Whether Public or Private, Information Technology Is Hard To Do Right
A timely reminder that the Department of Health and Human Services is not the only place having information technology woes:
Chronic electrical surges at the massive new data-storage facility central to the National Security Agency's spying operation have destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of machinery and delayed the center's opening for a year, according to project documents and current and former officials.
There have been 10 meltdowns in the past 13 months that have prevented the NSA from using computers at its new Utah data-storage center, slated to be the spy agency's largest, according to project documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
One project official described the electrical troubles -- so-called arc fault failures -- as "a flash of lightning inside a 2-foot box." These failures create fiery explosions, melt metal and cause circuits to fail, the official said.
This at the NSA -- which is supposed to be so good at what it does that I am half expecting a cheery note from my personal NSA agent reminding me that I should have had whole wheat toast this morning instead of the cheap white bread. Yet the NSA is not even being undone by something difficult, like melding multiple databases into one coherent website. It's having trouble keeping electrical boxes from melting down, which is one of those problems I thought the utilities had solved decades ago.
There's a lesson in this for both sides of the political spectrum. We live our lives immersed in wondrous technology -- especially those of us who spend our workdays on the Internet. Over time, we've come to think that anyone can do this sort of thing. But IT is hard.
Conservatives who argue that this shows the government can never do IT right should remember that lots of companies can -- and do -- get IT wrong. We think the private sector is so good at it because we see only the winners who got it right. The many projects that went horribly wrong have slipped out of view, and memory.
But liberals who have been proclaiming that the health exchange glitches will be fixed eventually because after all, Amazon does this, should remember that the end of every glitchy project is not a product that actually works. Horrifyingly bad launches, into which category I'd say the exchanges now fall, often end when the product is jerked out of production. More than occasionally, the company that made the product goes away.
Next time you go onto Amazon, or Netflix or Travelocity, remember these glitches and remind yourself what a hard job these companies are doing amazingly well. You live in an age of technological miracles. You should occasionally let yourself feel the awe that this ought to inspire.
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Megan McArdle at firstname.lastname@example.org