2000 bug pushes techies into spotlight

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Published in Washington, D.C. 5am -- September 20, 1999 www.washtimes.com

2000 bug pushes techies into spotlight


im Brown's responsibilities changed once the threat of a year-2000 computer glitch reared its head. He used to fix computers for Fairfax County. Now he also mends the shaken confidence of citizens who wonder whether the programming error will seize computers. As a result of his new role, Mr. Brown, who is year-2000 coordinator for the Fairfax County Department of Information Technology, has moved from working with bits and bytes in the background to become one of the most public of county officials. "I am much more comfortable, as are a lot of IT people, working on technology," Mr. Brown said. "We are not extroverts. But getting out in public to talk about this is something we feel we have to do." The year-2000 computer glitch has produced what is arguably the most pervasive and high-profile technical problem to hit information technology, giving technology professionals a public role they aren't used to having. "It's been an extremely visible opportunity, and extremely risky," said Ina Kamenz, vice president and head of the Year 2000 Program Office at Bethesda-based Marriott International, which owns and operates 1,700 hotels worldwide. "I worked in the spotlight before, but not like this," said Mrs. Kamenz, who heads a team of 20 people appointed to deal with the company's year-2000 remediation and contingency planning. Much is at stake for technology workers who know, as the final months of 1999 count down, that their jobs are on the line.

Doubting techies Technology professionals question whether they will get much benefit from getting thrown into the bright light of public scrutiny. Bruce Webster, co-chairman of the Washington D.C. Year-2000 Users Group, a local watchdog organization working on the computer problem, doubts the programming glitch will provide techies with any lasting practical experience. He calls year-2000 work assignments a professional "death march." "Y2K is seen as backwater that you get stuck in while all the exciting stuff goes on around you. It's ditch-digging work," said Mr. Webster, a trained software engineer who works as a technology consultant. He said year-2000 work also has put techies in charge of remediation projects vulnerable to criticism if computing problems occur Jan. 1 or if projects go over budget. The year-2000 computer problem stems from a cost-saving shortcut years ago in which software programmers devoted only two spaces in a date field to designate the year. That older software assumes the year always will begin with the digits "19." If technicians don't carefully reprogram and test affected systems -- replacing calendar-sensitive computer chips embedded in some equipment -- the systems could shut down or malfunction when they "read" the digits "00" as meaning 1900 and not 2000. With the ability of computers to operate jeopardized, year-2000 project managers have had to become tyrannical in their drive to complete projects, Mr. Webster said. That led to a joke about year-2000 project managers that demonstrates the contempt with which some techies are held: What's the difference between a year-2000 project manager and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist. While Dec. 31 presents information technology workers with a hard deadline, only 48 percent of the biggest companies expect to have all of their most critical computer systems upgraded to recognize 2000, according to a recent survey by New York-based information and management consultant Cap Gemini America. Techies say the computer bug has had at least one important social consequence in that it has forced companies, governments and other organizations worldwide to re-examine their technology. Dogged efforts to fix code have ensured outdated computer equipment will be replaced and better programs will be introduced, Mrs. Kamenz said.

On the spot The pressure on technology officials to keep things running smoothly became apparent this month when a computer crash during the first days of school prevented Montgomery County students from changing class schedules and attendance could not be tracked. In the aftermath, School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast fired the schools' chief technology officer, Ronald Walsh. The pressure to complete year-2000 computer work is enormous, said Charles "Duffy" Mees, director of information systems at Dulles-based passenger airline Atlantic Coast Airlines. "It's my job and I have to fix the systems. That is the expectation," said Mr. Mees, who leads a team of about 30 employees working to fix year-2000 problems at Atlantic Coast Airlines, an independent carrier that flies for United Airlines and Delta Airlines. Technology is pervasive at Atlantic Coast Airlines where accurate data can be a life and death matter. The airline uses a computer-based system to do everything from file flight plans with the Federal Aviation Administration to preparing weather reports for pilots making 546 flights each day. To Mr. Mees' great satisfaction, many of the systems at the regional airline are no more than five years old, and he says the company is year-2000 compliant. The youth of computer systems at Atlantic has limited the company's year-2000 remediation expenses to about $200,000 so far, he said. The investment of time has been far more costly. "I think that as information technology professionals, we're always in the spotlight, and Y2K hasn't changed that," Mr. Mees said. "Y2K is just one more thing, and it's something I could have done without. Y2K is very tedious." In addition to calming fears, information technology workers have gained new responsibilities that include: producing updates for quarterly reports that publicly traded companies must file with the Securities and Exchange Commission; speaking at conferences assembled to discuss the year-2000 problem; speaking to boards of directors; and meeting with the press and the public to respond to the same question time after time, "Is your company year-2000 compliant?" The scrutiny is even more intense for government information technology workers, said Ted Haddad, senior vice president of CCD Online Systems Inc., which company markets software that fixes faulty computer code to government agencies. Rep. Stephen Horn, California Republican, is leading scrutiny of the government's year-2000 preparedness with report cards grading readiness of the largest 24 agencies and the cabinet departments in the executive branch. "There really is concern on the part of government workers to do a good job with Y2K and they feel the pressure because everybody is affected by the government," Mr. Haddad said. "Because of that, I don't think Y2K is a dead end professionally, but they do want to move on and the end is in sight." The technology workers contacted said they are generally confident their efforts to fix the problem will pay off with a smooth transition to the new year. "It's a very good thing Y2K has gotten the attention it has," Mr. Mees said. "Now I think it's going to be a nonevent. There will be some nuisances, but there won't be cataclysmic events that the doomsayers predicted." Mrs. Kamenz is less prepared to predict what might happen, but warns against inaction. "Had the large and small companies not dealt with it, there would be issues," she said. "But I don't know what I don't know."

