The "Year 2000 Problem"

BC computer programmers are working to solve one of the great puzzles of the Information Age

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

The problem seems simple enough, but solving it - and it must be solved on an inflexible deadline - will take years.

In one of the great puzzles of the Information Age, computer programmers around the world, and at Boston College, are trying to make older computer programs that handle important functions like payrolls recognize the year 2000.

The so-called "year 2000 problem" has perplexed banks, insurance companies, government agencies and other institutions dependent on computer data, and some analysts predict the worldwide cost of adjusting computer programs to recognize the new century could be around $650 billion.

Among the MIS personnel working on the "year 2000 problem" are, from left: programmer analysts Alex Ovsich, Linda McCarthy and Susan Hallee; Assistant MIS Director Lichu Carol Chen; MIS Director Joseph Harrington; and Programmer Analyst Lazarus Michaels. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
The price tag won't be that high at Boston College, but the job will be a colossal "nuisance," says Management Information Systems Director Joseph Harrington. He estimates BC programmers will spend the equivalent of between 15 and 20 years' worth of man-hours on the project to prepare University computers - which contain records of everything from payrolls and pensions to alumni donations and class registrations - for the transition. But the University is already taking steps to ensure that the "year 2000 problem" does not bring Boston College to a screeching halt.

"What's frustrating about it is all the time and resources you have to spend," said Harrington, who designed the original computer room at Boston College 30 years ago. "You're fixing a problem and preventing a headache. It's a nuisance, but you've got to do it. There's no other way around it."

The problem stems from computer programs written two and three decades ago that, while still useful, never included provisions for registering the date 2000. More recent programs, including those installed on desktop computers, will have no trouble recognizing the millenium.

Harrington cites the University payroll system as an example of how the "year 2000 problem" could affect Boston College. The computer that keeps records of payroll accounts is programmed to schedule pay raises after set time periods, he explained; for example, from 06/01/98 to 05/31/99. But the computer would balk at registering pay for work done between 06/01/99 and 05/31/00, because the computer reads "00" as 1900 - and since 1900 falls before 1999, the computer would regard that pay period as invalid.

"Unless we make changes to the computer system, we will not be able to pay anyone after June 1, 1999," said Harrington. But, he added, the University plans to have a "2000-compliant" payroll system in place by Jan. 1, 1999.

Boston College built and owns the systems handling data on student records, class registration, financial aid, housing and admissions, Harrington said, and all will have to be analyzed to see where they need adjusting. With the arrival of the Class of 2000 last fall, he said, work has already begun on changing the programs that keep student records. The vendor of the student-loan record system BC uses also will be updating its computer code, he noted.

If the "year 2000 problem" demonstrates how the computer age creates its own disasters, Harrington points out that modern technology also provides innovative solutions. MIS Programmer Analyst Diana Nagy is working on a key aspect of the adjustment project, assessing how the transition to 2000 will affect systems housing the University's admission and financial aid records - and she is hundreds of miles away. Nagy moved to Georgia last fall when her husband was transferred, Harrington said, but uses a desktop computer from her home to keep doing her job.

Boston College will utilize whatever it can to finish the work in time, Harrington said. "We've only got 750 working days until the year 2000," he quipped.

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