Failure to Launch


A few weeks ago, my wife had to make several phone calls to Amazon.  We’d recently moved, and although she had updated our address in our Prime account, Amazon continued to send packages to the old location.  She needed to call several times before the situation was rectified. 

I thought of this as I listened to pundits discussing the disastrous rollout of, the consumer-facing Web portal for the Affordable Care Act.  Why can’t Obama get it right?  Why can’t the government do anything?  Why didn’t they fly in the real pros from Silicon Valley to execute this?

In my experience, most websites work… just okay.  Flawless sites are few and far between.  (In general, the simpler they are, the more reliably they work.)   I spend entire days working on LinkedIn, a shining example of advanced Web functionality, and not a day passes when I don’t encounter some kind of glitch – the big red bar announcing that “service is not available.”  Facebook has had notable issues, and Twitter’s Fail Whale was so common in the site’s early months that it became a meme, worthy of its own Wikipedia entry. 

In most of these cases, we learn to work around these glitches. But if any of these websites were providing services with life-or-death implications, consumer tolerance for their quirks would be very different.  Imagine the hue and cry if the government were suddenly to mandate that every American must create an iTunes account, navigate that kludgy interface and make a purchase or face a fine.

The problem with, as far as I can tell, was mainly one of poorly managed expectations.  Having been in charge of redesigns and rollouts for major consumer-facing websites, I can relate.  Earlier in my career, I was on the hot seat for a top-to-bottom overhaul of major consumer-facing websites.  All of these sites attracted millions of unique visitors each month; all were significantly smaller and less complex than

At one major media company, we had an entire IT division of top-shelf developers and designers and project managers working with us on every phase of the development.  Redesigning that site took more than a year.  We missed a couple deadlines, launching several weeks later than our original target.  There were some bugs when we went live.  (In a separate adventure, that company invested millions of dollars attempting to create a proprietary content management system that never fully deployed.)  At another company, our resources were not as vast, and although we followed strict Agile and Six Sigma methodology, although the blue-chip vendor charging us hundreds of thousands for the project promised repeatedly we’d hit the target date, we missed it by about six weeks, placing major ad campaigns (and major revenue) in jeopardy.

In each case, I was answering to senior management who knew little to nothing about digital infrastructure.  Most CEO’s are pretty clueless about Internet launches and migrations.  They like to play tough, draw a line in the sand, plant a flag (choose your own corporate cliché) on a launch date and then “hold feet to the fire” to make sure it’s accomplished.  Those original targets are rarely, if ever, met.  Website redesigns and relaunches are a lot like major home remodeling projects: They usually take longer and cost more, requiring compromises along the way.

The people responsible for managing the process are often reluctant to tell the whole truth to their bosses.  Vendors are reluctant because they want to earn a full fee; internal managers are reluctant because their jobs are on the line and they may be replaced by a more enthusiastic “yes” man or woman.  Most of the process methodologies employed to ensure quality control wind up serving primarily as CYA strategies – documentation parties can point to, shifting blame away from themselves. 

The main problem with, as far as I can tell, is that expectations were not managed.  Once the administration got the final green light, there was not enough time before October 1, 2013, to create and fully test a site with the requisite functionality.  This was not a question of talent or resources.  The process requires time – time to define the scope, design the site, build the wire frames, create the code, integrate the APIs, and test and test and test.  And regardless of how much time and testing had occurred, real-world use would still inevitably have revealed flaws that would need to be fixed.  That’s just the nature of the Internet.  It’s all built on rapidly evolving technologies, the upgrade of any of which can create unforeseen conflicts elsewhere in the system.

Someone needed to stand up and say, “Sorry, it’s just not possible.”  That way the Administration could have communicated to Congress and the public a more realistic time table. 

Of course, the more likely outcome is that the responsible realist communicating that message would have been given his or her walking papers, replaced by somebody else who’d blithely say, “Can do, Chief!”

The Internet is amazing, but it ain’t magic.

Interviewing Tips

Ninety percent of hires are based solely upon the interview according to a Harvard Business Review study. In fact, 63% of hiring decisions are made within the first 4.3 minutes of an interview (courtesy SHRM). So, the interview is probably the most important part of the hiring process. And that's why you need to spend time with your personal recruiter to better understand whom you are interviewing with and the issues that you will be talking about during the interview.

You always need to "take temperatures" because people have minds and they're changing them constantly. You need to listen to what they don't say. Being prepared for an interview is vital. The following preparation is very unique and effective in conducting a positive interview.

Things To Remember:

  • People have to buy you before they buy from you.
  • People hire and accept emotionally first and justify logically later.
  • People are most sold by your conviction rather than by your persuasion.
  • Know your technology, but think PEOPLE.
  • The decision to hire is made in the first 5 to 10 minutes of the interview, with the remaining time spent justifying that decision.

Candidate Preparation:

Please take these notes to the interview and practice the anticipated questions that may be asked and your answers to those questions. Be sure to practice these steps out loud to yourself before the interview.

  • What are the duties and responsibilities of the position I'm applying for? This is an excellent icebreaker question for the hiring authority and a great start to a successful interview. What percentage of my job is dedicated to administration, supervisory, and technical?
  • What is my number one priority that has to be done before I leave each day? Why?
  • What are the production or sales goals? What obstacles would prevent me from reaching my goals?
  • What are the short and long term goals set for the person in this position?
  • Have questions for the hiring authority. Questions must be written out before the interview, while avoiding the topic of compensation and benefits for the first interview.
  • Salary - this is a trap question. If the question is brought up a very good response is "I would like as much as the position will pay" OR "I am currently making $_____. Although I would like an increase, I don't know enough about the opportunity to answer that fairly"). Be very careful that you don't short yourself. Be sure to keep in mind your base salary, bonus program, stock options, gain sharing programs, performance bonuses, benefits, etc.
  • Ask for the job! "I haven't interviewed in a while, what is the next step? Can we conclude our business today if all goes well?" Summarize what you've done that ties in with the new position and ask, "Do I have the qualifications you're looking for?" then remain silent for an answer. If the hiring authority says, "I'm looking at other people," you say, "How do my qualifications match the people you're considering." Your #1 priority is to receive an offer, if this is a position that you desire, your #2 priority is to know the next step. ALWAYS SEND A FOLLOW-UP LETTER.

After you leave the interview, call your recruiter.