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Mr. President: Now You Know How Small Business Owners Feel!

Having a few tech problems with your healthcare exchange websites? Join the crowd.
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Having a few tech problems with your healthcare exchange websites? Join the crowd.

Now you know what every small business owner across the country goes through whenever we have a tech project. What a headache. And what’s ironic is that my company is in the technology industry!

We sell sales and marketing software to small and medium sized companies. Our projects can last months at a time. Not only that but we have to deal with all the other characters in the tech industry: the hardware people, the network guys, the security experts, the database gurus, the developers, the web designers, the project managers. Yeah, we’ve worked with them all. And, we’ve encountered the same issues that President Obama’s struggling with right now.

The best and the brightest, really?

The President vowed to get his websites fixed. He’s bringing in the "best and brightest" to address the problems. He’s exasperated.

None of the small business owners I know are surprised by this ordeal. We could’ve predicted it way back in 2010, when the idea of health exchanges were first introduced. A website-;no, wait--50 websites, run by each state, where the typical American who has an attention span of 10 seconds and watches Duck Dynasty can easily figure out their health insurance options? Good luck!

Not only were these websites supposed to be user friendly (an impossible task) but they would be able to accommodate multiple plans offering various choices from a list of existing and new healthcare providers--and then ultimately interface with enormous databases run by the IRS and other models of governmental efficiency to calculate the right amount of premiums, net of subsidies. A bold plan, I admit. But naïve.

Double the time and money, then you're getting close.

Here’s the reality, Mr. President, which I think you’ve just learned the hard way: Whatever timeline you’ve been promised for a technology project, double it. Whatever cost has been proposed, double that too. Don’t believe the tech guys when they say it can be done. In my industry, if something works 90 percent of the time, then tech guys say it’s working but "just needs a little support." Anyone who’s familiar with Microsoft Windows knows that to be the truth.

And don’t laugh, Apple and Google, you’ve got your own bugs too. Just thank God these people don’t build airplanes.

Tech projects have five things in common.

Hopefully the President will learn from this experience. So should small business owners. I have. In the past 20+ years, I’ve been part of great and disastrous technology projects. The good ones have five significant things in common:

1: You need detailed management involvement.

You can’t just say “let’s have a website where all 330 million Americans can buy their health insurance, and let’s get it done in less than four years,” and then turn it over to a bunch of tech guys.

You’ll have, well, a mess. Every successful project I’ve been involved in was successful because the top dog was involved. Intimately involved. He was part of the planning. He was part of the project group. He received regular updates. He signed the checks.

I realize that Mr. Obama has a few other things on his plate. But this was his signature accomplishment as President. This is something that needed a more involved manager. Can Mr. Obama, even today, pull out his iPad and sign up for insurance for his family? Does he know the ins and outs of the sites? If he doesn’t, then he didn’t pay enough attention.

Good business owners delegate, but great business owners know when to stay intimately involved.

2: Get a strong project manager/administrator.

Every project needs that go-to person. The one who’s eating lunch with the developers, pizza with the database team, and then breakfasting the next morning with the top dog. In larger organizations this is the project manager.

But even the project manager has an administrator by his or her side. And in smaller organizations, the administrator is also the project manager. Believe it or not, this is not another tech person. This is a power user. A normal person. Someone who actually bathes once in a while and who has never heard of Gordon Freeman or Dan Smith (if you know who they are, you’re not right for the job).

It’s the person who learns the application inside and out, and who has the communication skills to interface with the tech guys and end users alike. This person may be more than one person, of course, or part of an administrator team, depending on the size of the project.

3: Make it a planned-out and phased-in approach.

Good projects, especially where technology is involved, don’t overreach. The best projects I’ve worked on have had phases. We always pick easy-to-achieve objectives first so we can have an early win. It’s a psychological thing. It also pulls people into the project and gives them hope (remember hope?) for the future. We build on that.

We have a detailed project plan. But we also create a road map--a written document that paints a long-term picture so everyone knows where we’re heading. Mr. Obama learned that you never, ever roll out a huge technology project all in one go. It’s a classic project management mistake, and he made it.

4: Tie milestones to payments.

And along with each of those phases above, you tie in the cash. Tech people like their money as much as the next guy. Managers like results. They should be one and the same: You deliver, we pay.

Good projects are not open-ended time-and-material monstrosities like the healthcare exchanges. They have specific, interim, black-and-white deliverables (a working report, a data import, a group of users who are satisfactorily trained, a tested prototype, etc).

The cash gets released when the deliverable is, um, delivered. Our projects tie blocks of time to our objectives. Once a block is used up, we should be at the end of a phase or have accomplished a deliverable. It gives everyone a moment to collect themselves and evaluate progress.

5: Give yourself some testing time.

I recently wrote, during the budget/debt ceiling crisis, that the Republicans picked the wrong strategy. Instead of blaming "Obamacare" they should’ve pointed at the tech guys and used them as the scapegoat for delaying the legislation for a year. Most people (especially business owners) would’ve been sympathetic.

Every good project allows adequate time for user testing and adjustments. You never roll out an unfinished or untested product to your users. You’ll get burned. And people will never get the bad taste out of their months.

But you know this by now, Mr. President. You’ve experienced what every small business owner has experienced: a technology project gone bad. Welcome to the club.

 

Last updated: Oct 23, 2013

GENE MARKS | Columnist | Owner, Marks Group

Gene Marks is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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