What to do? Be a coward or try to be a hero?

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I am a software developer and over the past twenty years have written numerous mission critical applications for a variety of businesses. All these systems will fail without remediation as of 1/1/2000. The nature of the failure is that none of these programs will even accept mm/dd/00 as a valid date preventing any user input, effectively locking them out of using the system. Even if it did accept mm/dd/00 as a valid date it would have been treated as mm/dd/1900 and the systems would be worthless. One custom MPR system I wrote in the late 80's is still being used by 7 indepentantly owned manfuaturing plants with a combined annual gross revenue in excess of 100 million and employing over 600 people. I notified all of the owners in August of 1998, of the dire consequences of not fixing the program. I told them in no uncertain terms that they would be out of business period. It was not until August of 1999, that they decided maybe this problem needed attention. Money was not an issue since all of these owners net in excess of $1,000,000 per year. I am not making this up. Well they were very fortunate that I was available and the language I had used to develop this system was able to handle four digit years and I was able to make their systems and data y2k compliant. But I really haven't tested their complete systems (ie, OS's, workstations, Network OS etc). Happy ending right?

Wrong, these 7 companies have the same one and only customer who is also the sole supplier for a primary component of the product they manufacture. And as I predicted this very large company (a 600 million dollar subsidariary of a billion dollar outfit) is not y2k ready at least not yet. All orders are sent via email and processed via a 1985 DOS based program provided by the customer. This program will not work after 12/31/99. There is no manual work around and the original developer is long gone and the language it is written in cannot handle the year 2000. The daily orders can take over 5 hours to print on a very fast line printer. The customer now wants my clients to replace the order system with one that will work. My clients have no IT people. I am it and have been providing my services via "moonlighting" since I now am full-time employee of another company. My clients are spread out across the U.S. This problem was under "consideration" since May of 1999. The land of "Dilbert" does exist.

Here is my dilemma. At this late stage I am the only one who may be able to pull this off. Do I quit my job upon which I depend and be unemployeed in Jan of 2000 or do I say sorry and significanly increase the probablity that these 7 companies' will not be in business after 1/1/2000. Of course this will jeopordize the jobs of 600 plus people. Even if I do quit and devote 7 days a week to this project, I have my doubts whether the program can be designed, coded, tested and implemented in the remaining time. Especially in light of the coordination issues that need to be resolved. The customer has decided EDI is the way they want to transmit orders, currently they simply used email. So I have to deal with the customer's less than impressive project managment, the customer's EDI provider, my clients' EDI provider and my clients system. All of this has to be developed, written, tested and implemented in less than sixty days. And my clients are so busy they really don't want to disrupt their business and be bothered with changing software.

A couple points before I end this rather lengthy post. Conventional wisdom is that we are experiencing these fantastic economic times because of productivity gains. What happens when all these gains go down the toliet? In the rebuttal to Ed Yourdon by Dale Way, he states that only date calculations between 1999 and 2000 will be a problem. Well let me tell you I was shocked to find out that programs I wrote would not even accept the dd/mm/00 as a valid date preventing any user input in the system. I suspect there are many canned and custom programs that will exhibit this behavior. The language I used was DataFlex by Data Access which has been used by many to develop business information systems. How many I do not know but I do know that Data Access has been publicly traded for many years and so I am sure they have sold many copies of this language. The language is y2k capable but it needs to be programmed to be so ( you need to use four digit years). In addition, none of the canned accounting software I installed is y2k compliant. I know for a fact many of this software has not been replaced.

As a former CPA, my specialty has been business information systems. Most companies cannot remain viable for long if their ability to process sales, pay employees and vendors is adversely effected. It should be noted that the owners of these companies are still totally oblivious to the fact their systems are about to fail and cannot be replaced in a week. So are the owners of other companies using other software I installed in the 80's which has not been fixed. Ignorance is bliss. Thought it would be nice to add a little "real" life y2k to this forum. Polly want a cracker?

-- very concerned (rwilhelm@edate.com), October 30, 1999


Dear "very",

My advice is to ask your family what they think; your kids, especially, have no vested interest, and are likely to ask some penetrating questions and offer some good advice. Same thing for your spouse or Significant Other.

