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When McDonough got back to the White House, he met with Jeff Zients, a highly regarded businessman who had won high marks as a deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Among other projects, Zients--who in looks and résumé is the epitome of the buttoned-up manager--had overseen the Cash for Clunkers program in 2009. He was now slated to take over in January as the director of the President's National Economic Council. Obama and McDonough had quietly brought Zients in the week before when it had become obvious that the early White House and CMS explanation for the website's problems--astonishingly high volume--was anything but the whole story.
Zients, who is not an engineer, was teamed with Park, the White House chief technology officer. "On Oct. 17, I went from White House CTO to full-time HealthCare.gov fixer," Park says. The two were charged, says Zients, with "finding fresh eyes who could decide whether the thing was salvageable."
As one of the engineers they recruited put it, "Maybe we had to tell the world we'll be back to you in six or nine months with a new site."
As McDonough and Zients were digesting what the chief of staff had learned in Baltimore, White House press secretary Jay Carney was going through what one senior Obama aide calls "probably the most painful press briefing we've ever seen ... It was like one of those scenes out of The West Wing where everyone's yelling at him."
Thursday, Oct. 17, was the day the government shutdown ended. Until then, the failed launch of the website on Oct. 1 had been overshadowed in the news--and in the questions Carney had to field every day--by the shutdown and the related threat of a debt-ceiling deadlock. Now the unfolding Obamacare disaster was center stage.
Carney tried to fend off the inquisition, but he had little to work with. Pressed repeatedly on when the site would be fixed, the best he could say was that "they are making improvements every day."
"They" were, in fact, not making improvements, except by chance, much as you or I might reboot or otherwise play with a laptop to see if some shot in the dark somehow fixes a snafu.
Yet barely six weeks later, HealthCare.gov not only had not been scrapped, it was working well and on its way to working even better.
This is the story of a team of unknown--except in elite technology circles--coders and troubleshooters who dropped what they were doing in various enterprises across the country and came together in mid-October to save the website. In about a tenth of the time that a crew of usual-suspect, Washington contractors had spent over $300 million building a site that didn't work, this ad hoc team rescued it and, arguably, Obama's chance at a health-reform legacy.