The tabloid headline screams out in 60 point type, “Year 2000 Disaster Looms,” and predicts that on Jan. 1, 2000 (Y2K), power grids will collapse, transportation systems will be in chaos, food shortages will abound, banks will fail, hospitals will literally be unable to operate, and the computer-dependent world as we know it will come to a grinding halt. The doom-sayers prognosticate these threats based on the fact that many computers and the software applications running on them will fail to properly recognize dates in the 21st century, causing widespread system shutdowns and error-ridden software output.
But is the problem really that catastrophic? Are some problems being overlooked? Is it possible to get ready for Y2K at this late date? Some of the answers may surprise you.
For one thing, the dire predictions are grossly exaggerated. It is true that those school systems that rely heavily on computers or that take a “head in the sand” approach, failing to make organized and informed steps to identify and fix Y2K problems, are likely to have serious data processing problems–and more.
But for most of us, the inconveniences that occur will merely be irritating–hardly catastrophic. The real danger is not failing to understanding what the “millennium glitch” is (and what it is not), but taking ineffective or incomplete actions to correct the defects in what I call “non-Y2K/OK” hardware, software, and firmware.
Steps to Y2K/OK
First, test your Y2K awareness and state of readiness by taking our quiz, on page XX. How ready you are to recognize and attack the real problems in your information technology system depends a lot on your understanding of what’s really going on. And, unfortunately, the mainstream media (not just the tabloids) are doing a mediocre job of separating fact from rumor and misinformation.
After you take our quiz, you might feel overwhelmed. But you’re not alone: It’s a problem that everyone’s facing. The good news is that most Y2K problems are pretty simple to define, and often not that difficult to fix. They’re just difficult to uncover. It’s like those pesky “no-see-ums” at the beach. You know they are biting you, but you can’t swat ’em if you can’t find ’em! In other words, discerning the extent of your Y2K problems is likely to be more complicated than curing them.
Although many school districts, especially the larger ones that depend heavily on computer power to handle tasks as diverse as payroll, time and attendance, report cards, student records, personnel files, retirement accounts, language and science labs (and many more), have been working on Y2K remediation for a while, there are still many eSchools that have a lot of work to do to get their information technology (IT) systems Y2K/OK.
Any good manager knows that you will need a road map for getting to Y2K compliance. Without a plan, priorities can’t be established and monitoring progress is no more than guesswork. So … let’s discuss the kind of game plan you might want to follow to prepare for a worry-free 1999 New Year’s celebration.
1. Take the Y2K Awareness Quiz
Tackling the Y2K gremlins lurking in your IT system is a multistep undertaking. If you scored 100 percent on the quiz, you are already well along with the first step. If you missed even one of these basic Y2K questions (or are not sure all the answers made sense), then you need to educate yourself and those colleagues who are working on Y2K.
Best suggestion? Use your computer! Sign onto the internet and use any or all of the available search engines (Lycos, Excite, Yahoo!, Infoseek, or AltaVista, to name a few). Looking up “Y2K” on Netscape’s Net Search, for example, garnered more than 49,000 hits.
Several of the top sites, such as Y2K.com (URL below), are commercial sites (this one is a law firm) that will provide you with valuable free information, because they want to sell you their services. Others, such as the Detroit Public Schools web page, will provide dozens of links to specific information-rich sites. If there is anything known, guessed at, rumored, thought about, or speculated about Y2K, it’s on the web! Remember, the key fact is that the various Y2K date data problems are rather simple. Figuring out how many and where they are is the tricky part.
2. Form a Y2K response group
Regardless of the size of your school district, the first step in addressing Y2K issues is the same … get organized! The superintendent should appoint a high-level manager to oversee the effort. This is a team leader and expediter … not a Y2K guru. This person does not have to be a technology wizard or even computer savvy. What is more important is the ability, clout, and access to get things done. Make sure the directive goes out from the superintendent (backed up by a school board resolution, if necessary) that the Y2K effort is high priority and that no one is too important or too busy to cooperate.
Assembling what I call the Y2K response group is the next step. The group leader appointed by the superintendent, assembles a working team and designates resource staff. One member will be your most knowledgeable computer hardware and software employee. He or she may be the computer center director, a teacher, or in some cases, a student.
Remember, this team member is not selected for his or her clout, status, seniority, or any bureaucratic reason. This is your techie, who must find answers to hardware/software/firmware questions and oversee the testing for Y2K/OK status. Most important, this is someone who knows when his or her own knowledge is insufficient and an expert must be consulted.