Based on what you've told us, my advice is to contact your lawyer to get some advice on whether your current level of involvement with these folks might have ALREADY exposed you to some legal risk. It's possible that he can help you write a disclaimer that will make it clear to all these companies that you aren't responsible for their procrastination and oblivious behavior.

Aside from that, my gut instinct is that it would be CRAZY to get involved with such a project. It's noble that you want to help save the jobs of 600 employees, but those people (as well as the managers and owners of the various companies) are adults who have the ultimate responsibility for getting their house in (compliant) order. Obviously, this is not a situation where you want to gloat, or tell them "I told you so!" ... but it's also not a situation where you need to feel guilty about the mess they've gotten themselves into. They may try to lay a guilt trip on you, accuse you of being a coward, stroke your ego by telling you what a hero you can be ... and if you continue to resist, there's a good chance they'll threaten to sue you. But I think that your chances of succeeding, under the circumstances you've described, are ZERO. It might have been different a year ago -- but not with 62 days left.

My advice is to stay home, focus on your own full-time job, look after your family and your own responsibilities.... but in the end, you've got to do what feels right to you.

Best of luck in making your decision...


-- Ed Yourdon (ed@yourdon.com), October 30, 1999.

A few of the postings on this thread have suggested that some programmers are as much as a thousand times more productive than others, implying that our friend, "very concerned," might be such a person, and that he alone can save the situation.

Well, first of all, the research indicates that the variance between best and worst is closer to 25:1, not 1000:1. Second, we have no way of knowing whether "very" can leap over tall buildings in a single bound, etc. -- but his intimate knowledge of a couple of critical systems probably do make him AT LEAST ten times more effective and productive than the average programmer.

But that doesn't mean that the job can be solved, not even from a technical perspective. If you ask me to run a marathon in one minute, just being ten times, or twenty times, better than average isn't enough.

And in any case, the problem here is NOT a technical one. NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT. Ask yourself: how did this collection of seven or eight companies get into their current situation in the first place? Answer: politics, incompetent management, turf wars, etc. What makes you think those issues are going to disappear if/when "very " walks in the door, ready to perform a miracle. Note that he said in his description of the situation "And my clients are so busy they really don't want to disrupt their business and be bothered with changing software." The Titanic is about to hit the iceberg, but the captain is too busy drinking champagne to pay attention...


-- Ed Yourdon (ed@yourdon.com), October 30, 1999.

Is it real or is it Doomerism?

I find it very hard to believe that one man can signifigently increase the probablity that seven companies are still in business or not come 1/1/00. (Unless they are lemonade stands).

Call me skeptical.

-- (_@_._@_.), October 30, 1999.


We have 25 people on our IT staff working on our code, applications, and implementation. And we are only in charge of the southern U.S. out of a worldwide leasing company.

-- (_@_._@_._@_+), October 30, 1999.

One Software Engineer can make differences MUCH larger than rwilhelm describes. One programmer wrote MSDOS, 18000 lines of code... One programmer, hundreds of millions of people affected, many thousands of apps still run on it.

You can do this task. Get yourself one or at most two engineers in on this task. Charge them an arm and a leg. Make your stake because it will be usefull when all the other apps written by CPA's go belly up. I don't mean to be a jerk about it. Many engineers wrote bad code because of marketing and memory issues, it is just that I have yet to find code done by a CPA that did not use two ascii bytes to hold the year... Interesting because two bytes will count to 0-65535...

ah well. Make a killing.

-- (...@.......), October 30, 1999.

I don't see how writing one app (that works) has to do with what the poster is talking about. You mean to tell me that this one man has these 600 people by the short hairs and he has the sole responsibility of maintaining their livelihood? Sorry, I can't buy that. How could ONE MAN affect ALL the apps that these seven companies run, and how many apps are there? A hundred, a thousand? Maybe it would help me out if he could name these seven companies and not leave it all such a mystery.

He also mentions that not one of his clients has any IT staff... how believable is that? I mean, it IS believeable, but only if it's like I said before that these companies are lemonade stands.

I guess if it's provable than he will do so and I will honor him as one bionic, superhuman code-head.

-- (_@_._@_.-@_), October 30, 1999.

