Monday, December 2, 2013

To Big to Succeed

People have a right to get upset about
Healthcare.gov
Like many people in the technology business, I am following the news of the roll out of the Healthcare.gov website with a mixture of horror and disbelief.  It is clear to me that the current occupant of the White House deserves some criticism for this roll out; however, I also think a huge dose of criticism should be leveled at CGI International who is doing the principle development.  In this blog, I want to discuss why consulting companies like CGI International are too big to succeed.

In the book “The Geek Gap,” Bill Pfleging and Minda Zetlin say that technical leaders and business leaders view the world on very different terms; the business leader is interested in control and influence while the technical leader wants to build things which work.  It is clear to me that CGI is more interested in influence and control than building working software.

During congressional hearings with representatives from CGI about the Healthcare.gov roll out, no project managers were discussing the problems encountered.  More aggravatingly the congressmen did not know which questions to ask.  So you had people who negotiate contracts attempting to justify why they should get paid to people who did not understand what they were paying for.  It was depressing.

What makes this even more frustrating is that there are great examples of technology and government working together.  Each year Intuit makes millions of dollars helping people do taxes.  They are able to wade through the income tax regulations and each year release software which helps people do their taxes.  Even if the law changes, they are able to update the software over the internet.  If Intuit can do this each year why can’t CGI?  This answer is that CGI, from the outside looking in, is the antithesis of an agile organization.

They value process and tools over individuals and interactions.  They are more concerned with obeying the letter of a contract that providing collaboration.  Finally, they don’t have working software but they have plenty of documentation of why they should be paid.  Of course, this does not matter because, CGI is highly successful and so deeply embedded into the project that firing them for a poor job would be foolish.  In essence, they are too big to fail.

I had a hunch something was wrong when I reached out to my local congressional representative by e-mail and phone offering to pitch in and author some web services.  The congressional office had a staffer contact me and assure me that everything was under control.  When I asked if there was a way to volunteer for the project, I was instructed to follow the federal procurement process.   As a two person technology start up, I decided that it was not worth the hassle to get further involved.  I am sure that other start-ups felt the same and that is why firms like CGI make money.  They provide lousy service but they understand government procurement so they do not need to excel at fulfilling contracts only closing them and getting paid.

Healthcare.gov could have been a smashing success out of the gate, but thanks to a bad procurement process and a firm like CGI, it began with a thud and is slowly being made functional.  I hope that the November 30th release is a huge success.  I did not go into business to become CGI; I went into business to build things which work and solve problems.  I hope this is an object lesson to our elected leaders being able to win a contract does not mean that they can actually do the work.

Until next time.