What Does ObamaCare And Microsoft Have In Common?

Here are two paragraphs from a recent CNN story on the ObamaCare website mess:

CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen tried to enroll in Obamacare as an experiment. It took more than a week for her to create a login and password. When that finally worked, error messages plagued her efforts when she tried to log in. Almost two weeks went by before she succeeded in logging in and proceeding with an application.

An insurance industry source told CNNMoney’s Tami Luhby that insurers are receiving faulty information about new customers, including duplicate forms, and missing and garbled information. They are in discussion with regulators and the administration to address these issues.

Journalist Mike Barnicle, whose role on MSNBC’s Morning Joe involves giving voice to the ignorance of the Common Man—a role he was born to play—said today about the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance marketplaces:

The larger point is they keep using the word “unacceptable.” This is outrageous; it’s not unacceptable. They’ve had two years to pull this program together—in a country where you can go out to San Jose, California…and find five people to put together a website in about six seconds…

Oh, yeah? Ever heard of Windows RT? It is the version of Microsoft’s operating system that runs certain portable devices the company sells that feature processors marketed by a British company called ARM Holdings. According to PC Magazine, ARM chips are “the most widely used microprocessors worldwide.” In fact, the ARM processor “powers most smartphones and tablets today,” says Time Tech. So, you might say Microsoft’s Windows RT is a big bleeping deal, when it comes to software. And you might say that the geeks at Microsoft, and the executives who are running the company these days, would make sure they get the recent software update right the first time. Nope.

Here is a story released late last night from Computerworld and titled, “Microsoft yanks Windows 8.1 update for Surface RT after ‘Blue Screen of Death’ reports“:

Microsoft on Friday yanked the Windows RT 8.1 update from its Windows Store after some Surface RT owners reported their tablets had been crippled…

The snafu was an embarrassment for Microsoft, as its Surface RT tablet, which debuted a year ago, has been the only Windows RT-powered device that has sold in any meaningful quantity.

People responsible for this embarrassing snafu are like the “five people” Mike Barnicle says could “put together a website in about six seconds,” when he is criticizing the Obama administration for the poor rollout of the insurance marketplace website. The point here is that Microsoft, no doubt, has plenty of talented people at its disposal to produce software that works. But you know what? This stuff ain’t easy. If it were, people like Mike Barnicle would be doing it.

I want you to read the following paragraph from the Computerworld story:

While other reported problems with the Windows 8.1 update seemed to be rooted in device driver incompatibilities — understandable considering the breadth of the Windows ecosystem, which relies on a bewildering array of hardware components and peripherals, each with its own vendor-built driver — the fact that the Windows RT 8.1 update bricked the Surface RT, which has a single set of specific components and drivers, magnified the mistake.

Get that? “A bewildering array of hardware components and peripherals, each with its own vendor-builit driver.” Now, imagine the complexity involved in putting together, without any problems, a system that not only has to run or support the insurance exchanges for 36 states, but it also has to interface with various insurance company systems—as the government sends crucial data through the pipeline—as well as interface with other state and federal computer systems, like, for instance, the IRS. Add to all that the initial overloading of the system—almost 9 million unique visitors in the first three days—by people interested in seeing what coverage was available and its cost. So, it is understandable that the thing has problems.

That being said, the level of problems we are seeing, and how the development and debut of the site has been managed so far, is, despite Mike Barnicle’s rejection of the word, unacceptable. It’s unacceptable. There’s no better word for it. The site needs to be fixed and fixed very soon. Many of the state exchanges are working relatively well and people are enrolling. It’s necessary, if we are ever to figure out whether the ObamaCare experiment will work nationally, to get the national enrollment portal working and working well.

Because, as the severely critical, left-leaning Ezra Klein wrote recently:

…it’s important to see the Affordable Care Act as something more than a pawn in the political wars: It’s a real law that real people are desperately, nervously, urgently trying to access. And so far, the Obama administration has failed them.

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NOTE: I kid you not: As I was about to publish this piece, my browser crapped out and I got this message:

google crome crashDamn! Why can’t the geeks get it right?

9 Comments

  1. King Beauregard

     /  October 21, 2013

    I’m sure you’ve wondered for a very long time what King Beauregard does for a living. Well, I’m a programmer, and I’ll tell you that I don’t think the failure of the ObamaCare site is particularly excusable. At its heart, the site shouldn’t be doing anything super-complicated, and whatever complicated bells and whistles they wanted to include in version 1.0, they should have waited until 1.2 or 1.3 to include. For something that absolutely has to work correctly the first time, you provide core functionality first, then expand upon a proven test bed. (That’s how I operate, anyway, and I’m reasonably successful.)

    Now that said, I can’t really hang this on ObamaCare or “big government” or any of the usual suspects. The problem is the computer industry: it’s an industry where formal credentials don’t exist by and large, in large measure because the technology changes so rapidly that, even where certification is available, it’s available on a product-by-product and version-by-version basis. For example, I just earned my Citrix XenApp 6.5 Administrator’s Certificate, which is good for version 6.5 but not for 7.0. Additionally, the Internet means that people can get development software for free and download enough code snippets to believe they are programmers, but when it comes to actually laying down real code they fail miserably.

