Will New Year's Day 2000 come as a welcome relief?

Much has been written about the problems systems professionals will confront at the end
of 1999. Some experts call for crash programs to patch existing systems. Others argue it
would be easier to replace the old systems.


I expect that the federal government will see massive defections among systems
professionals in anticipation of the millennium.


A dedicated civil servant, I have applied for leave for the first two weeks of 2000,
not having enough years of service to retire.


Fortunately, my agency's time and attendance software believes in four-digit years.
That bodes well for me having a steady job in the year 2000.


The pessimists in the bunch may want to take up farming--the old-fashioned version that
predates crop subsidies. Because no government benefit can be counted on. Others may take
up hunting and gathering; computers that issue licenses and quotas are likely to succumb
to the turning of the end-of-the-century odometer.


Picure the computers going on strike and humans conscripted as scabs-- approvals,
determinations, regulations and publications will slow to a snail's pace. Cruise missiles
and smart bombs may refuse to explode because it's a century too soon. Postage meters may
not cancel letters. Direct deposits may get lost. ATM machines may act like slot machines.


The only electronic device guaranteed to survive the turn of the century may be the
VCR. My VCR seems to run just fine at 12 a.m. We can all go to the video store and check
out dozens of movies and not fear returning them late. We may run out of popcorn, though.


I have seen some pretty absurd strategies for Year 2000 conversion. According to
California Rep. Steve Horn [GCN, Aug. 4, Page 1], most agencies appear to have
adopted what I call Musical Chairs. Federal IT managers can rotate chairs until New Year's
Eve, when a handful of unlucky souls will be sitting in the wrong chairs.


Another strategy is reliance on the Magic Bullet Theory. This theory holds that someone
will invent the auto-magical technical solution that will reduce the year 2000 problem to
a mere nuisance. It would look like this: We send our source code files to a World Wide
Web server where Java applets will ferret out two-digit years and replace them with
four-digit years.


The Magic Bullet will have to be fully automated. Otherwise, the irresistible
temptation to hack another programmer's code will cause crippling delays in conversion.
Programmers cannot resist the lure of improving some one else's code, especially if it
unfamiliar and written in some obsolete computer dialect now used only in Amazonia.
Conversion schedules will collapse as programmers beg for just one more compilation to
optimize the code ever so slightly.


An even more optimistic strategy is Rewrite It All. Please, give me a break. Forget the
systems development lifecycle models; it'll be code and run. The programmers write the
code and then run from their customers.


Some experts claim this is the more realistic approach. They point out that the Magic
Bullet Theory assumes that 1) the source code can be found, 2) the source code will
actually create the executable objects it purports to, and 3) source code compilers
haven't changed so much that the resulting executable objects will work.


All three of these assumptions are dubious. In many instances, we may not have an
option but Rewrite It All.


The cynics point out that ""Magic Bullet'' and ""Rewrite It All''
are both stalking horses for the ""Ostrich Solution.'' The former are intended
to give the impression of valiant effort to be cited when systems turn into pumpkins at
midnight.


Let's face it, folks, we have no idea how bad the problem is and no inkling on how to
fix it. We all ought to pick a long weekend and set the system clocks ahead by four years,
just to see what happens. We can take notes as our software melts down. Come Monday, we
restore the old code, and make and test our changes.


As the day of reckoning approaches, we could declare the Ides of each month a National
Year-2000 Software Testing Day. After several months of that, New Years 2000 will come as
a welcome relief, if nothing else.


Meanwhile, I have my own personal year 2000 strategy. I call it my Dead Presidents
Strategy. I plan to accumulate numerous green and off-white portraits of Franklin,
Hamilton, Grant and other past chief executives on convenient 2- by 6-inch slips of paper.
My Dead Presidents should see me through the dark days of computer chaos.


Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal
information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.//cpcug.org/user/houser/.



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