Tony Blair's millennium bug army

The Prime Minister has focused Britain's attention on the Year 2000 computer crisis, but experts fear his task force will not be up to the job. Stephen Pritchard reports
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Last week's announcement by the Prime Minister of a squad of specially- trained "bug-busters" brings to mind a picture of an army of computer scientists scouring the country for millennium problems, and stamping them out.

As yet, that army is not trained, let alone mobilised. Over the next few months, the Government plans to make some pounds 30m available to fund short courses in Year 2000 skills for up to 20,000 people. The idea is that they will help businesses, especially smaller firms, become millennium compliant.

The Government's initiative on training is part of a wider package of Year 2000 measures which, according to the IT industry, should make the UK one of the countries best-prepared for the millennium. At the same time, the Government will be bolstering Action 2000, giving support to businesses locally through business links, and it will look hard at its own readiness by reviewing the public sector's own efforts to fix the Year 2000 problem. Additionally, Britain is giving pounds 10m to the World Bank to start a fund to address millennium issues in the developing world.

The comprehensive nature of Tony Blair's announcements has drawn a welcome response from the industry, but there are still serious worries about how they will be put into action, and whether enough can be done in time to make a real contribution to millennium compliance. The idea of recruiting and training 20,000 people, in an IT industry already facing a significant skills shortage, appears ambitious to say the least.

The industry's reaction to Mr Blair's speech, made at a Midland Bank conference on the Year 2000 problem, has been to welcome his direct intervention. "I think that by getting personally involved, Tony Blair has made everybody aware of the problem," says John Cordon, chairman of the Year 2000 vendor group at the Computer Software and Services Association (CSSA). "There is now no businessman in the country who can claim not to be aware of it."

Internationally, the move is likely to benefit Britain, suggests Andy Kyte, research director and Year 2000 specialist at analysts the Gartner Group. Only the Netherlands has a more advanced programme for millennium compliance. "The UK will be seen by the rest of the world, in light of the announcement, as a place that takes this seriously," Kyte says.

However, the idea of finding and training "bug busters" is more problematic. "Any initiative that causes people to acquire the necessary skills and contribute to the information revolution is an activity to be applauded," Kyte says.

"It will give people the opportunity to move into an industry that is demanding more people to work in it, but will they be there in time to make a difference for the Year 2000? My suspicion is that they will not be a major factor."

Finding enough bug-busters may well mean offering additional training to people already in IT, or non-specialists within firms that need to solve the millennium problem. In his speech, Mr Blair said that money would be available to "help small and medium firms develop skills", but also that it would "make a real contribution to dealing with the bug and to bringing people into employment and then into long-term careers in IT".

Industry experts support any moves to create a larger pool of skilled labour, but they question whether new entrants to the industry will be able to help firms become millennium compliant. Although the problem itself is conceptually simple, the business systems it affects are often highly complex.

"Where it might work is if the money is made available to organisations to train their own people to deal with it," suggests John Corden at the CSSA. "It could work, for example, by funding a small manufacturing company to send one of its own people on a short course."

Few millennium bug experts believe new entrants to the IT industry will be able make a direct contribution to complex systems written in languages such as COBOL, lying at the heart of a business' system. The risks would just be too high.

"In most enterprises that depend on computers to survive, solving the Year 2000 problem is like undergoing open-heart surgery on your IT system," warns Andy Kyte at Gartner Group. "With the best will in the world, do you want a medical student doing that?"

In fact, not everyone in the industry is sure extra staff is the best solution. According to Chris Iles, manager of UK field operations at the consultancy Micro Focus, it can be a hindrance. "In IT, if you are running late, throwing heads at a problem is not always the answer," he says. In firms that are already making progress with the millennium problem, machine resources are as likely to be a barrier.

Where the bug busters may help is in testing systems - which is very labour-intensive - and in freeing up existing, experienced IT staff from routine work to concentrate on the millennium. "If they are focused on testing, new staff can learn a lot without having to understand all of what goes on within a system," says David Ganesh, Year 2000 specialist at PA Consulting.

There are also questions within IT about exactly how much training pounds 1,300 - the Government's suggested average grant - will buy.

The consensus, though, is that the Government has made real progress in focusing minds on the millennium.

Industry watchers have worried for some time that some leaders in business and Government were in denial about the seriousness of the millennium bug. These "contrarians" will now be rethinking their positions.

"In some quarters, it was almost fashionable to be a contrarian," says Andy Kyte. "By standing up, the Prime Minister has made it very difficult to be a contrarian. It is a step in the right direction."

It is now the industry's turn to ensure the extra resources are put to productive use.