problems: House committee hearing is a spectacle of tech illiteracy and buck-passing.

Debugging the Hearings

Debugging the Hearings

Decoding the tech world.
Oct. 25 2013 7:33 AM

Debugging the Hearings

Thursday’s testimony was a spectacle of tech illiteracy and buck-passing.

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Campbell said, “We were quite optimistic that our portion of the system would work when the system went live.” That is either a lie or a revelation of ghastly incompetence, because no competent programmer or manager would ever display a shred of optimism until full end-to-end testing had been done. To say that “our portion of the system would work” is akin to saying that you know a computer will work before you’ve hooked a monitor up to it, just because it turns on. There’s no half-credit in these cases.

Everyone at the hearing, contractors and representatives alike, seemed ignorant of what is demanded by this sort of testing, with the exception of Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., a mathematics Ph.D. and ex-programmer. He asked about such specifications for integrations. Campbell said, “There were use-cases and things of that sort,” evidently unfamiliar with what specifications are (hint: not use-cases). Slavitt said, “We believe we received appropriate specifications.”

This is dismal not least because this is exactly where a good manager would know how to save face: by saying the specifications were bad in spite of your best efforts. Now that QSSI’s “front door” is apparently fixed, Campbell admits that there are ongoing “system performance issues” within CGI’s piece of the site, the Federally Facilitated Marketplace (FFM), which will operate in states that are not building their own insurance exchanges. A competent buck-passer would say that the performance guidelines in the specifications had proved inaccurate, or that she had warned the government that she could not meet the guidelines. As it is, she more or less admits CGI’s incompetence in her testimony—perhaps without meaning to.


Slavitt’s worst facepalm, meanwhile, was when he defended the security of the data hub by saying, “Our systems don’t hold data. They just transport data through it.” Mike Rogers, R-Mich., immediately jumped on this: “You don’t have to hold it to protect it.”

Back in March, Henry Chao of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said, “We are under 200 days from open enrollment, and I’m pretty nervous,” adding, “Let’s just make sure it’s not a third-world experience.” That sort of pessimism is a lot more realistic, and should have been a warning sign to anyone listening to him. Chao is one of the people Campbell was reporting to, and she shamelessly pointed the finger at him multiple times in the hearing as someone to whom she “alerted” test problems. As Chao is the only person I can find who expressed public worries about pre-rollout, he should be given a promotion and asked who ignored his concerns.

Worst of all, when asked if the Spanish-language site developed by CGI Federal would be “functional” were it to be released, Campbell answered unequivocally, “It would be.” Of all the fatuous statements made in these dispiriting hearings, this was the worst. The only acceptable answer would have been, “The Spanish-language site would reflect some of the same chronic problems that currently exist in the system which we are currently working to fix.” But Campbell and her ilk don’t think in terms of systems; her job, and the job of her counterparts, is to think in terms of money and politics. Her agenda is not to make work, but to protect CGI Federal.

When I worked at Microsoft, there was the dreaded “BillG review,” where a team’s top people would meet with Gates and he would “ask questions,” which in reality meant rapid-fire interrogation and belittlement. Campbell and Slavitt never would have survived a BillG review. By sending people so ignorant of specifications, process, and technology to represent their work at a government hearing, CGI and QSSI displayed contempt for the crucially important job they were tasked with. Campbell, Slavitt, and those like them should be immediately removed from the project. They are bugs.