Year 2000 bug

The year 2000 bug could take you down
Much has been written relative to the Year 2000 issues or “The Millennium Bug.” Is this a real problem for businesses or is it just hype?
The answer is an unqualified yes; it is a very real problem.
Opinions about the severity of the “bug” vary. Some refer to the millennium bug as a potential doomsday for modern civilization. Others say that it will be no more than an inconvenience. I believe that the risk to your business falls somewhere between these two.
While 81% of small business owners say they knew about the year 2000 problem, only 6% perceive it as “very serious.” And 37% of the businesses aware of the Y2K problem told Gallup Organization pollsters they had no plans to do anything about it before the turn of the century.
The survey commissioned by the National Federation of Independent Business and Wells Fargo Bank suggested that more than 330,000 small firms risk closure until the problem is fixed, and another 370,000 could be “temporarily crippled,” unable to pay bills, meet payroll, fill orders or do just about anything else touched by a computer.
Just what is the problem?
The problem has to do with dates. Many of us reference dates utilizing eight characters. Most of us, including many computer programers, would refer to June 9, 1998 as 06/09/98. We would refer to June 9, 2000 as 06/09/00.
At first glance, simple math tells us that there are two years between those two dates. However, when a computer calculates the difference between these dates it will calculate 00-98 = -98. In a best-case scenario, the computer program would think that June 9, 2000 is 98 years earlier than June 9, 1998. The more probable scenario is that the program will fail.
Many programs are just not prepared to handle negative numbers when date comparisons are made.
Another error has to do with sorting by dates. Typically, we store dates in a computer in year/month/day format. Thus, June 9, 1998 would be stored as 980609. When dates are stored that way, they can easily be sorted by date. Older dates have lower values. Thus the computer can tell that 980609 is earlier or less that 980709.
However, under that scenario, Jan. 1, 2000 is now older than Dec. 31, 1999. The value 000101 is less that 991231.
Any report you use which is sequenced by date will provide unpredictable results.
Those are just two examples of the many kinds of errors your computers could encounter with the millennium bug. How many of you have an aged receivable report or an open order listing by customer ship date?
How extensive is the problem?
Any device which contains a microchip could contain software which has the millennium bug. That means every computer your business uses could be affected. In addition to your core business systems (accounting, order management, inventory manufacturing, payroll, etc.), you must consider your telephone systems, alarm systems, programable logic controllers, network control equipment, cash registers, credit card authorization devices, even your elevators and heating systems might be affected.
What are my options?
Every business has several options available. The first and most obvious option is to do nothing. For those of you who choose that option, it important to note that the National Association of Manufacturers is warning businesses that “failure to bring computer systems into year 2000 compliance is tantamount to inviting lawsuits.”
In an article in the June 8 issue of the Chicago Tribune, Jan Amundsen, the manufacturing group’s legal consultant on the computer issue, says, “One of the fallout’s of the year 2000 problem is going to be a litigation explosion of immense proportion – a trillion dollars to $1.5 trillion.”
The best option available to you is to immediately start gaining an understanding of just how big the problem is in your organization. Form a task force, consisting of your key managers, to investigate the problem. Develop a detailed inventory of all computers.
For each computer, identify the compliance of the software it uses. Check your warranties, both the manufacturer’s and distributor’s, for guarantees of year 2000 compliance – just buying a new PC might not cover you.
Make another inventory of all of the computer applications in use by your organization. That inventory should include all application software including PC operating systems and e-mail systems. They are not all year 2000 compliant. As with your hardware, check your warranties and guarantees. If they do not say they are compliant, they probably are not. When in doubt, check with your vendor and test the application with various dates beyond the year 2000.
Once you know how large your problem is, put together a plan to address it. You may not have time to address all of the issues within your business. Start with your mission-critical systems first.
Most importantly, stay focused on the problem until you are comfortable that your business, your key suppliers, and your key customers are all ready for the new millennium. You must remember that even if you have corrected the year 2000 bug in your business, you are still reliant on the compliance of your vendors, your customers, and in some cases even your employees.
Where can I get more information?
The Internet provides a wealth of information on this subject. Start with
That site is a clearinghouse for articles from major publications on this subject. There are literally hundreds of sites on the Web which can be used to answer specific questions about this issue.
The key point is to start now.
Bob Landgren is a partner and the Milwaukee branch manager for Whittman-Hart, Inc.. He can be reached via e-mail at
July 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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