Death Race 2000

If you haven’t started building your bomb shelter and stocking it with provisions — from dried ramen noodles to plenty of beer — it may be too late.

Or so warn the doomsayers predicting fire and brimstone at midnight, December 31, 1999. That’s when a large percentage of the computers of the world will think it’s actually becoming 1900 rather than the year 2000, which will wreck havoc on the world’s financial institutions, scientific research databases, airline schedules and international security software.

Federal Communications Committee Chairman William Kennard warned a Senate Committee in April that the year 2000 problem could disrupt communications services worldwide — from broadcast, cable, radio and satellite to wire line and wireless telephony. So it’s probably a good thing that the last Seinfeld episode was last week.

Many legacy computer systems used in business use just two digits for keying in the year on dates. So “97” means “1997”, “98” means “1998”…you get the picture. It’s not a big deal until you try to subtract two dates, or try to create projections or try to determine interest rates.

Tonight We’re Going To Party Like It’s 1999

To some degree, the paranoid have a point. About a third of companies in the United States are nowhere close to ready. They underestimated how much work it would take to upgrade their old computer systems to comply with what the hip geeks call “Y2K.” No, it’s not an Australian pop band. It stands for “Year 2000” — also known as “the Millennium Bug.”

Hundreds of consultants are making a tidy profit by cashing in on this paranoia and helping companies develop strategies for this digital Armageddon.

But seriously, though folks…the situation does look pretty grim when you consider how the world’s economy is interlaced. Outside the U.S. compliance is even worse. How will this affect trade? Deficits? Credits?

But most importantly, what does this have to do with YOU?

Putting The ‘You’ in Y2K

If you use an accounting service, utilities such as water, gas or electricity, a personal computer, or a database, you need to be sure you can continue to run your business after January 1, 2000.

There are many checklists on the Internet for business owners to follow to be sure they are ready for Y2K. One of the better ones, which is directed specifically at small business owners, is at the Small Business Administration’s web site. Go to http://www.sba.gov/y2k.

Shoring Up with Sandbags

Here is a quick overview of the SBA’s recommendations:

(1) Build awareness. Train your staff about Y2K issues and how you plan to deal with them. If you head off the paranoia now, it will reflect in the way your employees communicate the issue with your customers.

(2) Take an inventory. Identify all the computer systems, components, and service providers on which you depend to run your business. Determine how critical each is to your day-to-day operations.

(3) Assess the problem. Examine how severe the problem is. How many of these services or computer systems depends on dates? Date-sensitive systems include those who that perform any forecasting such as calculating interest on a loan. Other functions include retrieving date sensitive records such as invoices. Even lighting and sprinkler systems may be set with dates and need to be included in your assessment.

Again, you’ll need to prioritize these according to how critical they are to your business functions.

(4) Correct and test. There are only three options when it comes to fixing the problems. You can repair, replace or retire the system.

If you choose to repair, it can get complex because you need expertise in upgrading software, fixing hardware and other technical programming. Replacing may be a little easier, as long as you’re absolutely sure that the new system is Y2K compliant. It may be a good time to “spring clean” your systems and simply retire those that are just occupying space.

To test a system, you may need to try it out as though it were December 31, 1999. This can be risky because you can corrupt your system if you start tampering with the internal clocks. Better get professional advice on how to do that safely.

(5) Implement the changes. Once you have tested everything and are comfortable that it will work, you can start migrating your changes to the real systems. Then you’ll need to test it again. Develop a contingency plan in case it fails.

It’s Not Just Your Computers, Either

Once you’ve addressed your own internal production and made sure you’re compliant, you need to grill your vendors to be sure their systems won’t crash at the turn of the calendar.

Ask them where they are in their process. What are their contingencies? How will you cope in case they’re not ready? Ask for details and don’t take, “Don’t worry. We have it handled” for an answer. One clue: if they haven’t even started addressing the problem, they probably won’t be ready in time.

Meanwhile, you can start stocking up on candles, stashing your money in your mattress, and packing your garage with nonperishable canned foods.

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