Thanks Obama! Technology Should Not Be An Afterthought

The debacle offers valuable lessons.

It is the era of the meme -- typically a frothy little sound byte, often embedded in an image, that's lacking in basis but has an abundance of snark. These memes are mimicked and shared across social media en masse. Currently the theme seems to be "Thanks, Obama" and blaming our president for all the ills that pain the nation and the world.

A LinkedIn post titled "CEO Lessons from Obamacare" caught my eye and provided great insight from someone in a top leadership position about the Affordable Care Act website debacle the world is watching. Pimco CEO Mohamed El-Erian writes:

Such a botched outcome comes as a surprise for all, and especially given the expectations of both supporters and foes of the initiative. Like the CEO, they had assumed that someone had paid careful attention to the technical implementation details.

Boom. Let's dissect this. This is a major advancement, a major project, a major initiative/game changer/improvement, that's reliant on technology, yet is it possible that technology was not brought in on the discussion when the initiative was but a mere twinkle in a random eye? Are citizens truly unaware that this is certainly not an uncommon occurrence in any industry?

I once worked for an institution where the leader tried to bully (for lack of a better term) the technology department into making a for-certain-bad strategic decision by dismissing our fervent concerns with a laughter-rich, incredulous "Come on. It's not like software development is rocket science."

No, in most cases, software development is not actual rocket science (except, of course, where the software is meant to power rockets). However, one could make the argument that software development is more complex than rocket science. Blogger Raghav K makes the case: "I think rocket science is easy when compared to the software development activity. Most of the time the parameters required to build a rocket remain constant."

I get it. And for the most part, I agree. The landscape of technology is consistently changing. Breach attempts continue to increase, and the challenges never level off when they don't even taper off. Technology improves efficiency, increases service, eliminates hours-of-operation barriers, and provides the ultimate convenience, but these features do not occur automagically. They require full knowledge of historical context of service, current process, and the desired outcome, as well as an abundance of time. You need time to vet with experts, peers, and even Dr. Google. You need time for methodology development, programming and system needs, budget, timelines, testing, training, testing, reconfiguration, testing, implementation, feedback, and did I mention testing?

So when I say, "Thanks, Obama," I actually mean -- well, a sincere thank you. Amid the stress of the ACA online rollout, I think the technology community has learned a deeper respect for some things.

  • The impact of technology: Have you ever battled a string of Christmas lights? It just takes one tiny downed bulb to keep the other hundred bulbs in the string from working. Imagine trying to find that bulb in thousands upon thousands of lines of code. Now imagine that strand of Christmas lights represents your email provider, your Internet connection, or your online healthcare environment.
  • The value of learning from mistakes: It's early yet, but a few things can be gained immediately from this technology faux pas. Will this president and anyone in his surrounding area ever not have a technology representative at the table for discussions again? Is our nation's supply of bandwidth enough to support an entire nation trying to access a system at once? Individuals appear to be (gasp) blaming the humans and not just the technology.
  • Technology happens: I've been saying this for years. Technology typcially happens at the worst possible time with the largest possible impact. The tinfoil hat side of me often thinks, "Maybe this AI isn't artificial anymore," because this beast called technology seems to sense when downtime will deliver the biggest bang for the buck. Then my educated side pops in and realizes that there is no good time for downtime. Any downtime, glitch, or failed initiative occurs during the worst possible time because we rely on technology 100% of the time.

Technology needs a seat at the table. It doesn't need to be fancy or to the immediate right of the CEO. It simply needs to have a place setting and maybe some bread for starters. If your technology leader needs to brush up on table manners or etiquette to integrate better, it's worth the investment to mold that leader into the active participant you need. A big-picture technology representative will not always tell you what you want to hear. We can't simply parrot our leader's words, but we will bring a realistic, doable path to a solution to the project every single time, and we will ensure a comparably seamless introduction to the user base, small to large.