State Y2k Czar faces frantic days, sleepless nights as deadline looms (CA) : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread


December 20, 1999

State Y2K czar faces frantic days, sleepless nights as deadline looms

By JENNIFER KERR Associated Press Writer

SACRAMENTO (AP) -- A plastic cube containing three tiny fish sits next to the desk of California's Y2K czar. Nearby, a millennium clock rapidly clicks off the few remaining minutes until the world learns if bureaucrats and computer nerds have really exterminated the Year 2000 bug.

Elias Cortez, his life a whirlwind of frantic days and sleepless nights, feeds the fish during a calm nanosecond amid his hectic schedule of meetings, phone calls and crises.

"They remind me every day I have to slow down," he says.

But Gov. Gray Davis' top Y2K official won't be slowing down for some time, he says. And then only a bit.

"I'm up at night every night thinking, 'What haven't we thought about?' Every night I'm coming up with a blank list, but I'm still up at night," he told about 80 of the state's top computer experts at a briefing this month.

He rushed into the meeting in the auditorium of a downtown state office building late because he was called to a last-minute session with Davis.

It was the start of another of the 14-hour days he's been keeping since the Democratic governor picked him last February as director of the Department of Information Technology. The agency was created by lawmakers in 1995 to coordinate the state's $2 billion in annual computer spending and try to reverse its history of failed major computer projects.

When Cortez took over, DOIT was merely collecting Y2K information that was self-reported from state agencies. Then-Gov. Pete Wilson had ordered agencies to have their crucial computer systems fixed by Dec. 31, 1998, but by last April the state was only about 70 percent finished.

"My job was to come in, take the mess we had and make the best of it. We've achieved that and I'm proud," says Cortez, who earns $105,886 annually in the post.

Cortez, with backing from Davis, set up a way to have DOIT and an outside consultant verify what departments were doing, give them extra help if needed and publish their progress on the Internet.

The Y2K computer problem, caused by the inability of older computer systems and chips to recognize all four digits of a year, became the only focus of DOIT. Davis ordered state agencies to postpone all other computer projects until the Millennium Bug is squashed.

"I don't think the job could have been done any better than the job that was done by Eli," says Assemblyman John Dutra, D-Fremont, chairman of the Information Technology Committee, which has been monitoring the project.

Kathy Hahn, director of Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Y2K Program Office and a member of the governor's Y2K Business Council, says Cortez has been very open about working with high-tech private companies.

"He takes some of the best practices that we have learned in the last couple of years and uses that information to put the state in what I believe is a very strong position for Y2K," she says.

One emphasis in the final weeks is getting the last recalcitrant computer systems finished to boost the state to full readiness. The state was 99.6 percent complete last week and could hit 100 percent before Christmas.

Security is another concern. Government and private computer experts are worried about viruses keyed to hit computers with the new year. DOIT and the state Office of Emergency Services held a three-day training session last week for state and county officials on how to stop such infestations.

But the main emphasis now is Rollover Weekend, from Dec. 31 to Jan. 3. Hundreds of state workers will watch how computers around the world deal with the new date in a plan called "Follow the Sun."

Since California is one of the last places in the globe to get the new year, it can theoretically watch the rest of the world and make last-minute adjustments.

Cortez, 42, says he is feeling "very, very confident" the computers will work. The state has spent at least $350 million on the fix.

After his pep talk to the state computer experts, he walks back to his corner office on the 21st floor of a private downtown office building overlooking the state Capitol and other state buildings.

Around his office are several white boards covered with red, black and green marker outlines, diagrams, arrows and notes.

"I'm like the coach with chalk talks," Cortez says, grinning.

He was a quarterback and football team captain in high school in Norwalk and wanted to play in college, but decided he was too small.

"When you're young and you've got a strong ego, you have these dreams of playing," he says.

Other early dreams did not include computers, but creating buildings. As early as seventh grade, Cortez wanted to be an architect. He took related classes in high school and majored in architecture at University of Southern California. He worked his way through college with his own home-remodeling business.

While Cortez used a few computers in college, he really didn't get involved with them until his first post-graduation job in 1981 at Parsons Engineering, a Pasadena architectural firm. He was introduced to computer-aided design and became immediately intrigued.

Computers became his career, as he moved through several private jobs and into the information technology branch of the Los Angeles Unified School District. In 1997, he became the chief information officer for San Bernardino County.

At his office, about half of his staff of 80 crowds into a conference room. Cortez passes along praise from the governor and asks them to take care of themselves while celebrating the holidays.

"We're all taking our vitamins and doing what we can to remain strong," he says.

Cortez says the state will remain on alert through Rollover Weekend until March 1, the day after the final date that could cause Y2K problems -- the Leap Year Day of Feb. 29.

He heads out to one of the state's two huge computer centers for a television interview, after a gulped-down ham-and-cheese sandwich in his office and a quick crisis meeting with an aide.

In the final weeks of this year, Cortez is doing several interviews a day, some of them in Spanish.

In his talks and interviews, he's already stressing the "silver linings" of the massive Y2K project.

Those include unprecedented cooperation and collaboration among state agencies, local governments and private businesses and the commitment of top executives who in the past have ignored technology, he says.

These new attitudes can be used as the state increasingly provides information and services on the Internet, he said. And they can be applied to the huge computer projects that have had major problems in the past.

"We want to keep the momentum we built up," Cortez says.

After Y2K, he said he'll work fewer hours, "but not a lot less because there's so much work to be done here in the state."

With all the Y2K pressure, he hasn't had much time for fun, such as watching football games or playing computer games. And he hasn't spent much time with his wife, three daughters and his Los Angeles-based extended family. It's a big one: he is one of 10 children and his wife, Patsy, is one of 13.

His daughters have their own vision of the silver lining.

"Their hope is after Y2K we go to Disney World or something of equal value," Cortez says.

-- Homer Beanfang (, December 20, 1999


Fingers crossed... here's hoping he's right!

Going to be a "busy long weekend" coming up.

Will you be around then Homer?


-- Diane J. Squire (, December 20, 1999.

Thanks for the post homer. Ditto what Di said.


-- (, December 20, 1999.

"computer nerds"?

Oh right, way to motivate us. :)

-- Servant (, December 20, 1999.


I'm going to play it by ear, if things deteriorate fast, I've got a couple of bug out plans. One by land, two by sea.

-- Homer Beanfang (, December 20, 1999.

The San Diego Union-Tribune was even more complimentary. Here's an item from Saturday's Op/Ed page: Campaign theater and Y2K grief

...The federal Office of Management and Budget reported this week at its expenses relating to the year 2000 computer problem would reach $8.4 billion over the past five years. The cost of Y2K compliance was $3.6 billion for the 7,600 computer systems operated by the Pentagon alone -- enough to buy an aircraft carrier. And the Information Technology Association estimates combined public and private costs at $100-200 billion to make sure the nation continues to compute on Jan. 1 and beyond -- a staggering $600 billion worldwide. Good grief. Is it too late to fire the people who decided years ago to save a little computer memory space by identifying yearly dates with only two digits?

What a breathtakingly simplistic and frankly foolish commentary.

I must admit that I've learned a lot during the past 18 months. One important lesson is that many people who write for and manage newspapers are nowhere near as smart as I gave them credit for.

-- Mac (, December 20, 1999.

But the Clintons' administration is telling us it will only be a bump-in-the-pothole-of-life......why didn't tell this guy?

Don't they like CA?

-- Robert A. Cook, PE (Marietta, GA) (, December 20, 1999.


But can he say embedded real time clock calender 3x fast????

-- RJ (, December 20, 1999.

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