Another key member of the Y2K response group is a staffer who knows procurement and contract management. When the group wants to hire a consultant, purchase software or hardware, or contact vendors who sold or licensed your computers and software applications, someone must know where the files are and how the system works.
There are several resource people who should be team members or on call for advice or assistance. One is your budget or finance manager. When an item or service needs to be obtained, you don’t want your procurement bogged down because the dollars aren’t plugged in. In addition, you will need a financial analysis of the projected Y2K project costs to develop a budget.
You may need legal advice on maintenance contracts, licenses, warranties, and other matters that crop up when trying to get Y2K problems solved. Make sure your attorney is sharp in these key areas of the law. Many school lawyers know the ins and outs of personnel, policy, government regulations, bond issues, and student rights. But find someone who’s technology fluent. If your counsel thinks the Uniform Commercial Code was used to send a distress call from the Titanic, you’ll want to look further.
Unlike a corporation–which has to worry about stockholders’ lawsuits, due diligence, and the liability of its directors and officers–a school system can focus on legal issues related to uncooperative vendors and the like. If you have disclosure issues related to school bonds or bank loans, this is another specialty and should be addressed by bond counsel or the attorney who deals with the lender.
3. Have a HIT list
The temptation to run right out and start testing software and computers for Y2K compliance is overwhelming at this late date. But the first step is more basic: You need a Y2K HIT List (Hands-on Information Technology List). This inventory includes every piece of computer equipment, each operating system, applications software, and firmware-dependent system in your school district.
Why a hands-on list? Because a sure way to overlook something important is to rely on lists generated from purchase orders or invoices, outdated lists that have been cobbled together, maintenance contracts, or memory. You have to have someone “put their hands on” or at least visually verify each item and its characteristics.
The list must also verify any hardware, software, or firmware upgrades that have been installed, as well as any fixes that are sitting on the shelf. Remember, it’s not the purchase date that counts, but the equipment model or application version (as upgraded), as well as the name of the manufacturer or supplier (which is often visibly labeled on the equipment). This HIT List becomes the foundation for a number of actions. Oh … and don’t forget the machinery and other gizmos with hidden firmware chips, like elevators, HVAC, and security systems.
4. Set priorities and assess risks
Which system to attack first? There may be some crucial questions that can’t be answered up front, such as how long a particular Y2K problem will take to fix. But you need to start somewhere and the best way to do that is what Y2K gurus call “risk assessment.”
In your case, this means which IT systems are most critical to the operation of your schools. Usually the automated personnel, time keeping, and payroll programs are at the top of the list. It’s fairly simple to jerry-rig a paper system for recording student grades. And fixing scanner systems that keep inventory might be delayed for a month or two past Y2K if need be. Every system has different priorities, but making the tough decisions is necessary as a first step … even if you have to second-guess and adjust later on.
Once your Y2K HIT List is prioritized, it’s time to begin finding out which items pass the Y2K/OK test and which do not. This is an area where your IT expert really takes over. It is perhaps the most crucial step and needs to be carefully planned, implemented, monitored, and double-checked. Of course, the more complex the hardware or software, the more intricate the testing process.
There are some shortcuts that may speed up the process. One of the most useful tools is the internet. Unless your software is so old that it is no longer supported by the original manufacturer (or another company that acquired the developer, as is often the case), you can find valuable information on whether your version is ready for the millennium or whether a Y2K/OK upgrade version is available.
Vendors usually have the easiest web sites to find. For obvious reasons, the uniform resource locators (URLs) are simple and usually contain the company name or the name of the trademarked product, such as Microsoft.com, Corel.com, or Lotus.com. Links to vendors can be found on one of many Y2K web sites. As a last resort, there’s always the handy web search engine … just enter your product’s name and scroll through the hits for a likely site. Even if the vendor is out of business, it is likely that someone is not only using the software, but has set up a web page about it. Most of these sites have Y2K compliance data and some even have instructions for patching the software to make it Y2K/OK or warnings that you had better just junk it.
You should also contact the manufacturer or supplier of each different piece of hardware, software, and firmware-using equipment. The inquiry should be in writing and specifically ask for written information about whether each item on your HIT List that came from them is capable of handling Y2K date data, including the leap year calculation, or is otherwise Y2K/OK. Ask whether any fixes, patches, or upgrades can be obtained and whether these are covered by your warranty. If not, ask about cost and whether discounts are available to educational institutions.
For items purchased within the last five years or so (or longer, especially if it was software that was custom-developed for your school system), if there is no free Y2K upgrade version or fix, you may want to consult legal counsel to see whether there is any litigation pending against the manufacturer for breach of implied warranties or fraud or any of the other causes of action that spring from the heads of lawyers who see fat fees on the horizon from the Y2K glitch.
