Peter de Jager,
His mascot is a mickey mouse working on
a laptop. However, deceptively enough, Peter de Jager doesn’t teach mouse tricks (the
computer variety, of course) and definitely not on a laptop; his expertise extends much
beyond such boundaries. Ontario-based Jager preaches with apostolic fervor and writes with
equal panache on meeting the millennium crisis head-on. A date with this ‘date-man’ seems
to be a must for the perspectives that he presents on the problems and the ways, and the
means to handle them. He has spoken in every continent to audience as varied as
governments, IS staff, CEOs, and the common man. Despite being a Canadian citizen, Jager
was summoned before the US House of Representatives’ science sub-committee hearings to
testify on the Y2K crisis. He is also a special advisor to the British and Russian Y2K
Task Forces. Even as the deadline is nearing, Jager has some life-saving measures to
advocate. Invited by Tata Infotech Ltd, he delivered a series of lectures in India in what
was his first and only visit to the country before 2000 AD. Jager shared his thoughts with
DATAQUEST on some of the issues and opportunities of the Y2K problem.
Isn’t it already getting late for
companies to wake up to the call of the Y2K problem? What about the late risers? What do
they do now?
Consider it a lesson learnt…in the future let’s design systems for what will and might
happen. For now, lets concentrate on those who can survive. With some small bit of fickle
and a large dose of careful and prudent planning, we can keep the number of fatalities to
a bare minimum. In the medical profession, there is the concept of triage. The dictionary
defines it as, ‘The sorting and allocation of treatment to patients, especially battle and
disaster victims, according to priorities designed to maximize the number of survivors’.
The idea being, that if there aren’t enough medical resources to save everyone, you
prioritize to save as many as possible. Setting these types of priorities involves some
difficult decisions. Some companies will have to perform triage on their systems. It won’t
be easy, it’ll be resisted and it’s going to hurt. It may be the only way to get through
‘OO’ barrier with enough systems intact to print an invoice, ship a product, and pay the
So how does triage work?
At its simplest, during medical triage, you sort the casualties into three groups: first,
identify those who’ll survive if they get no medical treatment; second, identify those who
have a good chance of survival, if they get medical treatment; and lastly, those who even
if would get medical treatment are unlikely to survive. You then ignore the first and last
groups and concentrate your efforts on those who have a good chance of surviving if you
get to them in time.
Guess which ones we’re going to ignore?
Everything, but the mission-critical system is dross. If you do not have enough resources
to save everything then, all your efforts, all your resources, and all your attention must
be focused on getting those mission-critical systems operational. Anything else, would be
poor project management and worse yet, poorer judgment.
Within these mission-critical
systems are there many choices?
Even these mission-critical systems contain non-essential functionality. That is,
functionality that does not have a ‘Y’ in it. Such cases can be safely kept untouched. One
way to reduce the effort in getting your systems Y2K-compliant is to lower the
functionality of your system. So one has to decide what functionality to keep. That’s
quite a tough decision most of the time. One has to be able to slim down the code and
functionality and revert to barebone bits and bytes in order to survive with some
semblance of the system. Remember, triage is a Hobson’s choice. Triage is a nasty choice.
It’s a choice of last resort. It’s the type of choice we should have done everything to
avoid. For many it may be the only choice remaining. The situation is gloomy.
Is that why you say that there is
no room for ‘unjustified optimism’, as you told the US House of Representatives?
Yes. Absolutely. According to Capers Jones, more than 80 percent of the projects are
delivered late. One has to ask as to what is the confidence level that you will deliver
this project on time. The Y2K project is unique in four respects: the deadline cannot be
missed; it is an immovable deadline; it bears no relationship to the size of the task; and
we all share the same deadline. We have no time for unjustified optimism. Nor have we time
for cautious optimism. We have time only for an highly accelerated sense of urgency.
Does that mean that triage is the
only way out?
Not really. Triage is only performed when you perceive it to be your final choice. You
will never perform triage if you believe that this time, the project will be delivered in
time. Triage depends on the courage of honesty, not the illusion of ability. It is only
possible, when we accept that time is short, and the days not enough to get it all done on
time. To perform triage, and save mission-critical systems…will require a belief that
Murphy is more capable of delaying us, than we are of avoiding him.
Many Indian companies are engaged
in doing Y2K work for US companies. What is your opinion about them?
Offshore development is definitely gaining legitimacy in the US, and India is considered
to be one of the best options. Individual Indian companies need to build their credibility
as not all Indian companies are equally good. The ‘Indian name’ needs to spread beyond a
Tata or a Wipro. The US immigration laws might get tightened…the Indian government needs
to lobby for more. I have met quite a few Indian software professionals and they are
technically excellent. In the US, a computer operator can become a programmer. But
typically, Indian programmers are highly technically-qualified individuals.
How are vendors working toward Y2K
compliancy of their products?
The software and hardware vendors are not really taking pains about this. I don’t want to
give many specific examples…but I think IBM has done a good job.
Talking of Y2K toolset vendors, who
do you think offers the best?
I don’t talk about vendors. For the past seven years, I have not spoken about them in the
interest of my credibility. I do not even invest in their stocks.
What about the Y2K threat in
This could be even four-times larger than the software application problem. But since it
is hidden, isolated, and diverse it is difficult to assess the extent of the threat.
Again, different sectors will see different level of failures. Unfortunately, very little
is happening on this front.
What is your opinion on Y2K
Well, it’s too strong a word. But nevertheless essential. The Information Technology
Association of America (ITAA) is the only one known to give Y2K certification.
How long will the Y2K work go on?
It will go on till at least 2003 or 2004. These will typically be the triage cases. There
will be a heavy backlog of development work, especially because the next two years will be
spent on rewriting part of the code and then another three years on completing those
What about the euro-problem?
That’s of a different kind, because it requires business skills and is therefore more
complex. It is estimated that it would take 100 billion pounds to address the