Very concerned,

It sounds like you were put into this very difficult situation because of the incompetence of others that have as their very jobs the health and well-being of the organization. Their pay reflects as much. They were warned in August of 1998. You did your job, my friend. To be held responsible for this organization and its employees is scapegoating and plain ludicrous. As Ed said, take care of yourself and your family and may God be with you.

job l others Wv

-- PJC (paulchri@msn.com), October 30, 1999.

I find this situation quite believable.

I know for a fact that the productivity of some programmers is a thousand-fold over the productivity of the average programmer.

Based on your background knowledge, I think it would be very hard for another set of programmers to walk in at this late date and fix everything.

I have also worked for very disfunctional companies. Nothing surprises me anymore.

-- David Holladay (davidh@brailleplanet.org), October 30, 1999.

The fact that you have asked the question supplies the answer. If you believe that all hell will break loose on or after 1/1, and assuming that you outlined your situation honestly you must: 1) Secure yourself and your family; 2) If their future is dependent on your present position, by all means keep it; 3) Do everything that you can in the time remaining to avert disaster for your clients and their employees.

How else will you live with yourself?

-- Keith (krwolg@aol.com), October 30, 1999.

If you like stress, being away from the family, burning the candle at both ends, go for it. If you care about yourself, your family and how your family can deal with whats on the horizon, well, you figure it out... I agree with Ed completely and I also have 20+ years in the field.

-- BH (silentvoice@pobox.com), October 30, 1999.


It's not exactly a shocker that somebody here agrees with Ed Yourdon, but I do: Pulling rabbits out of a hat is a doomed position, from the minute anybody assigns you the expectation. Been there, done that, and bought the tee-shirt (at a very high price to both me and my family I might add). You are exceptional for considering the well-being of those 600 people, but the company problem is probably incalculably bigger than meets the eye. It's heartening to see that so many people here understand the complexities of conscience and responsibility. Among which you are clearly numbered.

-- (wishing@you.very.very.well), October 30, 1999.

Very, Keep your job. If you can, spec out some proposal for them so they can handle the problem in a reasonable way. Make yourself available a very few hours a week to consult ONLY, at a considerable rate of pay--which you deserve. If Ed thinks you should present a legal disclaimer, then definitely do that. Unfortunately, we cannot take on more responsibility than we are able to. Sad, but true. Best of luck to you and to your clients who have fiddled while the fires began to burn.

-- Mara (MaraWayne@aol.com), October 30, 1999.

If you quit your job to fix their problem, and, if you do not succeed in the time they think you should have, you will be out the door in a minute. Then, what will your plans be? I have worked for companies who have fired their IT personnel because they were too expensive and they brought in contractors who did not know their a** from a hole in the ground to fix problems. Your family and their welfare comes first, others last. Listen to Ed, he is right.

-- bardou (bardou@baloney.com), October 30, 1999.

Very --

I believe I'd have to second what Ed Yourdon said. In fact, I've turned down a couple of clients already because being on the road right at this time doesn't fit my strategy of how to deal with the possibilities we face over the next months.

In any event, it sounds like these companies have more of a management problem than an IS problem.

-- a.

Actually, I'd find it *very* believable. Assuming that what was installed was accounting or tracking type software, and assuming that the reports were predesigned to produce what was desired, why would they necessarily *need* an IS staff? The software was in place, the bookkeepers can handle data entry to accounting, and a couple of clerks can handle tracking data, and the reports could even be automated to be produced periodically, untouched by human hands.

Keep in mind, the watchword in industry tends to be 'cost, cost, cost'. Yes the fact that they are in the situation they are in points out very well how short sighted their policy is, but then again, how many places are run all that much better?

-- just another (another@engineer.com), October 30, 1999.

The way you pose your question, you seem to already have decided that if you try to fix this company's software you will be the hero and if you don't you will be a coward.

Let me ask you a question. If a project will take one year to complete from start to finish and you are given two years to do it, does that make you a hero if you accept ?

Hell no, is probably your answer and the reason it doesn't make you a hero is because with that time frame you have plenty of time to get it done, your chances of getting it completed are excellent.

Okay let's give you a year to complete this year-long project, nope, you still are not the hero because now your chances are fair.

Let's give you six months to complete this year-long project. Now you may be called a hero for accepting because your chances of completion are slim to none.

I hope you can see why you should ignore this hero/coward type thinking. You are the expert when it comes to this software, as an authority you gave them adequate warning and they choose to ignore you.

