01 Dec 1998

Year 2000 Computer Problem and You: Disaster for Some, Lessons for All


With Y2K predictions running the gamut from glitches with home appliances to worldwide economic collapse, Y2K expert John F. Keane (MBA '54) assesses the situation as it appears with one year to go.

John F. Keane is CEO and chairman of Boston-based Keane Inc., a $1 billion application development, outsourcing, and integration services company that he founded in 1965. First in a Wall Street Journal ranking of one thousand companies listed according to best stock performance from 1987 to 1997, Keane Inc is considered among the nation's top consulting firms on the Y2K computer problem.

How significant is this problem for companies and for individuals?

The Y2K problem is like a granite block dropped into a quiet pool. It's producing tremendous ripples, tremendous change. And like many major events, it's bringing to light situations we could have anticipated and perhaps already ameliorated if we had been more alert. Fortunately, the benefits gained from confronting the problem will outweigh the pain.

What benefits do you foresee?

We're learning lessons that will change future behavior. Some of us are finally understanding not only how reliant we are on computer technology but also how we actually use it. A shipper driven by overnight deliveries may never before have understood the importance of date-sensitive systems as they relate to leasing, for example. More important, we all are discovering that in the Y2K context, computers are only one component of a dynamic that involves people and process as much as technology.

So there's more to the Y2K problem than technology?

Definitely. You can tell a lot about a company by how it's reacting to the Y2K problem. An organization whose people failed to see how it would be affected - or that had no process for allocating resources to solve the problem - is an organization in trouble.

Are there other lessons?

We've awakened to the fact that in software, total quality counts. In the 1960s, we assumed that the replacement cycle would automatically filter out software glitches. That is, every five or so years, existing programs would be replaced. But instead we kept those programs, and to exploit improved technology, we added new ones. So the problem of date handling was never addressed. Now we know that an imperfection we're willing to tolerate today could remain with us far into the future.

What advice do you give to those who aren't yet positioned to meet the deadline?

Do a software inventory and begin your triage. What programs do you have? Which are absolutely critical to your business? How long will each take to repair? Are any already scheduled for an upgrade? As in a field hospital, establish priorities. If you can't do it all, you can probably do enough to satisfy customers and stay in business.

Do you foresee crises as dramatic as some of those described in the press?

You mean airplanes falling from the sky? It's not likely with the airlines that you and I fly on. Nor do I believe I'll receive $50,000 phone bills at home. Major organizations will be essentially ready. I do expect a period of transition and inconvenience such as we are now experiencing at times with credit cards. And government agencies must work to catch up if they are to avoid disruptions in Medicare and Medicaid payments, for instance.

One of the real problems with all of this is that many managers aren't conscious of how frequently computers use dates. Whether it's ordering supplies, transferring money, or buying and selling stocks, our business lives are interconnected by date-sensitive technology. Even if your own company is doing a good job preparing for Y2K, you may have essential business links to companies that aren't.

Is my desktop vulnerable?

Yes. A computer is different from most other consumer products. When you buy a new car, you trade in the old car and drive off with a completely new machine. But if you buy a new computer, you don't throw away your old software. You may have a new machine that's running your software faster and faster, but the software was still written a while ago.

Do you remember whether it was 1996 or 1997 when you acquired the copy of Excel that you're running? Is it Y2K compliant? Do you know which spreadsheets you put post-2000 dates into? Consider also the embedded code in peripherals that connect you to your network - one noncompliant machine could bring down thousands.

Large organizations have been concerned with mainframe, client-server, and minicomputer problems. They're betting that if they don't fix all of their office PCs, the result may be troublesome but not catastrophic.

Can I soften the impact on my personal life?

You can to some extent. For example, you can check with the manufacturer of any appliance that you suspect of having a date-handling function. They'll provide whatever help is currently available. As to your bank and other financial institutions, there's not much you can do - nor should you be overly concerned. Personally, I've had a problem with a credit card that expires in 2000, so I used a 1999 card in the interim. My advice is to develop tolerance for minor annoyances - at home as well as in the office.

Many organizations are still unprepared to meet the Y2K deadline. Why?

The further you are from something, the less dangerous it appears. And, as already mentioned, we assumed that the date problem would fix itself through regular replacements. However, computer or IT professionals - even in the sharpest of companies - were too busy expanding services and fighting fires to replace programs people weren't complaining about. Then, too, some organizations simply weren't aware that they'd be affected. Others lacked - and still do - the financial resources to write new code.

Will the worldwide economic downturn complicate matters?

Good question. For companies at the top of their game and well into the process, the Y2K problem may actually prove a competitive advantage. But if fixing it occupies too many resources, it will be the reverse. Some companies, governments, and agencies here and abroad will be forced into a second triage, allocating scarce resources on a makeshift basis. For even more vulnerable organizations, the effects of the Y2K problem could be their undoing.

Writer Charles Hogg conducted this interview.

Millennium Meltdown?

Defined most simply, the Y2K problem exists because most computers in use today were not programmed to recognize dates beyond 1999. When the year 2000 is reached, experts anticipate that computers may respond as if the year 1900 has just rolled around, causing widespread mix-ups.

The situation has given birth to a burgeoning industry of Y2K debuggers, along with articles, books, and Web sites proposing likely scenarios and possible safeguards. Government and corporate sectors in this country have begun to work furiously to rewrite essential codes in time. But many countries in our globally linked economy have barely begun to address the problem. Even if substantial progress is made in the United States by century's end, the global fallout from the explosion of the Y2K time bomb may be severe. A recent ABC News report predicted that the worldwide cost of repairing the post-explosion damage would be between $600 billion and $4.6 trillion.


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