Robin Miller: Folks, this is Todd Williams and he’s kind of an expert on processes on how to fix messed up projects. And I was looking just the other day at a website called healthcare.gov and it didn’t work. Todd, what’s up with that, you heard about this?
Todd Williams: Well, I think there’s been a couple of minutes on the air about this, a couple of people talking about it. But I think they can take it in stride and not a lot of hyperbole on the whole thing. So yes, I have heard about it and sorry if my facetious sarcasm sounds a bit yes.
Robin Miller: Everybody is.
Todd Williams: It’s a big issue, yes.
Robin Miller: Okay. Could this set of problems, I’m saying set of problems not one. Obviously, multiple problems, could they have been detected before October 1st?
Todd Williams: I think, I detected it about five years ago; near to six years ago.
Robin Miller: Really?
Todd Williams: Well, part of the problem is, in my view our projects start to go wrong at that people culture level. You have to look at first people and people really at the top level, if you don’t have the right people you’re going to have problems. If you get the right people, then you can put process around whatever those people are doing. And once you get the process around what they’re doing, then you can put technology on top of it.
And so we seemed to have started with maybe a few cultural problems in how we do things, you got people not telling other people what’s going on. So the culture is not right, that means the people is not right and we kind of jump down and say, well let us put some technology on top of that to make it better.
So far I have not seen where you can apply technology to something that’s broken and make it actually work better. Generally, technology gets you into something much more efficiently and so if it’s a bad process, you have bad people, then it just leads you into trouble just a lot faster, little more efficiently.
Robin Miller: Okay. So, with healthcare.gov, what went wrong before the technology started up?
Todd Williams: Can I draw an analogy back into a business because when we look at a public project, a public project runs inside of a democracy, right? And that’s a very, very different world than what goes on inside of a business. Business is autocratic. Business, you put together, you make a set of decisions of which can go strategically for the company, you put that together, a lot of people have a voice in that and then you make a decision and you go forward, right?
And the government project and these sorts of public project, you don’t necessarily have that autocratic, okay, we’ve made a decision let’s move forward. When I’m on a project privately, I have to toe the line, I’m going to get behind the leader, okay that’s the way we are going to go, whether I agree with it or not. In a public project, you don’t have that. You have a whole bunch of people and we can continue to debate and debate and debate the direction of the project.
So the very first problem is, there was a lot of discourse on what that project was really supposed to do. And will we even have a website? Will we even have Obamacare? When we go through an election, what’s going to happen? What happens if the other side wins? So when we are looking at any public sector project, the biggest challenge it has is election cycles, because election cycles bring in new administration. And I don’t care whether you’re talking about some local project that you’re working on to put in a dog park in your community or whether you’re looking to put in Obamacare. That’s the big difference there. So you can predict that there is going to be problems well in advance.
In addition, this is a technology project and when we’re talking a little bit earlier, you made the comment that these are IT projects. So, I’m going to drop the ‘I’ because I think we see that any technology project, when we’re doing something new and exciting, it is going to be challenging, right? And there’s going to be problems with that. That’s part of what technology is all about. If we have to implement something, it’s going to be new and different. Obviously, this is a huge website with a lot of things that have to go on. There is going to be some challenges there, regardless of how you look at it.
Robin Miller: The one thing that I wonder, you’re talking about how government elections can change it. Well, not all governments have elections, number one. And number two, let’s say it was Yahoo and Marissa Meyer came in and said, oh all you people got to move back inside, you can’t work from home anymore. Businesses too have changes in management and sudden, let’s not go this way, let’s go that way, they do it as well. But either way, government or business, so we have the Obamacare thing, in theory the government at some point decided what needed to be done. It needed to be this website where you could see what your options from private companies were, health insurance companies. Now, maybe, I’m just an idiot, well I’ve been involved in a fair number of software and website development projects, I don’t think it was that hard, am I wrong?
Todd Williams: Technically, the technology in trying to get people to pull all that together, I don’t think it’s technically that hard. But that said, it’s the bottom of the triangle, that’s not the top because at the top of the triangle, you’re really trying to get the people to work together and that’s where I think the problems are, okay, where people are challenged with how they’re going to work together and continue to work.
Yes, in a company you have administration changes that are not nearly as frequent and sometimes not nearly as drastic as they are in a government situation. In a public situation, you can go from republican to democrat overnight and that makes a huge change. In a corporation, you generally have a board that’s helping make that change. Yes, it can make things to be fairly drastic, such as in Yahoo’s case, but the goal of the company was still basically the same.
