The Dumbest Question and My Worst Fear

Our friends at suggested I try their new “block” editor to see if it will make my “Likes” problem (previously reported) go away. So I need content to publish. Here’s some:

I worked in software development for a long time. I loved being a programmer. There were days when I’d wake up and be eager to get to work. Then they made me a manager. There were lots of days when I hated to get out of bed.

When we had a software problem, we often got a question we couldn’t answer. Management and our customers would ask us “when will it be fixed?” If we already knew what the problem was, we could give them an estimate. If we were in the early stages, however, when the problem was still a mystery, the only (polite) answer was “we don’t know”. Since we didn’t know what was causing the problem, how could we know when we’d be able to fix it? Of course, it’s understandable they wanted an answer, but there were times it was the dumbest question to ask.

Sometimes things got bad. We worked on an important system. It had to be up and running every weekday morning. If, for some reason, it wasn’t, lots of people would be affected. We would make the news. So the clock would start ticking. Would we be able to diagnose and correct the problem soon enough to avoid headlines the next day?

The good news is that in all the years I worked there, every time we got a call from Operations telling us something was seriously wrong, we never failed to get the system up on time. But I would always wonder. Is this going to be the time we don’t find a fix? It never was, but that was my worst (work-related) fear.

If you’re looking at this post and see my little brown icon right next to the “Liked” button, using the block editor didn’t help. There is one other thing I can try before someone at WordPress not named “L Franz” publishes an upcoming post. That’s the other thing they’ve suggested. I can’t wait to see what they’ve got to say about President Lysol.


To B Or Not To B

That is a question. If Hamlet were with us today, would he ask himself: “To blog or not to blog?”

That’s what I asked myself this morning. Whether I should put this blog on hold.

But how can I save the world (one blog post at a time) or find out what I think if I don’t speak whereof I can?

Especially today, after a respected reader shared this letter to the editor:

When seniors started enrolling in the new Medicare system, hardly anyone touched a computer, there was no internet, or broadband connection. The system worked. Today, the same tools are available to us as were available then: applications, telephone, person-to-person help. The preferred method of access is the Internet, but the Internet is really just a way to get one into the system. The media is spending way too much time complaining about the method by which people sign up. They should be pointing out that millions of people who have not had access to health coverage will now have it. We need more stories about people with sick children who can now get coverage, not how much trouble people are having logging in to a web site. (BTW, just to see how it would work, I went to and created an account. No problems. Maybe they kick in when you try to actually sign up for something.) 

I hate the media.

Me too, much of the time.

Now, in this autumn of our discontent, everyone with access to a media bullhorn should keep in mind that large information technology projects almost always have problems, especially when a “drop-dead date” is involved. The Republicans will “investigate”, silly people on TV and the radio will say stupid things (except in Afghanistan), columnists will draw the wrong conclusions, but the problems will be fixed, millions of people will benefit and, as someone said the other day, the ACA isn’t just a website.

We should also remember that most people sign up for things as the deadline approaches, and in this case the deadline (March 31, 2014) isn’t “drop-dead” at all – it’s a soft deadline that can be delayed a while, if necessary.

On the even brighter side, is getting all kinds of free publicity! Let’s hope everyone spells the name right – although that’s not required these days (“did you mean”).

For the icing on the cake, take a look at how Republican politicians defended the problem-plagued rollout of the Medicare prescription drug benefit eight years ago, when one of their own was in the White House:

“The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.” (Henry V, act 4, scene 4)

The Big Website Foul-Up (It Takes A Village)

Major problems with the new ACA website are being reported and criticized throughout the media. It’s a great story, definitely worth reporting and much easier to write about than the complexities of the new law and how it will affect millions of people.

Fortunately, states that chose to create their own websites, like California and New York, are doing better, one likely reason being that their software requirements were easier to implement. It’s states with Republican governors or legislatures that didn’t create their own websites, like Texas, Florida and New Jersey, that are especially suffering. Although there are other ways to sign up for ACA-generated health insurance (by phone, and even in person), it’s still a problem for many people who live in those Republican-governed states.

Still, it’s an especially poignant example of how Republicans often put politics above principle or pragmatism. One would think that politicians who consistently criticize the Federal government (except for the Defense Department, etc.) wouldn’t depend on a Federal website delivering health insurance to their citizens, but go figure.

It’s also a great example of how large computer projects usually fail to meet deadlines, and how corporations that sell things to the government almost always find a way to make a whole lot of money. “We will deliver X by Y for $Z” repeatedly turns into “we will deliver X- by Y+ for $Z++”. Everyone involved usually has an excuse – it’s often the fault of those other guys – but whatever happens always results from a team effort.

For more on the software development aspect of the situation, here’s an honest, accurate appraisal from someone who has clearly been in similar situations:

In fact, we software developers suck at estimating how long it will take to build a web application (it’s time that we admit that). So, if we suck at it, imagine how poorly our managers who have never written a line of code suck at it when they pull estimates out of their asses to impose on their development teams and report to their bosses.

The whole article is worth reading, although I’ll add that these problems aren’t limited to web applications, many people who give optimistic estimates have done plenty of coding, and the people doing the requirements aren’t always the most blameworthy. Software developers frequently slow down the requirements-writing process by failing to give feedback, asking for repeated clarifications, arguing about which features are necessary and failing to move forward when progress could be made. In addition, there may be good reasons to roll out software that isn’t ready (sometimes, something is better than nothing). It really is a team effort.