It probably shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that the website designed to help Americans purchase insurance through the Affordable Healthcare Act, www.healthcare.gov, has experienced some significant technical difficulties during its debut. According to reports, people have had difficulty moving through the system, with error screens and unresponsiveness common. Although the difficulties at first were thought to be due to overwhelming volume, experts now believe that deeper architectural issues may be at fault.
Why shouldn’t it be surprising? Large scale software launches are hard and this one is enormous. It is not uncommon for software roll outs to be plagued by delays, budget overruns, user interface issues, scale-ability limits and other unexpected fiascoes. Just last year, Knight Capital lost $440 million in 45 minutes due to a newly installed software that went a bit berserk. You may also remember how new software installed last year by the IRS, designed to process electronic returns and presumably expedite refunds did just the opposite, causing multiple week processing delays for many taxpayers. With as many as 4.7 million unique visitors in the first 24 hours, Healthcare.gov was bound to have some blips, and it did. Big ones. So, now what? What do you do if you are responsible for a software launch gone awry? Beg? Cry? Run? We asked several technology thought leaders what advice they’d give to those responsible for Healthcare.gov and here’s what they told us.
George Langan, founder of Sales Mentor, a platform for sales team skill building, emphasized the need to quickly identify the cause. “When the product that you released is not working the way it was intended the natural reaction of IT and management is to assume it’s a minor problem. Often it’s not. The best thing to do is apologize publicly and often, make sure that the error pages a user sees explain what’s happening and what they can expect. Engineers may try to minimize the problems, but as a manager you have to question and dig. Get daily updates and set timelines for a resolution.”
“Tell the truth and trust your target market,” said Thad Puckett, Vice President of Technology at The Karis Group. “Calling something a glitch when it is a bigger problem only makes it worse!”
Beth Camero, Technology Manger at California Association of Health Facilities, thinks communication is critical. “Take responsibility and tell people when you expect it to be fixed. They don’t care what happened, they just want to know when it will be usable. Keep them updated. Communication is the key.”
“Double and triple redundancy,” suggested Shane Hayes Director of Operations at The Mascia Law Firm. “When implementing something as massive as Healthcare.gov they need to take some lessons from the video game industry and ensure they have adequate servers to handle the expected loads and that those servers and double and triple redundant. Take queues from major MMO publishers and always alpha test, beta test and stress test before launch. Then make sure you are heavily redundant to get through the initial wave of traffic.” His colleague, Hemant Panchal added, “I’ve found the best response is usually a good explanation as to what is the source of the problem and what is being done to resolve it. An apology with an explanation and the truth seems to be the best way to approach problems like this.”
Dan Hoffman, technology CEO veteran and chair of the non-profit business building organization, Workshop in Business Opportunities, spoke from personal experience. “Being candid and apologetic never failed me. But it is more effective when it comes from the top, and is then reiterated consistently from a team that stands together with a consistent story and plan.”
Finally, our own Keith Nealon, President of ShoreTel’s Cloud Division sees it this way, “People always understand that with technology things will go awry, so it’s not that there won’t be a crisis of some sort, it’s about how the company responds to the crisis. It has always been my experience that the more timely and frequent your updates, and the more transparent you are, the more trust is built with your customers. The relationship built with the customer is built over time and hopefully for the long-run. Just like any relationship it won’t survive without an open and honest dialog.”
Time will tell if those responsible for Healthcare.gov will heed the advice of these leaders and focus on open communication, taking responsibility and quickly developing a plan to solve the problem, but it’s good advice for everyone in technology because no project, no matter how big or small, is immune to woe.