    Here’s a fun article:

    http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2007/02/why-cant-programmers-program.html

    Another problem too. Suppose you hire an electrician to rewire your house; even a layman can look at the wiring and tell the difference between organized, orderly craftsmanship and a chaotic “what the hell, it works” mess. You can’t do that looking at a Web site, so it can be real difficult to determine whether the guys you’ve hired are competent and intelligent, or if they simply got the project to a condition where there are no more obvious bugs.

    We are the computer industry and we are in charge of your checking account.

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    • King B,

      I appreciate your response here, as it gives us much insight into the whole mess.

      My wife works for a large IT services company that installs core processing systems for financial institutions. I can tell you that whenever an install is done there are always problems, problems that the programmers and field engineers can’t always fix right away. It’s just the nature of the business, especially when systems have to communicate with other systems, and especially when people in real time are using their ATM cards and making other financial transactions. It can sometimes be quite a mess. But as far as I know, things always get fixed, somehow.

      I agree with you that the biggest problems with the website aren’t all that excusable, especially considering what was at stake. The most unforgivable mistake, if the reporting is true, was not testing the website, from a user’s point of view in terms of start to finish, before it went online. I know there was pressure to get it done on time, especially given that Republicans were using ObamaCare as a reason to shutdown the government. And that is why I cut them some slack. In a better world, with a better Republican Party, things could have been different. A delay until the thing was working right could have been easily accomplished. But under the circumstances, the good guys took their chances that any “bugs” could be worked out quickly.

      Another problem that is hard to make an excuse for, if the reporting is true (it is based on GOP information, so who knows) is the last-minute change that prevented potential purchasers from comparing prices unless they went through the registration process. If you’re going to do such a counter-intuitive thing, it should have been engineered a long time ago and not at the last minute.

      As it is, there is time to get things back on track, and it appears some progress is being made. If it all ends well, the present controversy will disappear, like it did when Medicare Part D rolled out in a cloud of confusion.

      Duane

      P.S.: I enjoyed that article on programmers. Amazing stuff. I always imagined there was a lot of trial and error going on in your world, but I didn’t think the error involved so much incompetency!

      Like

      • King Beauregard

         /  October 22, 2013

        Thanks! Here’s my guess: someone was trying to boast about what a good job they did on the site, and they decided on “total lines of code” as a metric they hoped would be impressive. So they came up with the biggest number they could somehow justify — say, by adding the number of lines of code of all libraries that are in any way involved in the project — and then made that figure public.

        Sadly, it’s like a doctor boasting about how many malpractice suits he’s beaten — it’s not really saying what the doctor wants it to say.

        If it’s true that someone came up with the idea of registering at the last minute, it was a hideously bad idea. All the site really needs to do is let you comparison shop and display contact info for the insurer(s) you want to talk to. Honestly, I think they should roll back to that model.

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  2. It’s more than unfortunate that the President has played into his critic’s hands so well. To see people who oppose the ACA, in principle gripe so loud about the details of its implementation is so sad.

    Like

    • What’s unfortunate is that so many folks let the President down. But they didn’t really let the President down so much as they let down people who need to purchase health insurance on the exchanges.

      Like

  3. ansonburlingame

     /  October 22, 2013

    Only scanning King’s comments above, I suppose because the computer industry scews things up from time to time it should be better regulated by government, right??!!

    It is one thing for a private company to screw up. The market takes care of such situations, rather quickly. But when government screws up, well look out. Only we the people can fix that at the ballot box and rarely do we take such actions.

    If you want a jaw dropping acount of “government screw ups” I suggest you read the book “Command and Control”. It will amaze you and scare the hell out of many. Opps, we just dropped a 10 megaton hydrogen bomb in someone’s backyard in South Carolina!!! Fortunately only 5000 lbs of TNT-like material blew up with no nuclear issues. The “core” had no been installed, yet, in that particular bomb!! (But it was right there on the plane to so install it).

    As well you can read about 100’s if not a few 1000’s of times we have lost, burned, melted, shot projectiles into, and done other rather amazing things with nuclear weapons over the last 50 plus years. Each and every time such happened, well the “government did it” for sure.

    Anson

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    • King Beauregard

       /  October 22, 2013

      “Only scanning King’s comments above, I suppose because the computer industry scews things up from time to time it should be better regulated by government, right??!!”

      Holy shit, Anson, you are the Michael Jordan of reading things and completely failing to understand them. Fifty years from now, people will still be looking back at you and marveling how anyone could be so talented at not comprehending things.

      Like

      • King B,

        You may not believe this, but I got this response from Michael Jordan:

        Dear Erstwhile,

        Somebody told me you could help me with something: Why are people beginning to call me the Anson Burlingame of basketball?

        Sincerely,
        Michael

        Like

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