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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"I had no idea who this guy leading the call was, and you couldn't hear a lot of it," recalls Dickerson, who was wearing a T-shirt sporting an image of a nuclear reactor over the word Science! when I met him three weeks ago in the Roosevelt Room across from the Oval Office. "Finally I jumped in and asked, 'Who am I talking to? Who is leading this call?' And the guy says, 'I'm Todd Park.' So I Googled him and saw he's the chief technology officer of the country and had founded two health care technology companies. Oh, I figured. Not bad. So I made plans to fly out for a few days."

Park's van continued on from Baltimore, stopping at the two main contractors working on the website. It turned out the engineers at both QSSI and even CGI, the contractor that attracted much of the blame for the site's failure, did not seem nearly as defensive or hostile as Park and the others had feared. "These guys want to fix things. They're engineers, and they were embarrassed," says one of the members of Park's gathering band. "Their bosses might have been turf conscious, but by then the guys in the suits really didn't want to have anything to do with the site, so they were glad to let us take over."

When the meetings ended at a CMS outpost in Herndon, Va., at about 7:00 p.m., the rescue squad already on the scene realized they had more work to do. One of the things that shocked Burt and Park's team most--"among many jaw-dropping aspects of what we found," as one put it--was that the people running HealthCare.gov had no "dashboard," no quick way for engineers to measure what was going on at the website, such as how many people were using it, what the response times were for various click-throughs and where traffic was getting tied up. So late into the night of Oct. 18, Burt and the others spent about five hours coding and putting up a dashboard.

What they saw, says Park, was a site with wild gyrations. "It looked awfully spiky," recalls Panchadsaram. "The question was whether we could ride that bull. Could we fix it?"

The team went home at about 2:30 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 19.

3. "It's Just a Website. We're Not Going to the Moon."

The decision had still not been made whether to save or scrap HealthCare.gov Zients wanted even more eyes from Silicon Valley on the problem. At about 6 in the morning on Saturday, Oct. 19, he emailed John Doerr, a senior partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the Menlo Park, Calif.--based venture-capital powerhouse, whose investments include Amazon, Google, Sun, Intuit and Twitter. Could Doerr call him when he awoke to talk about the health care website? Zients asked.

When Doerr quickly called back, Zients said, "We're pulling together this surge of people to do this assessment to see if the site's fixable or not. We've got to do it incredibly quickly. Do you know anyone?" Doerr recommended a relatively new Kleiner partner named Mike Abbott.

"Mike saved Twitter's technology when it was failing," Doerr told me later, referring to the days when the Twitter Fail Whale error-message icon was ubiquitous. "His being there gave me the confidence to make the largest investment we had ever made--over $100 million ... He had also worked at Microsoft and led the team at Palm that rebuilt their system ... Yet he's really low-key and well liked."

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