The passage of a bullet

At this time last year the big news was of disaster averted. The Y2K scare turned out to be just that: a danger that frightened many but wrought less damage than many had feared.

Twelve months later, the news is innovation, not legacy. The industry is looking forward to wireless functionality, e-com profits and a veritable alphabet soup of other advances.

But Y2K is still felt. When asked to look backwards, many IT pros point to lingering benefits of the bug in the form of better planning and an improved understanding of existing systems. For others, Y2K was a non-event, an obstacle on the way to bigger and better systems.

In this new year of 2001, we asked six computer professionals to reflect on years past and on the year ahead.

The benefits of calamity

Y2K was, thankfully, not the disaster it could have been, and at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children a lot of that was because vital rebuilding was done before hand.

The time staff put into upgrades and strategic planning was well worth it, according to John Aldis, director of business systems for the hospital. He noted the hospital was looking to overhaul many systems, although the work would otherwise have been spread over years.

The Ontario Ministry of Health helped out provincial hospitals with Y2K planning and upgrading, according to Aldis. The hospital runs more than 125 applications and 45 of those were not compliant. “Our laboratory information system, which is used to record test results, had to be replaced,” he said.

“One of the problems with that system was that once you enter a sample and it does the test, the results are fed into a database that compares them to normal results for that age group. Well, the system couldn’t read the ages properly because of Y2K. It would have mis-diagnosed every test put in.”

This would normally have taken six months to repair, but with provincial funding HSC was able to move to an entirely new system.

Despite the hassle wrought by the date-related bug, Aldis said Y2K was one of the best things that could have happened to hospitals. Patients are now tested and treated using more up-to-date technology, and that translates into shorter hospital stays and better care.

He admitted several other projects had to be put on the back burner while the hospital focused on Y2K, and it is now playing catch up. “But the whole thing helped us get caught up on the technology side as an industry.”

Another bonus for the hospital was the emergency training the staff received. Aldis isn’t sure how many people knew emergency and system failure plans before Y2K, but they know them now. “We also realized how important it was to continually train on those types of procedures.”

Adversity surmounted

The onslaught of last century’s digitized threat of ruin (read Y2K) proved one fact to Matthew Bates: the computing community can rise to a challenge.

The interactive exhibit-maker and co-founder of Toronto-based Mystus Interactus – whose exhibits can be found in museums, sports halls of fame, science centres and automotive galleries worldwide – said Y2K was a constructive exercise, one which the IT industry pulled through.

“There weren’t any valuable lessons learned for me directly, but in general we learned the computing community can rise to the challenge of a major problem when it presents itself,” Bates remarked.

The good news for Mystus Interactus came in the form of new projects in 2000. Three to be specific. “We’re currently wrapping up the Glasgow Science Centre interactives, we have five interactives for a visitor centre in B.C., and a major theme elevator installation for a planetarium in St. Louis,” Bates said.

Turning towards the future, Bates stated he expects reliable and fully-digital personal satellite data communications to come of age in the not-too-distant future. “Also, voice recognition, if it can get over the hump of cost,” Bates said, adding wireless Internet will be great once it proves itself reliable and cost-effective.

Climbing a mole hill

It was the big issue that wasn’t.

At The Shopping Channel, the legacy systems weren’t that old and the company didn’t have too much non-compliant equipment. The dreaded Y2K turnover also didn’t impact the company’s on-going IT projects.

“Beyond an opportunity to test our disaster recovery features, it was a waste of time,” said Rael Merson, the Mississauga, Ont.-based Shopping Channel’s general manager. The television-based retailer, which also has a successful e-com site, built most of its computer infrastructure in 1996, and those systems were Y2K ready.

“[The Y2K experience] wasn’t a bad discipline, ultimately, because it forced you to go back in, double check the equipment and make sure your backups were in place. But beyond that, could I have lived without it? Yeah, it’d be no trouble whatsoever.”

The Shopping Channel also carried on full steam ahead with major IT projects while other companies put development on hold. The company was in the midst of improving its Web site, which was expected to bring in an estimate $12 million to $13 million in sales last year. The site was ranked fourth in a recent Deloitte & Touche survey of Canada’s top e-tailers. And with a new data warehousing project the company is undertaking, Merson hopes to drive that revenue even higher.

The company is also planning to build a predictive modelling system that will indicate what other products to offer purchasers. Once, when someone phoned in to buy a white sweater, the store would offer pants to go with it. Today’s one-to-one promotions are more sophisticated.

“The logic now suggests that what you should offer them is the pants that go with the white sweater, as well as some analysis of your database that suggests that people who buy white sweaters tend to buy yellow towels.”

