Alarmist stories predicting computer chaos for the year 2000 have gripped the media?s attention since Christmas. Forecasts of the cost of correcting the problem have hit the hundreds of billions of pounds mark. But behind the media frenzy, there lurks a more practical concern: the UK simply hasn?t got enough Year 2000 project managers to go round.
Stories of ludicrously lucrative contract payments going to programmers with the necessary legacy skills have largely overshadowed the impending shortage of millennium project leaders. Indeed, reports of recruitment agencies raiding old peoples? homes in search of geriatrics versed in the coding practices of archaic Ferranti Argus systems have become two a penny. But, as the UK prepares itself for a new generation of latchkey children ? the result of companies luring Cobol-proficient mothers back into the workplace ? a far more serious skills deficit looms further along the management chain.
Because once a company has employed its all-important project leader, the real difficulty may lie in preventing him from going elsewhere. ?Even if you?ve got good in-house management, there?s no guarantee you will keep it,? warns James Weir at millennium problem solver Platinum Solutions. ?Top-tier vendors are tempting Year 2000 managers with salaries of #80,000 to #100,000 a year, which is difficult to turn down.?
But, other than the admittedly compelling allure of lucre, it?s difficult to imagine why senior IT personnel would want to oversee such a project in the first place. Surely, it?s nothing more than a glorified maintenance role with the added risk of carrying the entire can if things go wrong. Maintenance, after all, has always been considered something of a career cul de sac. And what will a millennium manager be good for once the project is over? The very job title suggests obsolescence at the turn of the 21st Century.
Faced with this kiss-of-death scenario, it?s more likely that suitable candidates will seek employment in areas of IT with greater sex appeal. Satellite communication, network computing and data warehousing are more attractive.
?It?s difficult to think of anything positive to say about leading such a project,? says Christine Trueman, Year 2000 marketing manager for ICL Retail Systems. ?It is a boring job. Many project leaders tend to be people who have been around for some time and feel a considerable loyalty towards their company ? though even they sometimes get so fed up that they leave.?
Trueman does offer some crumbs of comfort. She argues that the sheer size of the costs involved in ensuring your company is Year 2000-compliant will almost certainly have a dampening effect on other, more exciting, IT projects. According to Bloor research, UK companies will spend, on average, the equivalent of an entire year?s IT budget on the problem. This will inevitably limit the number of employment opportunities available to IT managers, perhaps increasing the appeal of taking on a Year 2000 manager?s job. ?Around 50 per cent of Year 2000 funds will be siphoned off from other projects,? says Trueman.
So, if your company is fortunate enough to find a millennium manager, what skills should he or she have? Platinum Solutions? James Weir says he recently overheard a newly-appointed millennium manager asking why he had been chosen in preference to other candidates. ?Because you?re a pushy, machiavellian little git,? came the frank reply.
The machiavellian nature of the job is obvious. With his or her neck on the line, a Year 2000 leader will be under even greater pressure to persuade the Board to provide ample funding for the project ? often at the expense of other IT initiatives in the company. Inevitably, the successful manager will also attempt to spread responsibility and potential blame across other departments. ?The aim is for company-wide ownership rather than just IT,? explains Dave Best, millennium project manager for system component distributor Macro. ?We have set up an overall project team consisting of two people from IT, two from the business and one director. We have also appointed Year 2000 representatives in each department to keep the profile high until the project is complete. Our resources director is running the company-wide project and I am managing the IT system part of it.? Among other useful attributes to have on board, Best cites traditional project management skills, including planning, prioritising, people management, negotiation and presentation.
When it comes to holding on to his own staff, Best?s approach is to minimise their exposure to the life-sapping torpor brought on by millennium coding. ?I?m not using any of my current staff solely for Year 2000 work. My intention is to blitz over a compacted period of time involving the whole department. On creative packages I?m really looking for ideas, incremental loyalty bonuses being one possibility.?
