Mt. Vernon Register-News

Opinion

November 20, 2013

Why coding geeks aren't going to save Obamacare

A recent news item reported that three programmers, all in their 20s, had whipped up an alternative to the U.S. health-insurance exchange system and claimed it was much more effective than the government’s system.

The legend of the 20-something coding genius is so powerful that a major news organization seemed to accept that it should be this simple to fix the exchanges. Of course it isn’t, and boasts such as this are masking the complexity of the challenge.

The Department of Health and Human Services has been mum on the details of the technological problems. But the picture that has emerged so far is that the failure of the Obamacare exchanges was largely the result of a lack of understanding of systems-performance issues, rather than insufficient programming skill per se. Software that works fine on a small scale can be a spectacular failure when writ large.

And expertise in performance comes from experience, especially experience with large-scale hardware and large-scale usage — exactly what most 20-year-old geeks lack. Many talented kids might write great apps for your iPhone, but very few have serious access to large-scale, distributed hardware, and even fewer have written apps that require such large systems.

In fact, youthful enthusiasm, normally a boon to the quality of projects, may be a negative in this case. The 20-something may be so enamored of the New, New Thing in programming languages and techniques that he might be fitting the problem to the tool, rather than vice versa, and end up developing something that is quite inefficient for the job at hand.

Many of those who worked on the health-insurance exchanges — HIX, for short — are probably in their 20s, too. This has been a standard in the industry, as the young are cheaper, in both wages and benefits, and are more willing to work long hours. (CGI Group Inc., the chief contractor on HIX, hires a large number of non-U.S. workers with H-1B visas, and most H-1Bs in the computer field are under 30.)

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