There are several things former Microsoft Office President Kurt DelBene will need to learn quickly in his new role as Developer-in-Chief of the struggling healthcare.gov website in order to be successful. Here are three critical areas he will have to master.
Customer-Facing Transaction Systems. DelBene is an application development expert focused on commercial software for sale to large enterprises and, more recently, as web services. That experience will serve him, but Microsoft’s Office offerings don’t include the kind of cross-platform, cross-agency, customer facing transaction systems that underlying healthcare.gov. DelBene will need to rapidly learn how to deliver a reliable transaction system that is also easy to use.
Cooperative Development. DelBene hails from a meritocracy, not a democracy. Microsoft focuses rewards and opportunities on those most aligned with their approach to work, markets and customers. Although many parts of Microsoft are very collaborative, in particular their international sales and support offices, the core development organizations have not traditionally cross-boundaries well. DelBene will immediately be embroiled in a combination of existing designs, technical momentum and multi-party collaborations. DelBene will also have to abandon Microsoft’s rather abstract roadmaps for public, transparent incremental plans, many of which may draw commentary from a wide variety of sources. And then there is the contractor culture. Although Microsoft uses contractors, little of that contract work takes place in the development area. DelBene is also used to environment where product planners steep themselves in the disciplines related to their product area (how people communicate, how people take and organize notes, how people model data in a spreadsheet, how people create and manage documents, etc.). Given the infancy of healthcare.gov, even the deepest external research isn’t going to prove very accurate because the target audience for the system won’t know what they want until they get some time with the system, and even then, their expectations and preferences will evolve based on their experiences with other transaction systems like amazon.com.
DelBene has promised a six-month stint, minimum. That may be just enough time to make sure that the original system is functional and production quality. It will not be long enough to do more than establish necessary investments in long-range planning so the site can be better positioned to evolve along with laws that created it, and the insurance market that must make it effective.
Community Building One approach, which is pretty contrary to DelBene’s Microsoft experience, is to open source much of the project. Not just by posting the source code to Github, which has been done (and also retracted,) but creating communities that focus on particular interfaces or functions. Healthcare.gov would need to create communities that are very different from those that support Microsoft’s customers and developers. Most of Microsoft’s community experience comes from helping other developers build solutions and additional technology on top of Microsoft existing software, services and platforms. Some outside developers make their money by shoring up perceived deficiencies in Microsoft’s designs, which means that they aren’t overly motivated to help Microsoft write code that obviates a need for their business. With healthcare.gov, there is only the core system, and it must work. There should be no consideration of third-party communities that create value-add atop the site.
DelBene will need to create an organizational structure that includes internal community members, from across agencies, and external subject matter experts and coders, who can contribute relevant insight to the healthcare.gov system. That is a very different than Microsoft’s management approach. Even if DelBene chooses not to employ open source approaches, he will still need to adopt some very non-Microsoft approaches to management, coalition building and motivation.
Microsoft developers also foster a notoriously “we know better than the customers” development culture, that DelBene has to shake off. In most commercial software organizations, marketing keeps its ear to the customer and as act the voice of the customer internally. Microsoft’s marketing organization more often focuses on selling what they receive from developers. In his new role, DelBene is going to need to create a sense of urgency to deliver value to multiple customers, from ordinary citizens to various government agencies, not to mention, Congress. No amount of technical prowess will overcome a lack of value provided by the overall system. Citizens are smart enough to differentiate between healthcare.gov and the plans it carries, but poor integration, security failures or incomplete transactions will be seen as a failure of healthcare.gov to meet the acquisition of insurance needs imposed by the Affordable Health Care bill.
When elected, President Obama promised more transparency. Efforts like data.gov provide remarkable access to a wealth of public data. Despite the posting of the source code for some parts of healthcare.gov, its original develop process was the antithesis of transparency. From specifications, testing, to the code itself, the healthcare.gov team should have brought the citizens of the United States into the developers tent. It is now DelBene’s job not just to make healthcare.gov a serviceable transaction system but to create a structure under which it can change and evolve as technology, regulation and customer experiences change.