In most cases, unless the item is way down on your priority list, it is usually best to go ahead and purchase an upgrade or replacement rather than wait for the outcome of any legal challenge to the greed of a vendor who sold something that would just stop working because time marched on.
Make sure that the word goes out to everyone who is in a position to buy hardware or software, or accept donations of equipment or applications: Nothing new or used should be acquired and put into use without a thorough Y2K screening. Of course, new software and computers should be Y2K/OK, but make sure.
As a rule, donated equipment must be checked for compliance, even if the donor says that it is Y2K/OK and it seems to work fine. Make sure that any warranties will transfer to your school system or that the donor has exercised his or her warranty rights to obtain the latest Y2K version, if available under warranty. If the donated item is not Y2K/OK, you might either be looking at an upgrade that may not be free or you may have accepted a boat anchor with disk drives.
Now that you’ve sorted out the bodies in the parking lot–the triage stage of your Y2K response–you need to start testing those items that are uncertain. This means checking the BIOS of each PC and running software tests. Even more important is ensuring that networks will continue to function, a task make hard by the demons of interconnectivity.
There are some commercial testing programs available for the PC market, such as McAfee 2000 Toolbox, a simple-to-use utility that was created by the developers of the well-known anti-virus software. From the folks who brought you such well-known products as Norton Utilities and Norton Anti-Virus, there is Norton 2000, which comes in both large-scale and small business versions. Also: Express 2000 Suite from WRQ; a heavy duty, big-system utility developed by Network Associates, Inc. called ZAC Suite; and more are hitting the market just about every week. Check out the vendor’s web site to see whether the product will fit your testing needs.
After consulting with a number of Y2K techies, I have concluded that while most of these and other Y2K testing programs are useful, they sometimes report different results when used with the same program or system. The solution to this is not to wait for the perfect testing product but to try to get the utility that is most closely suited to your needs. The ones that are designed to test specific applications might be more reliable with those programs than more broadly focused utilities. Remember, if the Y2K problems lurking in your IT system were easy to locate and fix, there wouldn’t be a multibillion dollar industry doing it.
6. Fixing the millennium glitches
Although fixing the Y2K problems in your IT hardware and software is certainly no easy task to be accomplished overnight, if you have reached the repair or remediation stage, you’ve already come a long way.
But before putting too much bread in the mouths of starving programmers, you have to make one more set of crucial decisions: Which programs to fix and which to replace? It might be more cost-effective to replace old software applications with newer, user-friendlier, faster, and more feature-packed software. The more complicated your IT system, the more you have to weigh these choices. Replacing multi-user or networked IT system components can cost a bundle.
On the other hand, if you have serious Y2K problems that will require a lot of hands-on coding by highly paid programmers, the option to upgrade to new products might be more attractive both financially and operationally.
There are several approaches to fixing Y2K problems for the plethora of custom developed applications or commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) packages. Other approaches must be taken for commercial programs that have been customized for your site and operational needs.
Whether your software was written in COBOL or Visual Basic or C++, and whether it runs under Windows 95, UNIX, Windows NT, or a mainframe operating system, the choices boil down to two basic approaches: changing lines of code to allow for four-digit years or fooling the program into treating two-digit years in the correct century. Some software can be run through a “solutions factory” that will automatically find and correct lines of code that have been identified as the Y2K culprits.
But none of these fixes is simple or foolproof. Fix and test and fix and test some more–and then again–is the usual regimen. Better get your Y2K response team going tomorrow, because the fixing phase is only a few months away.
7. Back up, back up, back up
Obviously, there are a lot of people and businesses involved in correcting the Y2K problem, so there’s plenty of help out there waiting to receive a share of your Y2K remediation budget. If your Y2K Response Team works swiftly to collect an accurate inventory, set priorities, and make fix-or-replace decisions, you should be able to become Y2K/OK.
But just in case the replacement chip for the building security system is faulty and quits during 1999 Christmas break or your remediation projects run longer than the planned time line, your Y2K response team needs to make contingency plans.
This might be the most important task of all, because good contingency plans will let your school system continue to operate even if all the IT systems are not Y2K/OK in time. So even if you just manage to survive the Y2K transition and complete all the fixes in the new millennium, you can be satisfied that you have met the Y2K challenge. And that’s what being Y2K/OK is really all about.
Detroit Public Schools page on Y2K
McAfee 2000 Toolbox
Express 2000 Suite