Obama's Trauma Team

How an unlikely group of high-tech wizards revived Obama's troubled HealthCare.gov website

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Photograph by Stephen Voss for TIME

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It turns out that when it came to Civis' skills, McDonough, Simas and the others were working the wrong side of the house. Civis is great at analytics, but behind that world-class data crunching is a world-class technology team run by Gabriel Burt. Indeed, the key mistake made by President Obama and his team--who never publicized the arrival of Burt and other campaign coders in October the way they touted the role of the data-analytics marketing team last summer--is that they had turned only to the campaign's marketing whiz kids instead of the technologists who enabled them.

2. A Team Formed On the Fly

Among the tech geniuses Burt got to know during the 2012 campaign is Mikey Dickerson--whose title at Google is site-reliability engineer. Dickerson had taken a leave from Google in 2012 to help scale the Obama-campaign website and create its Election Day turnout-reporting software. As it happened, Dickerson, then 34, was in town visiting Burt and others at Civis on Oct. 11 when Park called from the White House. "I consider Mikey a mentor," says Burt. "We were picking his brain about our company when we got a call about the health care site ... We all wanted to do something."

Burt and Dickerson decided to go to Washington to help Park figure out what to do. They also began making a list of others who they thought could form a rescue squad. By the afternoon of Oct. 18, Burt was on the ground at the headquarters in Maryland of a company called QSSI, one of the contractors that had been hired by CMS to build and run the website. Of the many companies that had worked on HealthCare.gov QSSI was thought to have performed the least badly.

That afternoon, Dickerson, who was in California preparing to fly east the following Monday to join Burt, jumped on what he later described as a "really bizarre conference call." It was with Park, who at that moment was riding in a White House van around D.C., Maryland and Virginia with the beginnings of his hastily assembled team trying to assess the damage.

In the van was Paul Smith, whom Burt had recruited. Smith had been deputy director of the Democratic National Committee's tech operation. He immediately put fundraising for a startup he was planning on hold to join the group. Another passenger was Ryan Panchadsaram, 28, who had come to the White House as part of a program called Presidential Innovation Fellows, which was launched by Park to bring high-tech achievers into government to work on specific projects that they design. (The program is already responsible for a series of innovations in making government data and health care records more available electronically.) "I decided we should all go introduce ourselves to the people we were going to help," says Park, explaining the van ride.

The team started by driving from the White House to see Tavenner, the CMS administrator, at her Washington office. They then drove off to Baltimore to meet other senior CMS officials. It was during that drive that Park decided to loop in Dickerson and some others to a conference call. "We were passing around an iPhone with a speaker so we could all talk," says Park. "I wanted us to get to know each other."

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