A matter of time The time information technology workers spend on the year-2000 problem is beginning to be reduced as they complete replacement of chips that may have been programmed with a two-digit field to record a year. Now many are working on contingency plans that will dictate a company's or agency's actions if the glitch causes problems. Mr. Mees at Atlantic Coast Airlines said the hours he spends on the year-2000 problem has fallen from 30 hours a week to 10. Mrs. Kamenz of Marriott said her crew's efforts have also shifted emphasis to making contingency plans, but the amount of time spent on the problem has not fallen. The hotelier hopes to have 2,000 hotels by the end of 2000, and every time the company acquires a new property, the information-technology workers have to examine computers to determine whether the technology is year-2000 compliant. Mr. Brown said he spends more time now on the year-2000 programming error than he did a year ago, with his time dominated by developing contingency plans for Fairfax County.

After the bug Regardless of how technology workers feel about the experience of dealing with the year-2000 bug, it has given many of them new management and organizational experience. "I'm not sure there will be a chance to lead such a complex effort in such a large company as this one that I've had," Mrs. Kamenz said. Mr. Webster of the users' group argues that the year-2000 problem has not been a good career move because it's taken information technology professionals out of the loop for a long time. "There's not an obvious upside," he said. "To take someone who is a developer or technical manager or software engineer and who is used to dealing with information technology and stick them in Y2K for two years, there's a Rip Van Winkle effect because they have to catch up, and that's a real challenge in technology." Even Mrs. Kamenz, who is thankful to lead such a huge project, is anxious for another challenge. "In the past few years, this is all I've focused on," she said. "I'll look forward to looking at new things."


-- Homer Beanfang (Bats@inbellfry.com), September 20, 1999


Humm. Seems like the disconnect continues...

"...only 48 percent of the biggest companies expect to have all of their most critical computer systems upgraded to recognize 2000, according to a recent survey by New York-based information and management consultant Cap Gemini America."

Contrasted with...

"The technology workers contacted said they are generally confident their efforts to fix the problem will pay off with a smooth transition to the new year. "It's a very good thing Y2K has gotten the attention it has," Mr. Mees said. "Now I think it's going to be a nonevent. There will be some nuisances, but there won't be cataclysmic events that the doomsayers predicted."

"But I don't know what I don't know."

Ain't that the truth!


-- Diane J. Squire (sacredspaces@yahoo.com), September 20, 1999.

Then add this to the IT mix.

No mention of Y2K... but... THINK about some of the snips.

Knowledge infrastructure. Now theres a term I hadnt heard before.


SEPTEMBER 20, 1999

Study: IT increases terrorist threat

BY DANIEL VERTON (dan_verton@fcw.com)

http://www.fcw.com/pubs/fcw/1999/0920/fcw-newsthreat-09-20- 99.html

[Fair Use: For Educational/Research Purposes Only]

A study released last week by a senior group of national security experts concluded that the spread of advanced cyberweapons and weapons of mass destruction will enable terrorists and other groups to target large populations of U.S. citizens.

According to the report -- conducted by the U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, a senior panel of national security experts tasked by Defense Secretary William Cohen to chart future threats facing the United States -- the increase in nontraditional threats stemming from information technologies and chemical and biological weapons will make Americans "much less secure" at home "than they now believe themselves to be."

Not only will the Defense Department face more sophisticated adversaries on the battlefield, but average citizens will be at risk from "well-planned cyberattacks on the air traffic control system" and other attacks involving chemical or biological weapons, the report concluded.

"Americans will likely die on American soil [and] possibly in large numbers," the report stated. In addition, "many other countries will learn to launch satellites, to communicate and spy, and disaffected groups will develop techniques of denial and deception in an attempt to thwart U.S. intelligence efforts," according to the report, called "New World Coming: American Security in the 21st Century."

In an official statement on the report, Cohen said the initial report sets the stage for the commission's next report, which will focus on identifying solutions and will be released in the spring. "To the extent future challenges and current systems are incompatible, the commission will recommend changes and draft a plan to implement them," Cohen said. "In a way, this report poses the questions to be addressed -- the next two phases offer answers."


... "This motion asks the Congress to think about the kind of threats that we will face in the future, not the kind of threats we have faced in the past," said Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.). The House and Senate still must agree on the bill and its provisions in conference.


Michael Kush, chairman of GEIA's defense team, said much of the growth in DOD's IT spending habits also can be attributed to the fact that IT is considered a weapon system similar to tanks and fighter jets. "IT has become part of the force structure," said Kush, adding that the rising importance of information security is a major driver behind the trend.


On the Other Hand...


"On the other hand, from a strategic [perspective], there is a considerable amount of necessary R&D in basic cybersciences that requires government funding," Bass said. "Developing cyberspace command and control systems and the underlying technologies are one example of a large shortfall in our knowledge infrastructure."

-- Diane J. Squire (sacredspaces@yahoo.com), September 20, 1999.

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