Volume 3, Number 7
A Gossman Consulting, Inc. Publication
July 1997

The Millennium Bug

Susan E. Gossman

The millenium bug is the current catch phrase for the widespread problem of computer programs which assume that the first two digits of any year is '19'. Hopefully, every reader has already seen or generated a number of memos on this topic. If your company has already initiated a process to test for and prepare for January 1, 2000, this Tech Notes may generate a few new ideas. If you haven't started preparations, perhaps this newsletter will galvanize you into beginning to pull together a plan for preparation.

The problem will potentially manifest at a number of different levels. First are the problems you may encounter with your PC. Next are problems your company may experience on the company PC network or mainframe. If your company has a separate corporate computer system, there may be problems encountered at that level. Then there are the problems that may occur because of other's computer systems: railroads, banks, suppliers. Not to be overlooked are societal problems which may occur if Welfare and Social Security payments are significantly impacted.

Each level of problem needs to be addressed differently. Some problems can be safely tested now, others will require extensive safeguards before testing. Some problems, such as whether railroad switching systems will function, may only be addressable by close communication with other companies and by the preparation of contingency plans. For example, it may be a wise idea to not plan any company travel the first week of the year 2000, until you see which, if any, airlines or transportation hubs experience travel slow-downs, or worse.

A word of warning about testing computer systems. While it is easiest to imagine the "everything's past due" sort of errors, under some circumstances much more serious problems could result. Some operating systems or programs could conceivably overwrite various areas of your hard disk, including the possibility of damage to system areas and system files. Bad data could be written in areas of the disk where the damage will not become apparent until much later. Do not just change the system date on your computer as a test until you've taken complete precautions. As a part of these precautions, communicate clearly with your company's computer support group regarding any actions you intend to take.

Some programs, such as spreadsheets and databases, input and store individual dates and then perform calculations using these input dates. Most of the newer programs for PCs seem to handle these type of calculations correctly. Older programs, or programs developed in-house by your company may or may not process these dates and calculations correctly. You and your company should already know if dates entered into these types of programs provide correct results or not. If any programs used in-house by your company are known to process year 2000 dates incorrectly, your company should already be involved in the process of correcting or replacing these programs.

Beyond these "superficial" concerns (this is said somewhat guardedly; replacement of existing programs can cost tens of thousands to millions of dollars) are potential hidden problems. In addition to dates which are entered as data, a computer, whether PC or mainframe, generally has a "system date" which is handled by a level of programs generally invisible to the ordinary user. If your computer system has an operating system with a significant bug in it at this level, the best you may be able to do is to upgrade or replace the operating system. For a stand-alone PC using an old operating system, this may be relatively straight-forward and inexpensive; for a company-wide network or mainframe, it may be staggeringly expensive and time-consuming to convert systems.

If your computer system is destined to malfunction on January 1, 2000, it would be easier to discover this in a controlled environment. Ensure that your company has a plan to test individual PCs and the entire computer system for system level malfunctions. This plan should have plenty of time allowed for recovery and installation of a replacement system if needed. At some point this plan should include testing of your desk-top PC. Because some problems may not show up right away, a test should be run for an extended period of time, if possible, for weeks or months.

Don't perform this test until you have taken complete precautions in coordination with your company's computer support group. Be prepared for the worst, which means being ready to reload your entire system, including all your data files. If your PC is on a network, you could potentially damage the entire network. For PC systems, bottom line, this test means setting the system date to December 31, 1999 at one minute to midnight and waiting....

Some problems are beyond the control of your company, but there are some for which you can perform damage control. The following are a few samples of concerns you should pursue.

Continually brainstorm as to other company's computer systems which could affect your company. Computer systems which are mainframe based, or which have not been upgraded recently are at greatest risk. This includes railroads, airlines, banks, communications and, potentially, all of your vendors and all of your customers. Contact, or be sure your company contacts, each outside company which can potentially affect your company. Sample questions to ask are:

Your company may wish to contact your customers or shareholders to minimize potential after-the-fact problems. It may raise your competitive profile if your customers see your company as responsive, prepared and concerned. Check with your insurance carrier and find out whether or not they provide coverage for the millenium bug, and just what that coverage entails. Develop contingency plans for product shipment, supplies procurement, travel, etc. Imagine that you don't have access to your computer. Make hard copies of any data you would wish you had. Don't forget to record any passwords and log-on codes used for internet and network access.

There may conceivably be broad societal problems. While one would like to think that the federal and state governments are moving rapidly to upgrade their aging computer systems, the reality is that there may be some serious problems in getting correct checks issued in a timely manner. While governments may get January, 2000's checks out by hook or by crook, there may be a growing error rate as the year progresses. While one would hate to see riots come the heat of the summer, it would be prudent for your company to update all of its disaster plans.

On a brighter note, the IRS and some other government agencies may find that they cannot continue to function in the same way after the year 2000. The EPA, among others, may find their attention distracted by their own in-house problems. Still, some agencies may consider a strong offense to be a good defense and may attempt to transfer some of their headaches to you. Take these concerns into account when performing strategic planning.

Hopefully, the millenium bug will prove to be a tempest in a teacup. In the best of all possible worlds, companies will success-fully upgrade old programs in time (except for your competitors), modern PCs will prove to be error-free and the IRS will never be the same again. If this is not the case, preparedness is your best option, and one which must be explored while there is still time.