In Defense of MarkLogic

December 13, 2013

Many people would like to know exactly what went wrong with, and The New York Times obliged with a lengthy post-Thanksgiving article on the subject. However, former MarkLogic CEO Dave Kellogg takes issue with the amount of blame the story places on his former company. (The references to MarkLogic are on page seven of the Times piece.) His response can be found in a post at his Kellblog: “The Pillorying of MarkLogic: Why Selling Disruptive Technology to the Government is Hard and Risky.” Whose dog is in this fight? Not ours, for sure, but this is an interesting exchange to watch from the sidelines.

Here’s what the Times asserts:

“Some of the companies building the system opposed an early decision by the Medicare agency to use database software from a company called MarkLogic, which handles data differently from systems by companies like IBM and Oracle. Some suggest that its unfamiliar nature slowed their work. By mid-November, more than six weeks after the rollout, the MarkLogic database — essentially the website’s virtual filing cabinet and index — continued to perform below expectations, according to one person who works in the command center.”

However, the database firm was not operating in a vacuum; the Times piece acknowledges that MarkLogic was but one of the many vendors involved to complain about inadequate computing power, data-center instability, and integration failures that were out of their hands. That does not keep the article for singling out MarkLogic. Scapegoat much?

Kellogg lists problems the site has had: unrealistic timelines, the refusal to go through a Beta stage, a lack of oversight, insufficient testing, and late change requests. As he notes, these problems are common on large projects (especially, I would add, on those organized by someone unexperienced in IT, as this one apparently was.) Though he had left MarkLogic by the time this project was underway, Kellogg has some very educated guesses about what went wrong.

He writes:

“To me, guessing from a distance, it seems pretty obvious what happened.

*Someone who didn’t understand how hard it to build was ordered up a website of very high complexity with totally unrealistic timeframes.

*A bunch of integrators (and vendors) who wanted their share of the $630M put in bids, probably convincing themselves in each part of the system that if things went very well that they could maybe make the deadlines or, if not, maybe cut some scope. (Remember you don’t win a $50M bid by saying ‘the project is crazy and the timeframe unrealistic.’)

*Everybody probably did their best but knew deep down that the project was failing.

*Everyone was afraid to admit that the project was failing because nobody likes to deliver bad news, and it seems that there was no one central coordinator whose job it was to do so.”

So, the problem lies at the intersection of human nature and bureaucracy; no surprise there. Kellogg goes on to observe that this is the reason most organizations have shifted from huge, unwieldy projects to agile methodologies. Government process, though, is hardly set up to take advantage of the latest methodologies. Will it ever be?

Kellogg discusses why he thinks MarkLogic is being thrown under the bus: Instead of exploring the serious flaws within our government’s procurement process, some folks involved would rather point to ways MarkLogic is different from stodgy but familiar systems like Oracle’s and IBM’s. “Non-standard,” they call it, and say that is the root of the problem. With that attitude, I’m surprised administrators were convinced to run one of those new-fangled websites at all. Wouldn’t a phone line do?

Cynthia Murrell, December 13, 2013

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