HARDWARE

Joined at the Chip

Everyone's computers may be affected by the Millennium Bug, from corporate giants to small businesses. Here are some tips for protecting your company from a year 2000 disaster.
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Edward Yourdon says he lives in New York City, but I'm suspicious. When I spoke to him last summer, he was hanging his hat in the not-at-all-thriving metropolis of Polson, Mont., writing a book about the Millennium Bug--the pesky glitch that, at the turn of the century, is supposed to bring all of computerdom to its knees. Yourdon insists he's not doing the survivalist thing, but his descriptions of dial tones disappearing, banks and schools closing, and cars stopping abruptly in the middle of highways are enough to make anyone pack a few bottles of Water Joe and head for the closest available hills.

But even Polson, Mont., may not be isolated enough to protect Yourdon from what many predict will be a digital apocalypse. We're all connected by links: social, cultural, and occupational; written, spoken, and electronic. So when the ball falls on New Year's Eve 1999--sending systems into paroxysms of catatonia--anyone can be affected, from the CIO of a huge corporation to the recluse who depends on a small local utility for electricity.

Companies have their own complex food chains, and Yourdon, a software-engineering consultant, urges small businesses to get a bead now on what's happening both upstream and down. That means talking to suppliers to make sure that order of latex will show up on January 3, 2000, as promised. But it also means talking to customers, particularly large ones that provide a hefty chunk of revenues.

"Big companies are coming to the conclusion that they don't have time to fix all their year 2000 problems, so they're letting some non-mission-critical ones slide," says Yourdon. "But what a big company considers unimportant may be your company's lifeblood."

He cites the example of a small printer who creates those glossy inserts that the local phone company stuffs into bills. The phone company, which is scrambling to ensure that phones work and bills go out when the century turns, has decided to put its advertising systems on hold, depriving the printer of a very big account. "You may not be able to change that behavior," says Yourdon, "but if you know about it early enough, at least you can start shopping around for another customer."

The reverse situation--in which small companies laid low by the Y2K bug no longer make purchases--is perhaps even more distressing from an economic standpoint. David Eddy, president of software marketer Software Sales Group, in Wellesley, Mass., gets knots in his stomach contemplating the consequences of small-company cluelessness. Referring to his pal John Healy, whose millennium woes are chronicled in " Uneasy Rider," Eddy says, "I look on John's world as the base of the pyramid. The Fortune 1,000 will stumble significantly if the Fortune 1,000,000 stop buying cars from General Motors and reams of paper from Champion. We're all of us done in by the domino effect."

Eddy, who refers to himself as a year 2000 alarmist, recently began hitting the Rotary Club circuit, spreading the word to all who will listen. "There are hundreds of thousands of small-business owners, and most of them are oblivious," says Eddy. "But there are so many different relationships, so many links. Everyone has got to pay attention."

So how's your piece of the big picture? Let me know at leigh.buchanan@inc.com.

Last updated: Dec 15, 1997

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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