Originally created 02/18/99

Millennium bug problems likely to keep technology workers on job



ATLANTA -- Other Americans can look forward to blowout celebrations of the arrival of the year 2000. For many techies, however, New Year's weekend likely will be spent hunkered down in cubicles or at command centers monitoring computer systems for Millennium Bug problems.

And just in case bug-fighting efforts fail, some are already making plans to lay in caches of water and canned food.

"They're going to have their heads down and working," said Lew McCreary, editorial director of CIO magazine. "I think they expect to be quite busy."

His magazine has been polling chief information officers and other technology executives, tracking their opinions on Y2K (Year 2000) issues ranging from their business' preparations to personal contingency plans in case of computer chaos.

The unscientific surveys have found "significant numbers" of the executives planning precautions such as refusing to fly Jan. 1 and stockpiling home necessities.

At a Feb. 1 conference in Tucson, Ariz., more than half of the more than 200 executives responding said they will prohibit information technology staffers from taking vacations in the week around New Year's Day.

A sampling of companies in industries likely to be affected by any computer disruptions -- including power, telecommunications, travel, banks and computer businesses -- found that vacation restrictions are likely for key technology employees.

"It's not across-the-board, but management is determining the need for people to be accessible on a department-by-department basis," said Mike Tyndall, a spokesman for Atlanta-based Southern Co., a leading national private provider of electricity.

Final decisions on staffing numbers will probably be made closer to the date, officials said.

Computer software giant Microsoft will have whatever staff its support forecast calls for, spokesman Dan Leach said, adding that company president Steve Ballmer has already said he will spend New Year's Eve at the support center.

The so-called Millennium Bug refers to the likelihood that computers will generate incorrect data or even shut down when, because of the practice of using only the last two digits for a year, they read 2000 as 1900.

The scenario of a national computer shutdown has raised concerns about shortages of power, food, water and other necessities as well as transportation and financial chaos.

CIO magazine, which has surveyed executive groups five times over the past year, said surveys indicate increasing confidence that major Y2K problems will be averted.

While most surveyed said their own companies were nearly finished fixing and testing their own Y2K solutions, nearly half indicated they lacked confidence that all Millennium Bug problems will be solved in time.

"Significant numbers" of chief information officers are making the kind of contingency plans more often associated with survivalists and doomsday theorists, Mr. McCreary said.

"They're close to the problem and they recognize the potential jeopardy," he said. "These are the people less likely to have a cockamamie sense about it. But these are people who understand that perfection is unlikely -- and it's better to err on the side of caution."

He said 22 percent in this month's survey said they would stockpile water, 16 percent canned goods, and 8 percent plan to buy a home generator or wood-burning stove.

Nearly three-quarters said they were carefully documenting their finances in preparation and 62 percent said they wouldn't fly a commercial airliner on Jan. 1.

Concerns that financial records will be lost and automatic tellers would malfunction has led to speculation on possible runs on banks.

"Because we're aware of customer concerns, we expect there to be higher activity and we're developing resources (for the end of the year)," said spokeswoman Jackie Herold of Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America.

The Federal Aviation Administration has said it will be safe to fly Jan. 1, and Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines spokeswoman Kay Horner noted that carriers have begun successfully booking year 2000 flights and expect normal operations.

Meanwhile, Sabre Group, a travel and transportation technology company based in Fort Worth, Texas, will have officials in a command center tracking the arrival of 2000 across the world. Spokeswoman Jennifer Hudson said heavy staffing is also planned for the company's Tulsa, Okla., data center.

For having to work during "what really amounts to an important world event," she said, rewards will likely include a later, big party for workers and their families -- "a kind of roll-back-the-clock party."

Poll results

Excerpts from a Feb. 1 survey of information technology executives at a conference by CIO magazine, which had more than 200 responses:

Q: Would you fly a commercial airline on Jan. 1, 2000?

Yes -- 32 percent.

No -- 64 percent.

Unsure -- 6 percent.

(some results rounded up).

Q: Greatest concern about Y2K ramifications?

World economy -- 51 percent.

Familypersonal safety -- 14 percent.

Community well-being -- 14 percent.

Business survival -- 10 percent.

U.S. economy -- 10 percent.

My career -- 2 percent.

Q: Planning to document finances as a contingency?

Yes -- 73 percent.

No -- 25 percent.

Unsure -- 2 percent.

Q: To stockpile water?

Yes -- 22 percent.

No -- 76 percent.

Unsure -- 3 percent.

Q: Should U.S. businesses shut down the week of Jan. 3?

Yes -- 13 percent.

No -- 81 percent.

Unsure -- 7 percent.

Q: How would you grade the Clinton administration on Y2K leadership?

A -- 1 percent.

B -- 26 percent.

C -- 39 percent.

D -- 25 percent.

F -- 9 percent.