Year 2000 Clock Ticking

Any federal agency that hasn't begun year 2000 repairs to its computer systems by early 1998 should expect to do without some systems, one industry expert says.

After the next few months, it will be too late to get started on projects that already are proving more time-consuming and expensive than expected, according to Patricia P. Bennis, vice president of DynCorp, a professional services company in Fairfax, Va. "What [system] failures can you live with? It's time to start talking in those terms," she told a group of reporters.

Most federal contractors still can take on new projects to fix year 2000 problems, Bennis said, but they are experiencing personnel shortages. "It is a seller's market in terms of IT labor right now," she said. Although some federal agencies are resisting increases in contract labor rates, they will have to bite the bullet if they want help, she added.

Many agencies are finding it hard to complete the final phase, testing, Bennis warned. "Everyone is underestimating this part of it," she said, and they could find testing amounts to more than 75 percent of the effort. The testing phase not only includes initial testing, but fixing problems that show up and then re-testing. Besides personnel shortages, Bennis predicted shortages of computer capacity for testing newly repaired software.

She also advised agencies not to overlook the problems associated with microprocessors embedded in other kinds of devices, such as monitoring systems, electric meters, fire suppressant systems and time locks. "They are behind the curve everywhere on that issue," she said. Many of these systems are programmed to be maintained at certain intervals and will shut down if there is date uncertainty.

The year 2000 problem stems from the fact that until recently computers often were programmed to use two-digit years in dates and assume that the missing digits were "19." Agencies have been fixing century-related date problems for several years as they arise, but such unsystematic efforts are likely to overlook some critical instances where computer operations will be affected.

Bennis said she and her colleagues still are encountering managers who deny that there is a year 2000 problem, but the first of many damage suits alleging system failure because of a date problem already has been filed, and many more will follow. She estimated that the software clean-up will take another five years--well into the new century.

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