Let’s Focus on the Problem, Not the Litigation

The Year 2000 issue has elevated IT professionals to a level of visibility they have long desired, although they never expected or wanted their visibility to be linked to an event that has such negative overtones.

In a few months it will be time for another group of professionals to get up close and personal with the IT community: lawyers. Do you know how many lawyers it takes to fix the Y2K problem? Don’t try to answer that question -- yet.

Consider the possible scenarios: How would you feel if next March you found yourself served with a subpoena because of a failure of your company to provide Y2K-safe software or services? What if you are a consultant and one of the systems you "fixed" collapsed January 3 when it was turned on, causing the company financial harm?

Let’s face it, there will be Y2K problems, even for companies that have done their best to simulate January 1, 2000 operating conditions. How does one quantify that testing was thorough and that it should have uncovered all Y2K dependencies -- especially if an event caused by the real date change proves the testing was incomplete to some degree? How does one explain to nontechnical people and lawyers the phenomenal complexity of performing such a simulation in the first place?

Everyone in the IT field knows the difficulty of performing a truly comprehensive Y2K test of all systems. Hopefully, by now, you’ve thoroughly tested and resolved problems on mission critical systems, but chances are you may have performed only a cursory inspection on the dozens of less critical systems. You may even have a number of systems that have been relegated to a "let ‘em fail if they will" category, and will resurrect those systems -- as a short-term fix -- by winding back the clocks by one year.

At the extreme end of this category are companies that have made no attempt to prepare for Y2K compliance, putting corporate earnings ahead of service to clients. We will know who those players are pretty quickly come January.

Now, let’s consider the other side -- where you are directly affected. What if the company that manages your 401(k) investments, your stocks, mutual funds, or your bank accounts has an extended service outage?

Imagine if the stock market collapsed during the first week of January 2000, and you were unable to yank your money out of high-risk investments. I’d bet that you might feel like you were harmed financially. And you probably would be. Chances are there’s an IT person inside that company, a person much like yourself, who may be on the firing line for his or her inability to find and cure all the Y2K dependencies that were lurking around. Would you be understanding, as you hope people will be with you; or would you be irate, as you hope people won’t be with you?

It is a difficult time to be an IT professional.

Congress has entered the picture and is considering three different proposed bills (www.house.gov) that address the Y2K damages issue. One bill, which tries to protect consumers, is titled the "Year 2000 Consumer Protection Act of 1999" (HR 192). Another bill is titled "Year 2000 Readiness and Responsibility Act" (HR 775), and the third bill is the "Year 2000 Fairness and Responsibility Act" (S 461).

In essence, these bills try to both protect consumers and limit litigated damages to artificial amounts, generally limited to three times economic damages or $250,000, an amount that wouldn’t attract too many suits, which could easily incur legal expenses exceeding the award amount. The bills supposedly are designed to protect small businesses, which can not afford lengthy and costly litigation.

We recently received a fax from the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, which is working on a public relations campaign to generate public support to limit or kill these bills. The lobbyist group contends that the bills are anti-small business and anti-consumer. Of course, you can speculate that the Trial Lawyers of America may have something else on its agenda, such as the business its members could lose if litigation is somehow limited.

It is too bad that the United States resolves so many things through litigation. It makes so much more sense to put the dollars that the lawyers will get from litigation into fixing the problem. It’s not a complex concept. Why can’t we as a nation focus our energies, for once, on fixing a problem rather than litigating over it?

All that said, I’m optimistic that North America will be largely successful in its preparations for Y2K issues. Despite the preponderance of Y2K doomsday books and urban legend-like stories zinging around on e-mail warning of massive power outages, food and cash shortages, even anarchy, I don’t plan to stock my basement with canned goods. I also won’t have a gas-powered electric generator and extra fuel stashed away in my garage. I’m not planning on withdrawing my money from the bank only to put it in a paper bag under my mattress. If there are problems, chances are good that the most critical problems will be resolved within days, if not hours.