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1998-06-09 18:54:50


Yourdon on Denial



Ed Yourdon was interviewed by SALON MAGAZINE. The interviewer asked him some pointed questions about systems at risk. Yourdon gave specific answers.

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Why didn't companies start sooner? Is it because they don't see any short-term benefit in spending lots of money now to avert a disaster that no one can say for sure will happen?

I think we're past that stage. That was the big problem in the '93-'95 period: trying to persuade senior managements that they ought to do something when there was no return on investment. Now I think it's gotten to the point where senior management, if nothing else, is aware of the legal risk. They may still think that it's a financial pain in the neck, but their lawyers are saying, "You know what? If we don't get our stuff fixed we're gonna get sued right out of business."

So now the problem is that senior management says, "Yes! Do it! I hereby decree that it will be done." But they don't follow through, or they don't provide the funds or the active leadership to keep the troops in line. And they don't seem to acknowledge that traditionally all of their projects have been six months or a year late, and this one's going to be no better.

The thing that's scaring a lot of us now is that some of them are not even doing triage to concentrate on the mission-critical stuff -- and virtually none of them are doing contingency planning for what happens if they don't get it done. The reality is that we're not going to get it all fixed, and if you don't have backup, fall-back plans, then the business is going to go right under.

Can you point to companies or organizations that have gone about this the right way?

Two that you'll hear about most often are Bank of Boston and Prudential Insurance in New Jersey. In both cases they got started relatively early -- you know, '95 or '96 -- but far more important, they organized it almost like a war. I've been talking a lot to the V.P. at Prudential who's in charge of the whole thing. She's got a pipeline to the CEO who says, this is life or death -- anybody who doesn't want to play by the rules, court-martial them.

You'd certainly hope that a business like an insurance company would be doing good long-term planning -- its business depends on people's faith in them.

The whole financial community -- insurance companies, banks, Wall Street -- as you say, it's a confidence game. The ones who really understand the significance of this stuff realize that they cannot afford to lose the confidence of their client base. And even aside from that, if they don't get this under control, they're not gonna be open for business. It's very straightforward. But it's not often that you see the fear of God at the CEO level.

What are some of the worst examples -- the year 2000 basket cases?

I got on the Net this morning, and apparently the airport in Atlanta is thinking about whether they should do a year 2000 assessment this year or next year! Now, that's Step 1. And an airport's like a small city unto itself. Forget about the airplanes and the air traffic control; you've got this massive infrastructure. So Atlanta is still thinking about whether they're going to do an assessment. And it's irrelevant -- it's too late at this point.


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