Yes, they changed the culture and that’s what _____6:56. Yahoo changed the culture and so that example you gave actually kind of grows back into what I was saying. When you look at the culture that you’re talking about, the big cultural differences in public sector projects, public sector projects are just that, they are public. There’s a lot of private sector projects which are kept private and they are able to hold that back and maybe some stockholders find out about it, maybe there is some issues that will get out.
But you don’t hear however an insurance company implements _____7:33 hundred or few hundred thousand, excuse me, policy wise as it goes from one provider to another provider. That doesn’t make headlines on the news, it’s kind of boring and people don’t hear about it. In the public sector, because it’s out there, people use it, people see it, they can’t hide it. So there’s a special attribute there that makes things a little bit challenging. People don’t want to get up in the morning and see CNN on their front door step. It’s not a good way to start a Monday.
Robin Miller: So wait a minute, so you are saying, there may have been private industry screw ups just as bad but they’re not public, so we don’t hear about them?
Todd Williams: We will hear about some of them, and let’s take a look at – let’s get out of the software world. Well, it’s not completely out of the software world. Let’s look at the Dreamliner, the Boeing 787, okay, look at the challenges they had with that. They had huge delays. They had manufacturing issues. This is a huge program to bring in all new concepts of how a company is going to work together, internationalizing the assembly of an airplane, building airplanes with the whole parts around. But when you look at the [dream holler] that was out there and bringing in new technology. Not only was it late, but then they ended up with battery failures, right?
So what’s the cost of that? The last number I saw was about an $18 billion loss. Is the Dreamliner a failure? I wouldn’t say it’s a failure, the financial guys inside Boeing might disagree with me on that one at this point. But all new technologies, all these big things are something that I think does cause a shift in what we’re doing. Was that a component in Obamacare and how did the Obamacare website fail? Is that all new technology? I don’t believe so. I believe that it was just the size of it and then the culture, back to that culture.
We heard very, very early on people saying, well, you know, I didn’t know anything about that and nobody ever told me what went on and it just [ironed] people. In my company if I hear that once a week, I’ll be surprised, it’s got to be hearing that dozens of times a week. Hey, this project was running just great for the entire two months and now all of a sudden I come to work and I find out this thing is in severe trouble and we call those watermelon projects and it’s a term we’ve kind of coined because that’s what they are. I mean, if you take a look at a watermelon, vertically green and so it’s a green project, it’s running just well. And so from management standpoint when they look at this thing, it looks just fine, but when you open it up, what color is it on the inside? It’s flaming red.
And so people don’t investigate what’s going on, the organization isn’t transparent, doesn’t allow people to go say, what’s right and what’s wrong, it’s that cultural. So we spend a lot of time actually changing the cultures of how people inside a company work. If you don’t have that infrastructure, they can’t make things happen.
Here we’ve heard about people with different companies that were communicating with one another, another form of that is without that good communication and transparency, it’s not going to work and I think that’s really the core. We’re on Slashdot here and so we’re kind of down at that programmer level, and so the follow on question to that is, well, what can a programmer have done to make this different. And it comes all the way down to the organization to that level because I do think that programmers could have made a difference, could one programmer make a difference? No. Could a whole team added to that team made a difference? Yes, very much so.
Robin Miller: Okay. At what point because obviously this was a mix of government people and a whole lot of different contractors, including god help us, Canadians?
Todd Williams: Now, let’s not bash our folks to the north there. I have done a lot of work with some friends in Toronto and I
Robin Miller: I know. In Toronto, my friend David Graham up there, he’s a great guy, he is not the mayor. So just, I know, I know and
Todd Williams: I would askthe mayor
Robin Miller: We have enough mayors. It’s true. They want to laugh, they can laugh at us, they can laugh at healthcare.gov because let’s face it, even the Canadian company, most of the people they had working on it were working in a building outside of Washington DC. They weren’t Canadians. But just one note, I’m going to edit this heavily, so you know, so when it seems like I’m going around and around on things, this is not going to be the way it’s going to be, because I’m going to edit down to the best 10 minutes, and we’re not trying to make you look stupid, I’m trying to get the best stuff out. I have done work. This is a hand sized version of the Panasonic’s big cameras and I have shot stuff for ABC in 2020 in Florida. They don’t send a crew, they just – you know what I’m saying, they just have guys like me who have own cameras and lights and they just send us out. So I know how to bushwhackpeople.
