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Two unusual problems are heating up the heavy demand for computer programmers for the next few years.
When the European Union nations voted to combine their currencies into a common one by 1999, one of the most non-trivial costs to emerge is that of upgrading business and government computers to handle the sheer volume of computer codes needed for the task.
In another totally different front there is a larger task in store. Companies worldwide are facing the fact that the computers they installed in the '60s and '70s are a bit like Cinderella's stagecoach in the form of the "Year 2000 problem." The older computer programs threaten to turn into pumpkins at a stroke past midnight on Dec. 31, 1999.
The old machines are often run with computer programs that cannot cope with the time change of century.
Because computer memory was more limited and expensive in the early days of their commercial use, programmers decided to limit the space to store dates by reducing the year designation from four to two digits. One simple example: The machines will have difficulty trying to calculate the interest due on a loan that carries over from 1999 to the year 2000.
Very few companies, government agencies and nonprofit institutions have started to determine how the problem could affect their business and fewer yet have started to work on fixing it, according to Shirley Tessler and Avron Barr of Stanford's Computer Industry Project [http://www-scip.stanford.edu/scip/], a research project funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation [http://www.sloan.org] .
At a meeting of information systems department leaders in April, Year 2000 consultant Peter de Jager reported that some companies mistakenly believe they can fix all of their programs by the start of the century.
"We believe they can only fix some, but if they believe they can fix all, then the ones they fix will be a random selection instead of prioritizing and fixing the ones that are most important first," Tessler said.
Some media scenarios of the ensuing chaos if the problem is not solved sound like plots for Hollywood movies a global financial crash, hospital life support systems shutting down, nuclear meltdowns and satellites falling from the sky. Such scenarios are exaggerated, Barr believes, but he thinks the Year 2000 problem could be as bad as an earthquake, flood or hurricane "a naturally occurring event that interrupts our lives by breaking things we built."
Like with a natural disaster, no one knows exactly where some loss of life or large inconveniences may occur. "Some payroll systems may break down or government benefits programs," he said. "It could be in the distribution system of almost anything we have come to depend on."
"Or how about not having any dial tone?" Tessler said. "There is a lot of software in phone systems."
Even companies that are diligent in trying to fix their Year 2000 problem face uncertainty, she said, because organizations have become dependent upon each other's computers. Modern manufacturers, for example, keep their parts inventories low and rely on suppliers. If one supplier is shut down because of a Year 2000 problem, it could stall the production of a complex product such as an automobile, she said.
The potential problem was identified years ago, most analysts say, but people were slow to act either because they didn't expect computer programs to last as long as they have or because they expected some quick technological fix. None has emerged. One reason is that computer programming in its early days, and still today, is "idiosyncratic," say the Stanford researchers. A programmer trying to fix Year 2000 problems at one insurance company told the Wall Street Journal recently that he had come across fields named after song lyrics, flowers, programmers' sweethearts and members of the Beatles.
For businesses in Europe owning billions of dollars worth of information technology that does not comply with plans for the European Monetary Union, the switch to a single currency represents an upheaval that could be as critical as the Year 2000 problem, according to the British publication Computer Weekly. A recent survey of British firms found that fewer of them had begun to tackle the currency problem, however, partly because of uncertainty whether the currency conversion could be derailed politically at least in some countries.
Dealing with the Year 2000 problem and the European Monetary Union switchover has created a huge, temporary demand for software workers, but Tessler and Barr urge the companies to think of it more as business-as-usual in the future.
"Our belief is that the Year 2000 problem and the EMU conversion are extreme examples of what will be an accelerating stream of new things we will have to do with our computers," Barr said.
See also http://www.stanford.edu/news/release/970430shortage.html.
By Kathleen O'Toole