Old computer programs create demand in field

Peter Kauffner

While Prince might party when it’s 1999, his accountant could be busy trying to salvage the Minnesota musician’s tax records from computer oblivion.
Preparations for the new millennium and the effects it could have on computer systems worldwide are likely to create a boom market for University students and alumni with the training to take advantage of the situation.
The problem is that no one really knows how date-sensitive computer programs will react when the year 2000 dawns. To save memory, most programs use only the last two digits of a year when recording a date. Programs written before the 1980s assume that all years begin with the digits “19.” So when the year 2000 arrives and the year is entered as “00,” these programs will act as if 1900 has come again.
The Gartner Group, an information research firm, estimates that based on an average cost of $1 per line of code, the cost of correcting the year 2000 problem will be at least $500 billion worldwide.
One cause of the problem is the assumption that these programs would be replaced before the turn of the century. “There’s the legacy issue. A company might spend $1 on hardware and $5 on software for every $100 that they spend on customizing their system,” said Shashi Shekhar, a University professor of computer science and the director of undergraduate studies in his department.
Fixing codes is only one aspect of the problem. Many companies have lost the original codes — some written nearly 40 years ago — for older programs they use.
While that may spell crisis for those who own or use programs, it also creates opportunities for those who wish to enter the field.
“Right now the industry demand for programmers is astronomical. We are encouraging even more students to consider computer science degrees,” Shekhar said.
Although most of the older programs that now have to be corrected were written in the programming language COBOL, which has since fallen into disuse, Shekhar downplays the importance of learning any particular language.
“I wouldn’t worry about COBOL because the University doesn’t teach that,” Shekhar said. As a business-oriented language, COBOL has been ignored by science-oriented computer departments.
“Our department was found by math-oriented people, so we have a strong FORTRAN emphasis. Nonetheless, I would say that in the last 10 years, we have started to broaden our focus. We now have about half a dozen people who are close to the business side,” Shekhar said.
More important than learning any particular computer language, students should take software engineering and quality assurance courses, Shekhar said. “People need to test the programs to see if all the possible scenarios have been covered. So, quality assurance will be very important. If someone knows a couple of programming languages, COBOL is not very hard to pick up.”
Shekhar recommends that those wishing to cash-in on the crisis, offer their services to industry by creating consulting companies. Such a company should include both a computer specialist, as well as someone familiar with a targeted industry, such as business management, telecommunications, banking or finance, he said.
Whether or not they are interested in the dating problem, Shekhar advises all Institute of Technology students to brush up on their computer skills.
“Only about 10 percent of the students who graduate in IT are in computer science,” Shekhar said. “But do you know how many of the jobs being offered request computer (programming) skills? Between a third to a half,” Shekhar said.