Legacy lessons learned

For Future Shop Ltd., Y2K was a stepping stone for its new systems.

In 2000, Future Shop “completed the successful implementation of the Renaissance Program (an 11-project system which went live June 21). We successfully migrated our e-commerce front-end from Oracle to Microsoft, and outsourced the hosting to EDS. We [also] launched Operation Quantum Leap, which will completely transform our IT systems through the weaving of (what Future Shop calls) a WEB. In order to avoid boredom, we also implemented several independent projects, launched several others and we have others being launched next month for Q4,” said Future Shop’s Vancouver-based CIO Larry Needham.

That aggressive timetable was built on the foundation created by Y2K work.

“Y2K was very positive in that even if old legacy systems were not replaced they were correctly documented, and we figured out exactly what they were doing. Without the detailed analysis and documentation to get them Y2K compliant, our Renaissance Program could never have been ready as quickly as it was,” Needham said.

But some companies are now regressing to the complacency of pre-Y2K days, he said. “For many organizations that sense of urgency is gone and they are back to doing things the same old way. What I have seen in the last six months, especially, is that people don’t want to hear it any more and are starting to fall back into the comfortable mode of operations. It doesn’t centre around the processes, it centres around the technology, and that is unfortunate.”

Beneficial, but with some waste

Looking back, Andrew Kovac said his Y2K precautions were “a lot of effort and a huge expense, but definitely worth it.”

Kovac, technical project leader with Markham, Ont.-based market research firm ACNielsen Canada, said the company uncovered many issues that may have otherwise stayed hidden.

In retrospect, however, some of the changes were probably unnecessary. “I think [vendors] were taking us as a revenue-generating opportunity and deciding ‘We’re going to obsolete code and we’re going to obsolete some hardware.'”

Kovac, whose company started Y2K efforts in 1997, believes compliance discrepancies may have stemmed from the fact that vendors got caught off guard and ran out of time.

“Some of these boxes were 10 years old, and this industry has a huge turnover. The people who designed that box and implemented it and maintained it have probably moved on to other jobs, so I can understand [the vendors’] side of it, but I don’t think they spent a huge amount of resources to try and prove whether or not [their products were] compliant.”

Currently, ACNielsen is working on a number of Internet-related projects centred around client data delivery and retrieval, focusing on infrastructure, bandwidth and security. The company had budget approval to start new projects in 1999 but held off until early 2000 to make sure things had stabilized.

Despite the delays, there were some benefits to Y2K, Kovac said. It allowed the company to put into place a new automated inventory system and get rid of old equipment, and implement a corporate policy stating that three or four years is the longest a desktop PC server will last. “After that, it doesn’t even matter that it’s fulfilling its capabilities, we will cycle it out and it will be replaced.”

He admitted the company is still feeling the after-effects of Y2K. “I’m still trying to catch up to where we should have been if Y2K had not occurred. And it will probably continue well into [this] year by the time we finish some of the projects that, really, we should have finished [in 1999].”

From a standpoint of change

Grand & Toy Ltd. can lay claim to a certain perspective on business change. The 118-year old company has seen the rise of the automobile, manned flight and the space age, not to mention smaller innovations like the fax machine and the PC.

With that type of history behind you, Y2K and on-line commerce are just things you take in stride.

Y2K did not slow Toronto-based Grand & Toy’s tech development at all, according to John Melodysta, the company’s vice-president of IT. “We were one of the few companies that did not slow down at all (for Y2K). We didn’t feel we could put things on hold.”

E-commerce too is just another project. “We are a 118-year-old business with a couple of hundred thousand customers that has added Web-enablement as another way of ordering,” Melodysta said.

It’s not that e-com is insignificant. Grand & Toy raked in $125 million in on-line revenue in 2000, and November saw a 234 per cent jump over the previous month’s dot-com take.

But if e-com is worthwhile, it is also known territory – the company has been accepting on-line orders for almost two decades. “We started with the Bell Alex system in the mid-80s and then moved to a DOS-based dial-up system, then a Windows-based dial-up system, then EDI, then a LAN-based ordering system, then we moved that onto the Internet in ’97, focused on large enterprise customers,” Melodysta said.

The company has recently revamped its site with an eye towards moving more small and medium firms to on-line ordering.

Future work, according to Melodysta, will deepen Grand & Toy’s Web presence. “I think on-line invoice presentment and payment will be an up-and-coming space in the near future, as will wireless technology. Think about ordering your office products off a Palm Pilot. Why not?”‘