IT workers view 2000 through rose-colored glasses

There are no deadline extensions for the Year 2000 problem.

We can rail and curse like King Canute, but the tide of time is rolling inexorably on.
Ready or not, that magic New Year’s Day of reckoning is coming.

Unless you’ve been off on a desert island for the last 18 months, you know that
computer types worldwide are finding they must pay for the previous generation’s
shortsightedness. Three decades of “this will be someone else’s problem”
led to millions of cut corners, of which the two-digit year field is just one.

So information technology professionals in and out of government will be greeting the
new year with fingers crossed and prayers whispered to any higher power willing to listen.

After three decades of late deliveries, do we really expect agency management to
believe us when we say we will be done with software remediation on time?

You’d be hard pressed to find a senior manager who has yet to learn that IT
professionals are by nature incurable optimists. Only an insanely optimistic person can
make it in this business.

Peter de Jager, the leading year 2000 guru, says our professional motto could be,
“We’re IT; we’re late.”

Asking programmers if they can get the job done by a given date is like asking an
orangutan if it wants a banana. Ask them if they can convert 30 million lines of Cobol
code in 14 months, the answer is, of course, yes.

You could strap them into a polygraph, and the machine will dutifully record that they
are telling the absolute truth. Our bosses may think we are pathological liars, but deep
in our hearts, we know we are pathological optimists.

So is it a surprise that IT projects are chronically behind schedule; six months late
is the typical time frame. It just took more all-nighters and pots of coffee or Diet Coke
than we thought it would. So what. We’ll just call it Windows 98 instead of Windows
97. Trust us—next time we’ll do better.

Over the next 14 months, agencies will discover, like the Social Security
Administration did, that they have severely underestimated the magnitude of the 2000
problem. After getting an A+ grade from Rep. Steve Horn (R-Calif.), SSA recently found
another 30 million lines of code to convert.

If it costs a mere $2 a line to fix, that equals $60 million dollars in unanticipated
expenditures. Just imagine the havoc if SSA doesn’t send out checks in January 2000.

Other things could happen. Amish country in Pennsylvania may become crowded with
programmers in hiding. If you believe the doomsdayers, everything from export subsidies to
public works projects is in jeopardy. Executives and welfare moms alike will be firing off
letters, or worse, to Congress.

Lawyers will be filing suits by the truckload. The velocity of money will slow to a
snail’s pace, and the gross national product will plummet. Inventories will
evaporate, security systems will fail and angry citizens will attack chief information
officers. General Motors Corp. will remember with nostalgia the recent Teamsters strike
that idled 195,000 workers.

With so much at risk, why aren’t IT professionals demanding help? Year 2000 work
is nasty, and we’d rather not think about it. It is like cleaning the basement, the
attic and the garage all at once.

It is as close to dumpster dipping as the IT profession can get: musty printouts,
crumbling tapes, ancient code.

Much of that code was written before structured design. Some was written in languages
and for operating systems that are a dim memory.

The methods of 25 to 30 years ago are crude in comparison to today’s
object-oriented programming tools. It’s a job more appropriate for archaeologists and
cultural anthropologists than today’s modern developer.

Top managers need to ask hard questions and be prepared to pay dearly to solve the 2000

It is the kind of project no sane manager volunteers for; if it goes well, nothing
remarkable happens. If it doesn’t, Dilbert’s Prince of Heck will come and turn
you, your staff and your agency into toads.

When they ask for volunteers to work on 2000, the sane manager will immediately take
three giant steps backward—make that four or five.

But the typically optimistic IT manager will say, “Sure, no problem. Just put that
30 million lines of code you just found on the credenza with the 1,000 boxes of punch
cards. I’ll call my wife and kids and tell them I’ll be working this weekend and
maybe the next. We’re optimistic, we’re insane, we’re IT!”  

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

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