By Gary Beach

The millennium, year 2000, Y2K. The excitement and intrigue of the turn of the century has captivated the world. However, that anticipation has gradually shifted to anxiety for technologists, and that anxiety has gained momentum, creeping into the boardrooms of major corporations and the depths of government agencies; and it is slowly becoming apparent to individuals that this transition into the next century might dramatically impact their personal assets. The problem has been labeled Y2K and it refers to the fact that the world's computer systems do not recognize the year 2000 and as such will lose track of dates as the year 1999 turns to 2000. So the task at hand is the conversion of existing computer software that would enable it to interpret the date "00" as the year 2000 and not the year 1900. This might sound like a simple problem to fix, but it has turned into an Achilies' Heel for technology experts.

In the 1950s, the dawn of the computer age, computer programmers made a chronological assumption when creating software, an assumption that has been consistently applied when creating software over the past 40 years: Instead of using four digits to store a particular year they used two digits. For instance, 98 is used for 1998. The historical reasoning behind this was that at one time computers were programmed on data cards. These data cards were small and costly to produce. So in order to save space and money, programmers abbreviated data categories. While this worked in the short term, the 20th century, it will not in the long term.

Corporations and government agencies around the world have been grappling with solving the Y2K problem. To date, a solution has not been found. They have less than two years to make the necessary software conversion or we will enter the next century with a problem that could potentially paralyze the world as we know it. This is not said to frighten or even dramatize. It is a fact. This issue has been debated time and again. All that we do know for certain is that as of January 1, 2000, our computer systems will no longer contain current information and thus can cause potentially dangerous circumstances. Just think about the possible havoc this problem can wreak in the various computer systems out there today from the balances in our bank accounts, to elevator maintenance repair schedules, to managing air traffic control flight plans.

The implications of Y2K are overwhelming. As isolated issues, the aforementioned circumstances while scary are not insurmountable. But when one stops to think about computers and how thoroughly integrated they are in our daily activities, the problem becomes astronomical. Many people studying Y2K are calling this the "Domino Effect" or the "IT Food Chain." What's so startling here is that the effects of Y2K on businesses runs an estimated seven layers deep. Even if major corporations solve their internal Y2K crisis, the vendors, suppliers and consumers that help build, create and consume their products and services may not. And that may translate into missed production schedules and missed deliveries, which in turn will lead to lost business. Economists predict that these events could lead to a financial "meltdown" where consumer confidence drops and less money is spent. Consumers only have to spend $1 less out of every $4 spent for this to unfold into a financial crisis.

In a recent poll published by CIO magazine, 400 business and technology experts were asked if the year 2000 problem would be fixed by the turn-of-the-century deadline. Of those responding 70 percent were not confident the millennium bug would be fixed by that deadline. Further, a full 60 percent recommend Americans investigate their banks' year 2000 compliance to ensure the safety of their personal assets. For me, there is no debate about the seriousness of the Y2K issue, when the people charged with fixing the problem say they don't know how to fix it.

Y2K is not to be taken lightly. Our best chance to meet the December 31, 1999, deadline is to have the technology industry working together and sharing information. And how likely is that in today's most competitive industry? Not very. It is my charge that Y2K becomes a very public issue that the government mandates public reporting of year 2000 compliance status, that individuals are educated on the potential impact on their personal assets and publicly held corporations are required to divulge their Y2K plan and report on their progress.

Gary J. Beach
CIO magazine