Year 2000 computer bug no match for skills of Frederick Co. whizzes In-house talent fixes county systems for $375,000

August 01, 1998|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

Using only in-house talent and the modest sum of $375,000, Frederick County has accomplished what governments around the world are spending billions of dollars to do: slay the year 2000 computer bug.

"We feel pretty good about it," said Carl V. Moore, director of Frederick's interagency information systems.

And well he should.

The year 2000 or "y2k" bug is a glitch in all but the newest computers that renders dates after Dec. 31, 1999, invalid in the coding that makes computer programs work. Companies and governments across the country are revising tens of thousands of programs.

Nationwide some counties have not begun to address their year 2000 problems, said Jacqueline Byers, director of research for the National Association of Counties. Frederick is "one of the nation's leaders," she said.

The state of Maryland, the city of Baltimore, and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties are not expected to finish fixing their programs until October at the earliest.

But Moore and the 15 computer programmers on his staff decided to exorcise their millennium bug demon at least 18 months before the midnight Dec. 31, 1999, deadline.

Because Frederick uses computers to track the sentences of prison inmates at the county detention center, the bug had to be corrected by July 1 or criminals beginning 18-month sentences -- the maximum sentence at the center -- could have been back on the street a few days later because of skewed dates and faulty tracking, Moore said.

That was only the beginning of the problem. Unless county computers could accept dates after Dec. 31, 1999, timed locks would remain open, ball field lights would stay on, and elevators, which are designed to shut down if too many days have elapsed since their last inspection, would stop working.

Intense collaboration

On most long-term projects, the deadline could be extended a week or so. But not on this one, Moore said.

"It's one of the few drop-dead deadlines we've ever faced," he said. "You couldn't skip a day because someone was out sick or the power went out. We all had to work and help each other. We had to stay very focused."

Staying focused is not usually a problem for software writers used to spending uninterrupted hours at their screens to solve a problem.

The difference in this instance was that they had to surrender their autonomous behavior and become intensely collaborative to successfully alter the 1.5 million lines of code affected by the y2k problem.

Everyone balked at first when required to attend weekly show-and-tell project meetings, "but it didn't take long to understand why they were necessary," Moore said.

Before he and his staff could begin writing software, they had to examine and inventory about 100 software systems to see what codes needed to be changed from six-digit dates, for example, 08-04-98, to eight digits, 08-04-1998.

No margin for error

Writing software and making conversions to eight-digit dates was not hard, Moore said. Managing a process in which there was no margin for error was hard. If a line of code needing alteration was overlooked, the entire solution could be invalid.

Further, the changes made to each of those 1.5 million lines of code had to be reversible. Otherwise, the county's computers would not be able to "talk" to computers in federal or state agencies that have not dealt with the y2k bug.

Moore had hoped to hire a private company for the project, but the county commissioners objected to the $750,000 cost. Instead, the project was done "in house" -- $200,000 for hardware, the rest for salaries.

Solutions tested

The price for doing the project in-house was that for five or six months, his department could not provide assistance to county agencies, Moore said.

It was during those months that Moore and his staff tested their solutions to see whether they worked. They did.

The final step was to "go hot" and bring all the agencies under Moore's umbrella -- schools, community college, county government, public libraries, courts, Health Department and sheriff's office -- online with the new software.

That was done in May after two years of work, but the system is often being run without the year 2000 corrections because many jurisdictions with which Frederick interacts have not solved their y2k problems.

Officials in other Maryland jurisdictions say they'll be finished with y2k adjustments in plenty of time.

Other areas

The status of those projects:

In Anne Arundel, all "critical and midrange" y2k problems have been or are being resolved, said William Ryan, county information services manager. The last element in its conversion program is expected in March. The $10 million cost includes the purchase of hardware and software.

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