Programmer-author Ed Yourdon asks the crucial question for all programmers involved in a y2k repair: If your employer isn't going to survive y2k, should you quit soon and take steps to protect your family?
This question is one of several Catch-22 questions associated with y2k. Any firm that plans on having its programmers dutifully working in 1999 to finish the y2k job will face defections: men who see that there is no hope for the company and no hope for the system known as the world economy. They will quit. They will head for safer places than the middle of a large city, where most mainframe computers are located.
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But what if the problem cannot be fixed? What if January 1, 2000, arrives and half of your company's software has not been converted? What if your organization collapses as a result? At that point, where does your responsibility lie? The interesting thing about this is that almost every organization could have fixed its year-2000 problem if it had begun addressing the problem in 1995 or before. But if the year-2000 conversion team is just forming now, in mid-1997, then the conversion almost certainly won't be finished when New Year's Eve rolls around two years from now. And that part of the problem is the fault of senior management, which was too busy worrying about other issues to focus on the biggest software project of all time. . . .
Let me stop for a moment and address a basic point: Many software professionals believe that the year-2000 problem will be somewhat annoying, and somewhat expensive to fix, but they can't bring themselves to believe that it could be a major, fundamental problem. It's like asking the residents of Southern California if they really believe that they're going to wake up one day and find that the San Andreas Fault has finally ruptured, and that California is now an island floating in the general direction of Hawaii. "We've lived with plenty of earthquakes, and some of them have been pretty serious," these folks will tell you. "Someday, the Big One will hit, but I really can't believe it's going to happen this year, or next year, or the year after." . . .
What does all of this have to do with your job? Well, first you need to realize that a "denial of reality" may be taking place within your own organization today. Has your CEO or board of directors made a public commitment that all of the organization's systems will be year-2000 compliant, and that there is a detailed plan for coping with the organization's non-year-2000-compliant vendors, suppliers, customers, etc.? Do some arithmetic: If your company has 100 million lines of code in its application portfolio, then as of June 1, it would need to convert more than 100,000 lines of code per day, every day, in order to finish the job on time. Do you see the plans, the people, the tools, and the management commitment to make that happen?
If not, what will be the impact on your job? Chances are that your company will go into panic mode sometime in 1998, halt all of its development work, and assign everyone in the IT department to work on year-2000 conversions. When I say everyone, I mean everyone. Secretaries will be drafted into the testing effort, and the managers will be expected to begin writing COBOL code. Is that the kind of environment, with everyone putting in double overtime, that you want to work in? And if the year-2000 conversion isn't finished on time, who will be blamed? You can be sure there will be lawsuits; are you sure you'll escape the wrath of the lawyers?
If your company's year-2000 problems are very severe, what happens if it goes bankrupt? Will you be able to get another job? (An even more interesting question: At that point, will anyone want to admit that he or she is a programmer, or will it be a social stigma after January 1, 2000?) If you're out of work for six months, do you have enough money in the bank to support your family? . . .
Meanwhile, how many non-year-2000-compliant railroad and trucking companies will it take to disrupt the transportation infrastructure? While you're thinking about this, keep in mind another aspect of the lean manufacturing system -- the average grocery market, especially in urban areas, has to be restocked every 72 hours.
I don't have answers for all of these questions, and I spend a portion of each day wanting to believe that none of these crises will occur. But I can't find a way to deny the possibility that they could occur, not exactly in the way I've described, but as a series of domino-effect problems that ripple through society. And if my software experience allows me to anticipate some of this, then your experience should provide similar insights. Think about this, and try very hard to avoid the cognitive dissonance problem.
If the problem is anywhere near as bad as I think it could be, then you have to think very carefully about your loyalties and priorities. Will your employer get first call on your loyalty, or will it be your family and loved ones? On January 1, 2000, will you be at your keyboard, still converting two-digit year fields? Think about this now, while things are still calm. It won't be so easy two years from now.