The Institutional Technology Gap

404 ErrorI was watching Twitter Co-Founder Biz Stone do an interview on a morning talk show recently. Just before the break they asked him about what he thought about the much maligned healthcare.gov debut.

The response from Biz:

“I think they should have just made a clever ‘I’m sorry our website is down’ error page. Here are the three main points of our program. Done.”

To put this in context, in the early days Twitter had an error page that featured a whale. It became a meme of it’s own, called the Fail Whale. It was a sign of growing pains for Twitter, but Biz Stone credits the failures with helping get the word out, with people complaining about a service they couldn’t live without. This gave me a glimpse of insight in the huge gap between institutional and entrepreneurial views of technology.

One of the biggest challenges any software entrepreneur fears — and at the same time hopes to encounter — is how to scale. This has led to creativity in how businesses put a governor on new users and how websites indicate failure. These challenges are not new to 21st Century developers. So why is healthcare.gov any different?

What happened with healthcare.gov reminds me more of the mainframe age: we’re going to build a piece of software in a vacuum, then deliver it and you have to learn to live with it. This is not isolated to government institutions, but applies broadly to businesses and organizations of all shapes and sizes. There’s a lesson here: when it comes to technology, are you thinking like an institution or an entrepreneur?

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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  • http://www.knowlengr.com knowlengr

    I agree if his point is about handling errors gracefully, but the whale certainly wans’t it. Not to knock what Biz has made of Twitter after years of tweaking it, but the comparison hardly seems apt. What if, out of the box, Twitter had to communicate with all the existing insurance companies — many using mainframe-like technologies with indeterminate response times? And interface with the social security administration, and identify known felons, and check for insurance fraud? And Twitter’s “deadlines” were self-imposed, not with the entire country looking over your shoulder. Come to think of it, I was never impressed with the whale when I was capturing numerous screenshots of it for errorprocessing.com.

    • http://blog.intelligistgroup.com/ Alan Berkson

      Thanks, Mark. I’m not trying to compare the complexity of the development challenge so much as the ethos. The old-school development mentality is to develop in a vacuum and then reveal it to the world in all it’s glory. Failure and iteration is built into the 21st century software development ethos. Also, communicating with the end users and getting them to buy in to what you’re trying to accomplish. The fact that Twitter, a product with a ridiculous learning curve and a history of failures along the way has been so successful is testament.

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