Having a few tech problems with your healthcare exchange websites, Mr. President? Well, join the crowd. Now you know what's like. Now you know what every small business owner across the country goes through whenever we have a tech project. It's horrible, isn't it? I think it is. I hate tech people.
And what's ironic is that my company is in the technology industry! We sell sales and marketing software to small and medium sized companies. Our projects can last months at a time. Not only that but we have to deal with all the other characters in the tech industry: the hardware people, the network guys, the security experts, the database gurus, the developers, the web designers, the project managers. Yeah, we've worked with them all. And, we've encountered the same issues that Mr. Obama's struggling with right now.
The President vowed to get his websites fixed. He's bringing in the "best and brightest" to address the problems. He's frustrated. Exasperated. At wits end. Actually, none of the small business owners I know are surprised by this ordeal. We could've predicted it way back in 2010 when the idea of the health exchanges were first introduced. A website...no wait...50 websites, run by each state, where the typical American who has an attention span of 10 seconds and watches "Duck Dynasty" can easily figure out their health insurance options? Good luck! Not only were these websites supposed to be user friendly (an impossible task I've found) but they would be able to accommodate multiple plans offering various choices from a list of existing and new healthcare providers and then ultimately interface with enormous databases run by the IRS and other models of governmental efficiency to calculate the right amount of premiums, net of subsidies. A bold plan I admit. But naive, sir, very naive.
Here's the reality, Mr. President, which I think you've just learned the hard way: whatever time line you've been promised for a technology project, double it. Whatever cost has been proposed, double that too. Don't believe the tech guys when they say it can be done. In my industry if something works 90% of the time, then tech guys say it's working but "just needs a little support." Anyone who's familiar with Microsoft Windows knows that to be the truth. And don't laugh Apple and Google, you've got your own bugs too. Just thank God these people don't build airplanes.
So what do to do? The President should learn from this experience. And so should small business owners. I have. In the past 20+ years I've been part of great and disastrous technology projects. What do the good ones have in common? Five significant things.
1. Detailed management involvement. You can't just say "let's have a website where all 330 million Americans can buy their health insurance, and let's get it done in less than four years" and then turn it over to a bunch of tech guys to get it done. You'll have...well, you now know what you'll have. A mess. Every successful project I've been involved in was successful because the top dog was involved. Intimately involved. He was part of the planning. He was part of the project group. He received regular updates. He signed the checks. I realize that Mr. Obama has a few other things on his plate. But this was his signature accomplishment as President. This is something that needed a more involved manager. Can Mr. Obama, even today, pull out his iPad and sign up for insurance for his family? Does he know the ins and outs of the sites? If he doesn't then he didn't pay enough attention. Good business owners delegate, but great business owners know when to stay intimately involved.
2. A strong project manager/administrator. Every project needs that person in the middle of it. Someone who is the go-to person in charge. That person is eating lunch with the developers, pizza with the database team and then breakfasting the next morning with the top dog. In larger organizations this is the project manager. But even the project manager has got his administrator by his side. And in smaller organizations the administrator is also the project manager. Believe it or not, this is not another tech person. This is a power user. A normal person. Someone who actually bathes once in a while and who has never heard of Gordan Freeman or Dan Smith (and if you know who they are then you are not qualified for this job). One that learns the application inside and out and who has the communication skills to interface with the tech guys and end users alike. This person may be more than one person, of course, or part of an administrator team, depending on the size of the project.
3. A planned, phased in approach. Good projects, especially where technology is involved, don't over reach. The best projects I've worked on have had phases. We always pick easy to achieve objectives first so we can have an early win. It's a psychological thing. It also pulls people into the project and gives them hope (remember hope?) for the future. We build on that. We have a detailed project plan. But we also create something called the "Roadmap" - a written document that paints a long term picture so that everyone knows where we're heading. Mr. Obama learned that you never, ever roll out a huge technology project all in one go. It's a classic project management mistake, and he made it. It's OK though. He got Bin Laden, right?
4. Tie milestones to payments. And along with each of those phases above, you tie in the cash. Tech people like their money as much as the next guy. Managers like results. They should be one and the same: you deliver, we pay. Simple as that. Good projects are not open ended, time and material monstrosities like the healthcare exchanges. They have specific, interim, black and white deliverables (a working report, a data import, a group of users who are satisfactorily trained, a tested prototype, etc). The cash gets released when the deliverable is....delivered. Our projects tie blocks of time to our objectives. Once a block is used up, we should be at the end of a phase or have accomplished a deliverable. It gives everyone a moment to collect themselves and evaluate progress.
5. Give yourself some testing time. I recently wrote during the budget/debt ceiling crisis that the Republicans picked the wrong strategy. Instead of blaming "Obamacare" they should've pointed at the tech guys and used them as the scapegoat for delaying the legislation for a year. Most people (especially business owners) would've been sympathetic. Every good project allows adequate time for user testing and adjustments. You never roll out an unfinished or untested product to your users. You'll get burned. People will never get the bad taste out of their months.
But you know this by now, right Mr. President? You've now experienced what every small business owner has experienced: a technology project gone bad. Welcome to the club sir, welcome to the club.
A version of this blog previously appeared on Inc.com.