Originally created 06/27/99

State sets dry run for Y2K software



ATLANTA -- Next month the first test of the state's $300 million effort to correct the Y2K problem will make guinea pigs out of thousands of people expecting checks for welfare, unemployment, Medicaid and school funding.

The state is switching July 12 to a new computer system marketed by PeopleSoft U.S.A. to handle its accounts-payable functions.

The changeover, dubbed the Phoenix Project, is how the state decided to correct the so-called millennium bug, in which older software may fail to distinguish the year 2000 and the year 1900.

Instead of spending money to correct the disjointed collection of computers scattered around state agencies, officials opted to put the money in a new system linking all agencies to central databases in the basement of the Archives Building a block from the Capitol.

But since the old systems weren't repaired, agencies can't reliably use them in parallel with the new systems during the transition, though the old computers will be kept handy for a few months just in case.

The state's fiscal year begins July 1, making it 2000 for many practical purposes.

"Whereas parallel sounds good and that's what the textbooks say to do, you have to have the computational resources and the time. Few people have all that," said Richard Welke, head of the computer sciences department at Georgia State University. "The only thing you can do it provide the training and the time to take all the training classes."

The Department of Administrative Services, which is overseeing the Phoenix Project, scrambled to schedule additional training classes on weekends and overtime after several agency heads complained. Agencies have

requested 4,469 seats in 437 classes, which started June 1.

Several classes during the first two weeks in June had to be canceled, though, because of problems connecting with the database, according to Becky Rowlett, computer specialist with the Department of Education.

The Education Department, for example, wants 66 people trained. So far, 23 have been trained; 11 are scheduled for classes, and 31 haven't been trained or scheduled.

"Why is it the training is less than a month from when we're supposed to go live?" asks Bill Gambill, deputy superintendent of schools for finance and technology. "My hope is everything will go off without a hitch, but my experience is otherwise."

The switch of the payroll soft

ware was delayed to Oct. 1 to allow more time for training.

If things foul up, the Education Department is prepared to send out checks to school systems by bank transfer, but it will have to produce the accompanying reports on the old systems.

"It will create a mess of confusion for the school systems. It's already creating confusion throughout the state," Mr. Gambill said.

Even operating perfectly, PeopleSoft will initially generate "plain vanilla" reports that will be customized for each agency's needs sometime later, according to Administrative Services spokesman Michael Clark.

Agency computer specialists have been able to test PeopleSoft by putting actual data in a lab Administrative Services set up to compare the output with reports generated by existing systems.

"Definitely, any time you're changing a system that has been in place since the mid-'70s, you can expect some changes," said Tim Evans, Phoenix Project sponsor in the Labor Department. "Basically, I think it's going to be some good changes ... I'm sure we're all going into this project with apprehension, but I think when we get into it everybody will be satisfied."

"To be honest, it remains to be seen," said Jim Larche, deputy director of the Employee Retirement System. "The functional aspects of it, you don't know until you actually push the button."

Even skeptics admit PeopleSoft will improve efficiency by having what the computer industry calls an enterprise-resource-planning system like those becoming popular in private corporations.

PeopleSoft is one of two major writers of ERP software based in the United States, and has a reputation for quality, according to Mr. Welke.

Tying all the computer functions together will eliminate the need to input data for each application. For example, the new system will take the information entered for a purchase order to buy a piece of equipment and use the data to pay the invoice and record the asset in the inventory when the item is delivered.

"It's going to let the agencies do more. It's going to let them do it more easily," Mr. Clark said. However, "a lot of those benefits are going to be indirect to the person on the street."

Where people may see the benefits soon is when agencies are able to transact more of their dealings with the public over the Internet. Plus, the new system will be cheaper to operate, saving taxpayers money, Mr. Clark adds.

However, the entire exercise hasn't been without controversy. DOAS Commissioner Dotty Roach was recently forced out for taking gifts from a saleswoman for Oracle Corp., and PeopleSoft.

A probe begun by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation last October at the direction of then-Gov. Zell Miller found that Ms. Roach took a hot-air balloon ride at a California convention in 1997 paid for by a sales representative for Oracle Corp. Two months later, the company sold software valued at $7.8 million to the state Department of Human Resources.

Then last year, according to the report, the same representative, who had moved to PeopleSoft Corp., sold $32 million in software to the state to address Y2K problems. Two months earlier, Ms. Roach had received a resort gift certificate and a birdhouse from the sales rep.

Walter Jones is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.