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Y2K? You too kludge!

by Geoff Hart

Previously published, in a different form, as: Hart, G.J. 1999. The desktop wars, year 2000 version. Computerworld Canada, Oct. 22:17.

Like most computer professionals, you’ve probably had your fill of preparations for the year 2000 bug. Ideally, you spotted the problem long ago, brought Management onside, and began corrective measures for all the computers and software you’re responsible for: every BIOS is now compliant, commercial software is the latest (Y2K-compliant) version, and you’ve read the riot act to your partner organizations, so they’re Y2K-compliant too, or at least well on their way. You’ve even verified that your home-grown, company-wide MIS applications are compliant. More realistically, you’ve only partially accomplished all these things, but at least you’ve started, and can pat yourself on the back; you’re well ahead of many companies.

But you’re not safe just yet: “A long time ago, in a corporation far, far away... Desktop wars: the PC menace”.

In this particular civil war, the rebel forces, led by those devilish proponents of personal computers, infiltrated the MIS infrastructure and began subverting the established order by managing their own computers—perhaps even by programming those computers. Spreadsheets like Lotus 1 2-3, databases like dBase, and languages like BASIC (or its modern descendant, Visual Basic for Applications) were easy enough to use that just about anyone could write their own software without having to rely on you. It was as if they’d discovered some mystical “force” that permeated their new computers and let them accomplish miracles seemingly beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. Things formerly beyond the reach of anyone outside MIS, for that matter.

The ensuing struggle for control over a corporation’s data is a familiar story, since you’ve either lived through it or work with someone who did. Currently, as the clock ticks down to Y2K, we’ve achieved détente: MIS still maintains a crucial role in corporate computing, but substantial power has migrated downwards towards the desktop—and into the hands of those devilish “users”.

Empowerment is certainly good, but “the force” also has a dark side: kludges. There’s no doubt that the more obvious parts of your corporation’s computer resources are still firmly under your control, and that’s reassuring. But on the countless desktop systems that you really can’t inspect individually, there are dozens—and in a large corporation, perhaps hundreds—of small databases and spreadsheets programmed by individuals. Some of these are applications you’d be proud to have written: tightly coded, rigorously debugged, mission-critical (for that person), and Y2K-compliant. Unfortunately, the remainder are sloppily coded, poorly debugged, mission critical (for that person), and not even remotely Y2K-compliant. Downright kludgey, in fact. The implications are scary.

Fortunately, you can turn this problem into an opportunity: use the Y2K expertise you’ve developed over the past few years to build a bridge with the users who created these potentially troublesome applications. For starters, explain the Y2K problem and why it’s taken so much of your resources this past while to everyone who’ll listen. (PC Magazine’s Y2K coverage, at <>, is an excellent resource.) Then offer to help them identify Y2K and other problems with custom applications.

Ideally, you’ll solve some of your company’s problems, improve your relationship with the users by proving you really do want to help them do their jobs, and perhaps even take some of the workload off your own programmers by developing a pool of users who can at least do some prototyping for you. Realistically, you’re not going to accomplish any of these three things fully. But it’s a start, and just perhaps you’ll be able to reach some kind of modus vivendi that makes things better for everyone. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Make the force be with you!

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