Software development isn’t easy. In fact, it’s probably the most challenging task in information technology. It is both an art and a science, for it requires an elusive mix of intuition, creativity, and skill. I know very few people who are good at it. Instead, I know plenty of people who write software that works initially under normal conditions but is too fragile to continue working tomorrow under unforeseen circumstances. I’ve also met people, many of whom are engineers-turn-programmers like me, who have a terribly difficult time creating user interfaces that non-engineers even want to use, let alone actually understand how to use.
So nothing of what this article describes about the problems with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) surprises me. I’m not surprised at all. Instead, I’m greatly disappointed. The failure of my fellow software developers is threatening the future of the most important social justice legislation of our time.
As software development projects go, this one was a doozy. A web-based software solution that could run on a variety of web browsers on a all major platforms, including on machines that should have been retired half a decade ago, to help millions of people navigate the byzantine world of health insurance options, with many of these customers having minimal experience working with interactive websites and even less tolerance for dealing with unexpected problems and delays when things go wrong, to provide uninterrupted access through a complicated multi-step set of screens even when back-end servers are being hit by an incredible number of simultaneous requests … what a challenge. I can think of easier tasks, like persuading our hopeless representatives not to nuke the nation’s economy after a farcical two-week shutdown, or imagining Sarah Palin and Steve King having a thoughtful conversation. The ACA software development project is as rocket-science as rocket science, and the margin for error is just about as slim.
None of this even begins to address the cyber security issues involved with this program. Whenever there is personal health information involved, the consequences of leaking private information grow to frightening size. Furthermore, while I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I think it would be naive not to expect opponents of ACA to attempt to compromise the security of the site. I’m not saying this is happening, but it certainly would be interesting to have a look at the intrusion detection logs for the ACA site and to follow-up on their content.
Indeed, few software development projects are as daunting as the one the developers of the ACA site have had to face. But that is no excuse for what has happened since the site launched at the beginning of the month, nor does it help the system make good on its promise to insure the uninsured. In fact, if things don’t improve quickly, ACA will be a colossal failure, a victim not of hysterical partisan politics, but of unmitigated technical ineptitude.
Ted Cruz should thank a geek. We’re screwing this up.