Todd Williams: No problem. So it’s interesting because I have worked in a number of projects with Canadian teams and people don’t even think then about the cultural differences between north of the border and south of the border. How Americans do things, how Canadians do things. There really is a huge cultural gap there.
Robin Miller: Really.
Todd Williams: It’s secretive because people think, oh, we’re all North Americans. We do things the same way, and I was more than once considered to be that arrogant guy from south of the border that would come up and start stirring up the pot. So there was a very big cultural clash there and I had to change a lot of the ways that I worked with teams up in Toronto, and that’s where I have my experiences in Toronto, in trying to get things to work better and smoother, was I a success might be another story of making that better but we do get projects there.
So, yeah, when we look at how people inside those lower level companies that were actually contributors, the subcontractors, I bet that the very first place that people knew something was going wrong was with the developers, because the people at that level who were actually trying to make things work, they are the first ones to smell the problem coming, right? They started to see, hey wait a minute, I don’t know how this looks, I don’t know how that looks, how is this supposed to work, how am I supposed to get data from them, how am I supposed to ship it to them, they just did that quicker than anything.
I’m not sure if you have seen my book, my book is Rescue the Problem Project. I spent a lot of time in there saying, when you’re looking at rescuing a project, the very first thing you do is interview people, and I’m not talking about interviewing just the program managers and the directors and project sponsors and that type of people, you do need to talk to them, but boy walk down to the individual contributor and find out what the individual contributor actually thinks the problems is, because you’re going to find a lot of the social problems right down at that level.
I had a key line that any time I walk into a failed project and my job is to recover it, my key line is, the answers are in the team. Get that team, the key people in that team, get them in a room; in this case it’s multiple rooms at multiple times _____15:43 the whole digital thing. I spend a lot of time with remote teams and well equipped to handle that. But when you’re working at a failed project level, get in front of the people, take him out for coffee, understand what’s going on. This is true person-to-person where you need to get together and not butt heads, but actually pool together and leverage what those people know. At that level of developers, the QA people, the solution architects, the business analysts that were pooling things together, they knew this is off track, long, long ago. There was no surprises there. It went up through the chain, the translation got lost. Was I involved with this thing? No, but I will bet my paycheck that everybody down at the lower levels of this thing knew it was going wrong and didn’t have the ability or the gumption or whatever, to raise the flag and push it really hard.
Robin Miller: What if they were just scared to speak up?
Todd Williams: That happens a lot, and you get right back to that point of, it’s culture. If you don’t want to say that there’s a problem, you don’t want to say here is the issue because you are going to lose your job, then why would you bring it up, that’s one of the joys I say that, quite often I will say that contractors cheat, okay, because contractors come in, they’ll do something, consultants come in and do something and tell you what you don’t want, then they’ll fire us, because actually hired me to tell you what you needed to hear, you don’t like what you heard, then why didn’t you hire me internally and getting that news from people internally was the problem.
Another thing right in that same conversation whenever I tell people the answers are in the team, the other line I say is, I may come out and talk to you guys, pull all that information together, and I’m going to develop a report, submit it and say this is what needs to change, and I’m going to take credit for it, it’s all your ideas, but I have to take credit for that person _____17:50. They have to make sure that they kind of divorce the team from that analysis, even though it’s all their data, and they may have been telling people all along. It’s that outside person who has the objectivity, the neutrality, that can say here are the problems that went on, and here’s how you’re going to now fix it.
Robin Miller: Now, interestingly in all of this and in healthcare.gov, I have not heard that there is an outside fixer or consultant coming in, have you heard of one?
Todd Williams: Well, you said one, and I think there’s been a talk of dozens of them coming in and I’m not sure if that’s the right way to solve it. It’s a big project, you’re going to need a lot of feet on the ground, there’s no question, but you have to have a point person. And if you don’t have a point person you’re going to be in trouble. Again, I think that may have been part of the failure points in whole implementation is if you can tell me who the point person is on healthcare.gov, and that person who we call the project sponsor or program sponsor, whatever, that one single point of contact who is the person who is accountable for everything to get done, I don’t know there was one, I think there were multiple things starting to get diffused and that’s a big challenge whenever it comes to a project.
Robin Miller: And we haven’t heard of anybody, a single point of contact brought in to fix it, have we?
Todd Williams: No, I have not heard of that. We’ve heard that they’re going to bring in the Googles and other companies like that. I’m not sure if Google has done a lot of project recovery work, and there’s a little bit of how do we take care of it. I mean, if something has got to happen, we got to restructure things, find out where the big points are, prioritize them, get those big things done first. But, yeah, I have not seen a one person contact, no.