ANNAPOLIS – Technophobes must love the idea: The world’s computer networks are on the brink of collapse, government bureaucracies will grind to a halt, multinational corporations will flounder in impotence — all for the lack of two little digits.
But the year 2000 problem is more than just the plot to a 1980s sci-fi novel come to life. It also means big business to information technology companies working to solve it in Maryland.
The “year 2000 problem” refers to the dilemma faced on Jan. 1, 2000 when computer programs that record years using only two digits will begin to read dates incorrectly. For example, if you were born in 1955, the computer records only the “55.” When 2000 rolls around, it will think you were born in 2055, and therefore are negative 55 years old. These errors eventually could affect everything from Medicaid payments and student loans to the programmable computers in elevators and VCRs.
Correcting the problem means going into the computer’s original programming and changing it, line by line. Since each program contains several million lines of code, the fix will time consuming and expensive. A study conducted by the Garnter Group estimates the cost at $300 billion to $600 billion for the U.S. alone.
Those numbers translate into a lucrative service market in states like Maryland, where high-technology is among the largest industries. Consequently, Maryland’s info tech firms are gearing up for a windfall of new business as government and industry begin to realize the magnitude of the problem, said Gregory Wagner, Chief Financial Officer of CTA Inc. in Rockville.
“Things are really starting to pick up,” said Wagner, whose firm has racked in over $50 million in contracts with state and local governments alone. Until recently, the company had experienced “slowness of a lot of clients to get aware of the issues…. Now that there is more and more of it in the media, people are starting to take notice,” he said.
OAO Corp.’s Todd Hersh said some companies and governments still aren’t aware of the magnitude and immediacy of the problem. However, according to a report by U.S. General Accounting Office, some systems that make statistical projections beyond the year 2000 already are running into errors.
“Year 2000 is a very hard sell” to some less technology- savvy clients, Hersh said. “Clients will say, `what do you mean two little digits are wrong? Fix it!’,” he said.
New demand for year 2000 solutions in turn has created a need for people knowledgeable in repairing the mainframe systems where the problems lie. Programmers who understand COBOL, the language used in many older systems, are in even shorter supply.
This dearth of talent has prompted solutions companies to recruit from some unorthodox places, said Frank Vezzi, senior vice president at Ajilon Information Technology Services. Vezzi is looking at fresh college grads and even drawing older programmers out of retirement.
“We are definitely picking up people off the beaches in Florida,” he joked.
OAO has gone so far as to begin a full-service training program in COBOL programming for inexperienced employees, to which Hersh referred affectionately as “COBOL U.,” to create its own steady feed of personnel.
Ajilon also tries to entice the most experienced and talented people into the fold by offering lucrative pay and benefit packages.
Finding people “is a challenge, and it’s not just limited to COBOL programmers,” he said. “It makes people much more sensitive to the needs of a person” like flexible hours and financing for education, he added.
CTA’s Wagner also has begun to feel the crunch as companies snatch up qualified year 2000 staff. The company’s salaries vary based on the standard of living in a given location, but generally start at $60,000 annually and go up from there, he said.
“We’ve been fortunate, but that’s going to tighten up in the future,” he said. “Salaries are increasing in the IT field quite ahead of the rest of the economy.”
Sharon DeMagnus, president of Computer Management Services Inc., says her company also is willing to look at people with a little less expertise than it normally would require. Still, she maintained, the help is out there if you know where — and when – – to look. “We’re hitting it at the right time,” she said. A lot of people are coming out off of contracts, and we’ve been able to convince them that it’s lucrative to do this for only two years – but its all a matter of timing.” -30-