Meltdown Prophet: Why one state is less likely to face a millennium disaster
Steven L. Henderson
Deputy Administrator, Nebraska Information Management Services Division
In the era of the Year 2000 computer bug, 1994 was practically forever ago. But that's how long it's been since Steven L. Henderson took on the role of the Paul Revere of Y2K in Nebraska.
It was then that Henderson, deputy administrator of the Information Man-agement Services Division, was first approached by in-house computer analysts who had discovered a problem: A system in the state revenue department would be unable to function properly at the turn of the century; the computer was going to assume that the first numbers of a two-digit date were "19" instead of "20," and many critical calculations were going to be incorrect. And if one system was going to err, the techies reasoned, it was likely that others would as well.
Henderson, with only a vague awareness of an issue that wouldn't explode in the consciousness of governments and businesses until years later, decided the state needed to figure out the extent of the problem. The results of the statewide assessment were ominous — ominous enough that Henderson and others were compelled to ask for $30 million to fix a problem few people had heard of and even fewer understood. "It wasn't a real smooth process to persuade people to spend that kind of money with no tangible outcome before the problem was nationally recognized," says Lieutenant Governor Kim Robak. She challenged Henderson frequently over whether it wouldn't be better just to toss out the mainframe computers and start over with new ones. But his reply was always the same: That would be too huge an undertaking in too short a time.
He was adamant that the state had to get consultants lined up and start the task of fixing the mainframes right away, and he managed to convey that urgency to Robak and other decision makers. In 1996, legislators voted to redirect 2 cents of the state's cigarette tax to fixing the Year 2000 bug; they also voted to transfer $1.4 million immediately in fiscal year 1996-97 to get the project started.
The quick action has paid off. The work on the core computer functions of Nebraska's government will be wrapped up by the end of this year — at about half the original cost estimated. Enterprise-wide systems will have been assessed and analyzed, program code will have been corrected, and systems will be running Year 2000-compliant software. Nebraska processed income taxes on a compliant system this year. "I wouldn't be so naive to think we didn't have data problems, but there was nothing that crippled us," Henderson says.
With more than 70 percent of its systems already Year 2000-compliant, Nebraska is further along than any other state, according to a survey done by the Council of State Governments between December 1997 and April 1998.
One of the crucial early decisions was to define just what was meant by "compliance." For Nebraska, it means a four-digit expression of the year in computer code. Some critics say there are other, less-expensive ways to achieve compliance, such as mathematical formulas for when the computer should view a two-digit date as beginning with "19" rather than "20." But nearly all computer experts would agree that the four-digit date entails the least risk of future problems.
Henderson, 43, is a 20-year state employee who has degrees in computer science and business administration. In his current job, he has responsibility for 325 people and a $49 million budget. With those credentials, he would be a desirable commodity in the private sector. But he says he prefers public service. "We can do things with technology to help the people of our state," he says. "If I venture to `consultant land,' that may be diminished some."
— Ellen Perlman
Photo by Rick Neibel