Best blames recruitment agencies for some of the increasing occupational promiscuity amongst IT professionals. ?Recruitment agencies are fuelling the fire for their own benefit, promoting the culture of moving from job to job,? he says.
Of course, Best is right. Like Burton-suited estate agents making the most out of the London property boom, IT recruitment agencies can only benefit from talking up the job market. When cornered, however, they become understandably defensive. ?It?s inevitable that the companies who have started early will lose staff to companies who leave it to the last minute and are desperate for experts,? says Software Personnel?s Clive South. South argues that it is not recruitment agencies that inflate wages in the first place. ?If firms in the City of London refused to pay high salaries, they simply wouldn?t go up,? he says.
In the face of these soaring salaries, the larger finance companies have already made moves to offer their millennium staff incentives to stay put. Most spectacularly, as was recently reported in Business Computer World?s sister title, Computing, the Cheltenham & Gloucester has guaranteed 100 of its IT staff a #20,000 loyalty bonus in return for staying with the company until the millennium project is completed.
Even the public sector is taking note. Leeds City Council has agreed to pay installments totalling #6,000 a head to up to 150 of its staff, leaving the council facing a total payout of #900,000.
Ultimately, there is no reason why elderly Cobol experts should feel any sense of loyalty to employers when they were ruthlessly replaced more than a decade ago by youngsters brandishing Oracle skills. Indeed, it is not loyalty but money that will make or break Year 2000 projects. Money for managers, and money for staff.
Group 200: retailers square up to the Year 2000 problem
Of all the sectors under pressure to produce Year 2000 solutions, the retail industry is feeling the squeeze more than most. IT retail systems have played a crucial role in deciding the winners and losers in the supermarket wars. Loyalty card schemes are just the latest in a long line of supermarket data warehousing projects. Wal-Mart?s hegemonic grip on the US supermarket retail arena was forged by investing in IT systems that could analyse customer buying patterns ahead of arch-rival K-Mart. Year 2000 funding is therefore competing with other IT projects designed to gain critical market share. As such, it?s vital that millennium management has an overall business understanding of the way supermarket chains use IT and the implications of having up to 5,000 suppliers which also need to ensure a clean shop.
Bob Hammersley took charge of Sainsbury?s Year 2000 project last March, transferring internally from trading and business where he was business systems manager.
Hammersley refutes the charge of tedium often levelled at the role of millennium management and points out that the retail chain has never run an IT project on this scale before. But he does advise Year 2000 leaders to ?have an understanding? with their company to avoid being thrown on the job scrap heap once the project is over.
As Year 2000 head honcho, he is responsible for all internal computer systems and those that interface with the outside world. Reporting to Hammersley are six program managers who have overall departmental responsibilities. Alongside Hammersley is the Year 2000 central team, consisting of 10 business analysts who are working on standardising procedures. A representative of one of the chain?s two offshore Indian code factories is also permanently on-site.
Outside the IT department, two senior managers have been appointed to address embedded chip issues (the danger of non-compliant chips residing in business-critical appliances). Timing controls regulating the lighting and heating of the store, date stamps on delicatessen weighing scales, and refrigeration units are particularly at risk.
Much of the Year 2000 leader?s time is taken up with internal PR, in a bid to raise awareness in the company.
?End users must appreciate that ensuring Year 2000-compliance for store scanners takes precedence over problems they might have with their spreadsheets,? he says. Hammersley is using Sainsbury?s internal business TV to get his message across, along with articles in the chain?s company-wide magazine.
Bob Hammersley, Year 2000 business systems manager, J Sainsbury
Cotton seedling freezes to death as Chang'e-4 shuts down for the Moon's 14-day lunar night
Fortnite easily out-earns PUBG, Assassin's Creed Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption 2 in 2018
Meteor showers as a service will be visible for about 100 kilometres in all directions
Saturn's rings only formed in the past 100 million years, suggests analysis of Cassini space probe data
New findings contradict conventional belief that Saturn's rings were formed along with the planet about 4.5 billion years ago