-- Stanley Lucas (StanleyLucas@WebTv.net), October 30, 1999.

Very concerned, you asked if you should be a coward or try to be a hero. I say why not try to be realistic and smart? If you do that, you'll end up a hero to some people no matter what, and ultimately to yourself too.

"All of this has to be developed, written, tested and implemented in less than sixty days."

Less than 44 working day.

My opinion is that you should spend the rest of your working days before the roll-over where it will have the most significant impact; for your family and yourself first (stability and income), and then for the rest of society through the company that has the most chance to benefit from your work and remain standing after the roll over.

The procrastinating companies you mentioned are obviously in deep trouble. To brake your back for them (and their employees) would be like trying to save already drowned people in an ocean where there are other survivors needing your help.

It is a matter of priority. You've already warned those companies clearly last year and have done your duty.

-- Chris (#$%^&@pond.com), October 30, 1999.


Prey about it

-- PD (Fu-@opho.bia), October 30, 1999.

Ed, I want to personally thank you for your many essays and your web site. Your analysis of the problems and my real world confirmation of them is what convinced me a over ayear ago that y2k was very serious indeed.

As to the skeptics about my post. These manufacturing companies do not make lemonade. In fact they manufacture a key component in every car and truck (you definitely would not want to be driving in a vehicle without this component). The component is sold to both OEM's (domestic and foreign automobile manufacturers) as well as to the automotive aftermarket (auto part stores).

No, I am not the world's greatest programmer, in fact I am probably quite average as a coder. This system was developed over a period of five years and to make matters a little more interesting it was customized by me for each client. They all subcontract their computer hardware and network support. The business model they work under is very simple. They are the exclusive manufacuters of this component (actually over 6,000 products) for their only customer and ship directly to the customer's customer. The customer tells them how to make them (provides the mfg specs) and tells them where to ship them. They manufacture over 6,000 different part numbers and are required by contract to ship 90% line fill in three busines days. (Try to do that manually). My program (consists of over 500 modules and 150 data files. Because it is DOS based running on Netware it does not require constant maintenace unlike programs written for the newer technologies (Windows).

What makes me unique at this point in time is the combination of programming skills, intimate knowledge of their business, ability to get along with the clients personnel and owners and of course intimate knowledge of the system I wrote for them.

It really is not unusual for a company not to have an IT department. That was the key to the success of the PC and PC based networks. "Small" businesses and departments in large companies were finally able to afford computer technology because the hardware and software was relatively cheap and did not require a staff to maintain. That is also the danger. Businesses have become highly dependant on technology that they do not understand and cannot maintain themselves.

Prior to my current position, I worked five years for one of the largest computer consulting/integretion firms (110,000 employees) in the world whose major customer was one of the big three auto makers. In October of 1998 I was present at a briefing given by one of the members of my group. This person was working directly with the automakers top person in charge of overseeing the y2k compliance of this automaker's domestic production (North America). The information conveyed at the meeting was not very comforting. The most disturbing thing that came out of the breifing was that many of the automaker's IT personnel said they really did not have time for this y2k work becuase they had more "important" things to do.

If highly technical computer people working for one of the largest companies in the world could not see the significance of y2k in October 1998, why would anyone expect non-technical entrepreneurs to have a clue about it. I have not made any of this up nor have I exaggerated. It certainly explains why so many are taking a fix on failure approach.

-- Concerned (rwilhelm@edate.com), October 31, 1999.


While I agree with Ed that getting this done is 8 weeks is a lost cause there is another solution. If these seven companies are as rich as you say and have suddenly realized that they will be out of business without your efforts then they will be willing to pay *anything* to get the job done. Anything.

Ask for $300,000 from each of the seven companies, half right now, half when the job is done. The ONLY thing you are going to guarantee is that you will work night and day until the problem is resolved. You could not in good faith promise anything else.

Even if it takes 16 weeks instead of 8 (with you bringing in some help of course) that means they will only be 'down' for maybe two months. That's worlds better than down for good. And they *will* pay such an outragous sum, if only to show the board of directors that they are 'seriosly addressing' the problem. Don't laugh, I've seen managers down on wall street do exactly the same thing.

