deadlines?

JOHN ENGATES: Well, you know, there is that saying about too many cooks in the kitchen, and I think you have potential for that here.

And so what probably needs to happen is the original contractors need to sort of take a backseat and let the new folks in on the system. The only challenge there is the new folks don’t have really the history with the system. So it’s very challenging to, at the last minute or under pressure, bring in a different team and have that team get up to speed very quickly.

You know, most of the time, what you want to do is sort of put — put a stop to the bleeding to some extent, go back to the drawing board in some way, and, you know, really take a breather and figure out what the right approach is. And it’s hard to do that under extreme pressure. And I’m sure they’re feeling the pressure today.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Bill Curtis, do you think that the government is being transplant enough in what their plans are, what they’re doing, or maybe even what they have done so far?

BILL CURTIS: Probably not.

It’s hard under these circumstances to sort of open the full kimono. You see this in all kinds of projects, both in government and in industry. It’s hard to want to admit all of the problems you have got to solve. You want to give people hope, so you just want to hide some of the real problems behind the scenes.

We have actually analyzed some of the code, and seen that while there were some fixes, they actually created some new problems, some of which involve security. So, they’re going to be — this is a long process. And, as you just heard, there’s going to be some rearchitecting that has to happen to make all of this hook together.

HARI SREENIVASAN: John Engates, are you optimistic that we could possibly see a solution emerge from this, or are we just going to see a series of problems emerge?

JOHN ENGATES: Well, I think, eventually, it will get fixed. I think the challenge is in what time frame. And I think there’s no certainty around that time frame.

And I don’t know if they even have all of the information at this point that they need to make that determination. I think it would be a real challenge to put a timetable on a fix at this point.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, John Engates from Rackspace and Bill Curtis from CAST Software, thanks so much for joining us.

BILL CURTIS: Thank you.

JOHN ENGATES: Thank you.