The Year 2000 Problem: An MIS Director's View


The so-called "Year 2000 Problem" (also known as the "Millennium Bug") has captured the attention of the media and the general public in a way that is unprecedented in the mundane world of corporate computing. Despite the glee with which the media describes the massive disruption that they envision resulting when computer systems recognize "00" as the year 1900, there is reason to hope that many businesses will have already fixed the problem in their mission critical systems rather than slam headfirst into January 1, 2000. In order for companies to implement a timely and effective solution, it is imperative that senior management and management information systems departments ("MIS") develop a common understanding of the nature and scope of their companies' Year 2000 problems, agree that fixing the problem is an important corporate priority, commit the funds necessary to pay for the solutions, and, perhaps most importantly, not blame each other for creating the problem.

Why Does The Problem Exist?
Everyone must accept their share of the responsibility for creating the problem. MIS may have been slow to recognize it and hoped or expected that upgraded and/or replacement systems would be in place before the problem manifested itself. Poor documentation and tracking of changes to the systems may complicate the repair process. Management must accept that its requirements for faster but less expensive systems, as well as its decisions such as upgrading rather than replacing systems, extending the lives of systems beyond MIS' recommendations, or holding down budgets for programming staff, have also played a role in creating the problem. After all, the "Millennium Bug" is not a bug at all but a result of design decisions based on costs and other factors. Once both management and MIS understand the problem and accept responsibility for its existence, their attention should turn to fixing the problem.

Fixing the Problem
Management must understand how deeply the problem permeates its computer systems and what that may mean for the company. At the same time, MIS must understand the impact of the problem and the effects potential solutions have on the bottom line, staffing levels, and on other areas where MIS and senior management may have traditionally struggled.

So what should CTO's, CIO's and MIS directors be telling and asking their corporate management, and what should corporate management be asking and telling the systems folks? How can the problem be solved with the least disruption and cost? Do all other technology initiatives have to come to a stop until this problem is eliminated? Should someone be made to pay for the problem?

Executives responsible for implementing and managing technology need to make it very clear to the rest of management that this problem, unlike almost all others in the technology arena, has a rigid deadline -- just like a ticking time-bomb that cannot be defused. In order for management to understand and place appropriate value on the process of fixing this problem, it needs to understand the depth and breadth of it. Are the company's systems based on mainframe, minicomputer or PC technology, or a combination of two or more of those? The highest probability of the problem existing is in the older mainframe environment, particularly where customized or home-grown applications are prevalent. It may also exist in somewhat older minicomputer environments. As a financial decision, it is probably far less expensive to replace small minicomputers and PCs if they have had reasonable, useful lives, than it is to try to fix the problem on those systems. It is possible that the same could be said for the mainframe environment, but it is not likely that, as of this date, there would be enough time to do an orderly and full-scale conversion given the magnitude of the project in businesses such as large banks, insurance companies and government institutions. Therefore, a fix must be made, rather than the seemingly easier task of system replacement.

CIO's and MIS directors should also make certain that other executives understand the breadth of the problem. What ancillary systems are tied into the company's computers? How about suppliers and customers? If those external systems have the problem, the company must attempt to influence the others to make the fix concurrently, or make a decision to disconnect from those other systems once its own fix is in place. This could place a big burden on strategic alliances, an effect as detrimental as not fixing the company's own systems. All interactive systems must be in sync for date-math purposes for the fix to take hold.

Non-MIS executives have an important role to play too. First, they have to believe that the problem is real and as big as MIS makes it out to be -- and it is. If a computer can't make a date-math calculation past the first day of January, 2000, it basically can't do business anymore. The computer may still work, but the information coming out of it may be garbage or worse. Many who have studied this problem are postulating extraordinary dollar figures for fixing the problem, and they may well be right. If every line of code in a massive program has to be evaluated, in many cases that task can only be done by a human being, and a qualified and well-trained one at that. Given the time constraints and depending on the size of the systems, a comprehensive code evaluation would most likely require lots of qualified, well-trained human beings. Then, all the faulty code has to be re-written, tested, documented and implemented. Many business executives, while having a general understanding of technology, do not really understand the magnitude of this task. They must either understand it, and/or trust that MIS has represented it accurately, and then allocate the necessary funds, time and computer resources to do the work.

Both MIS and other executives could benefit from a cautious but relatively quick assessment of the ability of third parties to repair the problems. These "fixit" shops have sprung up in the last year or so, and their expertise varies greatly. On the plus side, an organization may have already developed a routine to fix the problem on the type of system the company has. That could shorten the implementation time frame considerably. On the other hand, outside consultants can and will charge as much as customers are willing to pay. So before a company brings its entire MIS operation to a stop, or commits to a huge increase in its expense budget for MIS resources, the use of outsourcing should be carefully weighed.

This in turn suggests that other technology initiatives will either have to wait, be canceled, or have additional funds allocated to keep such projects running in parallel with the year 2000 fix. It would be too risky to assume that the MIS department could simply assimilate the repair of the year 2000 problem into its project pipeline, mainly because of the rigid deadline, but also because of the fact that new systems and routines may not be able to work in concert with legacy systems until those systems are fixed. So to some degree, business executives must understand and accept that development will slow to some degree or stop, relative to the company's ability and willingness to up its investment in MIS resources.

Paying for the Solution
Finally, who should pay for all this? It may well be that certain contractual provisions protect the company, or perhaps its insurance coverage applies. The tax ramifications of such unplanned investments can be devastating to balance sheets and stock values. Companies should launch an exploration of these issues on a parallel track with efforts to fix its systems, rather than waiting to determine if someone else can be held liable before beginning the repair process.

Once they overcome finger-pointing, management and MIS departments who solve the Year 2000 Problem together may discover a pleasant side effect: an improved relationship based on trust and confidence that each wants only what is best for their companies.

The clock is ticking and it's time to act.