Trucking past Y2K

Computers, it could be persuasively argued, have increased the pace of modern business, not to mention contemporary living on every level.

Thanks to billions of computer chips directing everything from communications networks to banking systems, the potential for catastrophe—or at least chaos—in the business world seems anything but remote when Jan. 1, 2000 arrives. That, of course, is when computer programs written to recognize two-digit dates read “00” as the year 1900.

Ward Trucking Co., an 800-employee commercial trucking company, stands among those who hope to sidestep that pending confusion.

The Altoona-based company recognized the problem early and has taken most of the steps needed, company officials say, to confront the problem.

“I, for one, believe that by addressing it now, we are positioning ourselves for a positive transition down the road, unlike many of our competitors,” says Dave Crean, vice president of operations for Ward Trucking.

Mike Zupon, Ward’s director of management information systems, says Ward Trucking should have all of its Year 2000 issues resolved by the end of this year.

Ward Trucking is hardly alone in its need to address its Year 2000 situation. Doug McCloskey, director of research for Infoliant Inc., a consulting firm that helps computer users gauge the compliance status of their software, says that virtually every company with a computer needs to be concerned.

The problem, now dubbed “Y2K,” originated because of the cost of data storage in the 1960s and 1970s. To minimize data storage costs, information technology projects cut down on the amount of stored data required by an application. In time, programmers adopted as an industry standard the practice of using two digits to express the year.

Despite the fact that storage space became less expensive over time, relieving the necessity to express dates with two digits, programmers have continued to write applications using two-digit dates. In fact, McCloskey warns, while programmers have long recognized the Y2K situation and its potential impact, some software written even in recent years—some of which might be sold currently—isn’t Y2K compliant.

For Ward Trucking, as with most other companies, its own Y2K compliance is only a part of the solution. That’s because customers who fail to come into compliance could cause headaches for Ward Trucking.

“There is a chain reaction that can potentially occur if vendors and customers alike are not ready for the changeover,” says Zupon.

Obviously, Ward is concerned that its customers and vendors are in compliance, too. If a major client’s computer system crashes and burns, billing systems could fail and payments could be delayed.

To minimize that possibility, Ward Trucking has undertaken a campaign to alert its customers and vendors to the Y2K issue. A team of six managers is coordinating a communications campaign directed at vendors and customers that describes Ward Trucking’s efforts and encourages them to prepare as soon as possible.

The telephone system’s on-hold message, for instance, discusses the Y2K issue, explaining what Ward Trucking has done to come into compliance and pointing out the issues customers and vendors should consider. The company newsletter, Ward-Wide News, contains articles on its Y2K compliance efforts. Additionally, letters and personal phone calls have gone to customers to remind them of the need for Y2K compliance.

Businesses with off-the-shelf software probably shouldn’t expect individualized help to fix their packages, but McCloskey suggests that the manufacturers’ Web sites may provide assistance.

Those who have customized software, as Ward Trucking has in some of its applications, should find their software vendors able to provide some assistance with compliance. This may be a good opportunity to make some bigger decisions, like whether to scrap a current platform in favor of a new one, which will be 2000-ready.

Ward Trucking, for instance, saw an opportunity to replace its auto-rating system, the one that creates automatic billing for about 80 percent to 85 percent of its customer base, with an updated, more efficient one.

The trucking company started its compliance project in May of last year, and Zupon estimates that it took about four months of his time to complete it, and a five-month period to complete the programming. He says he has been able to accomplish the task with his existing MIS staff, although some companies may find it necessary to add staff to accomplish the additional programming needs.

Zupon estimates compliance costs for Ward Trucking at about $150,000. As demand for services increases with the impending approach of 2000, the cost of compliance likely will increase, McCloskey cautions.

McCloskey suggests that businesses take several steps to ensure Y2K compliance:

  • Determine which part of your operation is most vulnerable, then remedy the applications that affect that segment first.
  • Take an inventory of all hardware and software assets and assess their readiness.
  • Test any changes that the hardware and software manufacturers recommend.
  • Develop an implementation plan for compliance, taking into account which departments might have to shut down for the changes.
  • Fix all issues, then test to make sure that they are working.