Now this is NOT NOT NOT blackmail. First, you told them in no uncertain terms what the problem was last year, and second, you will be throwing away any standing and goodwill you have built with your current employer. Such a high fee guarantees that you and your family will be able to ride out any 'career-related' problems that might arise from such a bold move, which is after all going to save their collective asses.

This is not a coward-hero scenario. This is opportunity knocking...


-- TECH32 (TECH32@NOMAIL.COM), October 31, 1999.

Very concerned,

You have no duty or obligation to those companies whatsoever. None. Zero. Nada Zip.

In your title, you ask about being a coward or a hero.

Being a coward or a hero depends upon ONE thing. The obligation that you have in the situation. In general there can be no cowardice nor heroism unless an obligation exists to begin with.

You hear screams for help. You run to the burning building. It is engulfed in flames. in beneral people have an OBLIGATIOn to help those in distress. If you run in , you may well be considered ahero because you went over and above the call of duty to meet your obligation.

On the other hand, if the flames were nacent and you did not go in, then you could be judged a coward.

But, in this case, what OBLIGATION do you have to that company? None whatsoever. You were hired in the past to do a job, and you did it. You were paid for your services and you left. Subsequently, if you became unemployed and destitute, would THAT company have paid your bills to help you out as a 'former' employee'? Not on your life.

If you have at least informed them of the problem, then it is up to them. If they have left it this long, they are out of their minds. You should not hesitate to say "stick 'em up!" If you offer them help. An obligation is not something you 'feel'. It exists or it does not. You 'feel bad' for them and the potential effects on the 600 employee and emotionally you translate your sympathy into an obligation on your part. Rubbish. They are a COMMERCIAL entity. Dollars and cents.

There is no reason that you could not try to help them if you WANT to. But, it is in NO WAY any kind of obligation on your part. Cowardice or heroism do not apply in this case at all.

Paul Milne "If you live within 5 miles of a 7-11, you're toast"

-- Paul Milne (fedinfo@halifax.com), October 31, 1999.

Hi V. Concerned,

Whether or not you story is really true (and I'm wary of people making up stories to have some fun), I've run into somewhat similar situations.

Unfortunately, there's may not be much that can be done with only two months left, especially with Thanksgiving and Christmas coming (assuming you want to spend some time with your family).

However, since there is some chance that our whole economy will be in really poor shape a few weeks after 1/1/00, perhaps quitting your current job and grabbing what you can, NOW, may be a better choice.

The problems you're describing justifies extraordinarily high rates, with no guarantee of being able to get the job done -- just "best efforts" within the time available. The poster suggesting $200,000 from each company is within reason (to me, at any rate).

BTW, does anyone still use Dataflex?? I think I still have an old copy on 5-1/4" disks, but would have to resurrect a computer to read them. :)

-- Dean -- from (almost) Duh Moines (dtmiller@midiowa.net), October 31, 1999.

as a non-techie, but a very informed wife and mother, don't put your family through this extra stress. It's very late in the game and all us 'little housewives' have had a very hard year with the extra stress of all this. Please think of your family first! Don't do it.

-- b (be@homewithwifeandkids.com), October 31, 1999.

Wait until after the roll over to see what the temperature of the water is. If they have the money now, they'll have the money later to fix it. You can triple your fee and then be a hero. If they go belly up instead OH WELL, "lack of good judgement on their part does not constitute an emergency on your part." One thing you can do for the owners and employees though is to tell them to have their finances and personal preparations in order.

-- Rasty (Rasty@bulldoggg.xcom), October 31, 1999.

From: Y2K, ` la Carte by Dancr (pic), near Monterey, California

If you contract with these companies on a "half now, half on delivery" basis, the "half now" part should be delivered in the form of a cashiers check. You should specify that you will start in one week. Use the intervening week to identify a remote farm to buy, including as many of the farming implements as possible, cash on the barrelhead. Rent a truck and drive to a long term storage company to pick up a year or two of food and seeds. Give the remaining cash to your wife, with instructions to obtain as much as possible of the things your family will need.

Arrange for the "half on delivery" portion to be paid in gold, to be held in escrow in a trusted secure location (probably not a bank). Define exactly what will consitute a remediated system. Don't let your payment hinge on the company being able to actually conduct business. You can't be held repsonsible for the status of suppliers and customers, but only for the functioning of your isolated piece of the puzzle.

-- Dancr (addy.available@my.webpage), November 01, 1999.

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