A popular but complicated website was crashing repeatedly, preventing users from shopping and creating a public relations disaster that threatened to undermine the organization behind the site and its leader.
To fix the site, the leader brought in a prominent technologist who rolled out new servers, changed the web host and installed a new backup system -- all while the site was still running. Within months, it was stable.
Webb's role in rescuing eBay at the turn of the millennium made him a Silicon Valley hero. Not only did he help save then-CEO Meg Whitman's job, he arguably saved eBay itself.
So maybe it's time for President Obama to give Webb a call.
Since it launched Oct. 1, HealthCare.gov, which is the centerpiece of Obama's health reform law, has been plagued by problems. Many users have been unable to access the site, and many of those who have been able to access it haven't been able to register, the first step in shopping for and buying health insurance.
At a Congressional hearing Thursday, the government contractors who built the website blamed its problems in part on its inherent complexity; it has to communicate with the databases of dozens of insurance carriers and those of numerous federal government agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service. They also complained of a lack of testing. Sitewide testing didn't begin until about two weeks before HealthCare.gov launched.
Outside observers, though, put the blame on the contractors themselves and the clunky code they created.
In an op-ed column Friday for The New York Times that was critical of HealthCare.gov, Clay Johnson and Harper Reed, two technologists with close ties to the Obama administration, noted a recent study that found that 94 percent of government information technology projects over the past 10 years were delayed, overbudget, didn't meet expectations or flat-out failed. They attributed that stunningly poor track record in large part to the government procurement process.
Because bidding on government contracts is subject to so many rules, the companies that win them -- whether for building websites or roads -- tend to be "those that can navigate the regulations best, but not necessarily do the best job," said Johnson and Reed.
President Obama has put Jeffrey Zients, the former acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, in charge of fixing the site, aided by what the president described as the "best and the brightest" in technology. Then on Friday, the government named a new general contractor to spearhead the rescue effort.
But there are reasons to doubt those steps will quickly fix the site. Zients is a management consultant by trade, not a technologist. And the new general contractor, Quality Software Services, is one of the same companies that helped develop the site in the first place.
So maybe it's time to turn to a simpler solution, such as bringing in a technologist with a track record of resurrecting complex sites. Someone like Webb, even though he's a registered Republican. The health care website has to deal with heavy traffic, just like eBay. HeathCare.gov has to register and verify visitors and help them shop for and purchase products, just like eBay. And HealthCare.gov, just like eBay, has to tap into multiple databases inside and outside the organization.
"If you think about it, (HealthCare.gov) is just a big e-commerce website," said John Engates, chief technology officer of Rackspace, a web hosting company.
The job of salvaging HealthCare.gov could be much easier than what Webb faced at eBay or, more recently, what Twitter's engineers faced when they had to deal with frequent website crashes there, said Matthew Prince, CEO and co-founder of CloudFlare, which helps companies deal with unexpected web traffic. The number of people who sign up for Twitter over just a few days likely exceeds the total number of people who will register for HealthCare.gov, Prince said.
Bringing in an outside technology expert, someone who understands how a site like this should work, would be a good way to solve the problem, said Engates.
I'm not the only one who thinks Webb would be the ideal person for the job. Last Sunday, Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn's CEO, tweeted that Webb "saved eBay from serious scaling issues" and suggested that "he could do the same for HealthCare.gov."
Webb politely begged off, tweeting in response that his wife "would kill me." But it's one thing to decline a suggestion made on Twitter. It's another thing to say no when the president is on the phone.
Here's hoping Obama makes the call.
Contact Troy Wolverton at 408-840-4285 or email@example.com. Follow him at www.mercurynews.com/troy-wolverton or Twitter.com/troywolv.