Making Lemonade

By Daintry Duffy, CIO |  Career

Tom Mannix never wants to live through something like Y2K again. Dealing with line after line of undocumented code gave the director of The Guardian's year 2000 project a new religion: From this day forward, no one -- absolutely, no one -- will be able to upgrade or alter an application at The Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America without documenting what he or she did and why.

In the understaffed, overworked world of IT, new systems are needed long before the IT staff can implement them. When they are finally rolled out, it's often a quick-and-dirty deployment. No time to document the change or communicate it to others. At New York City-based Guardian, Mannix and his team encountered the fallout from this situation frequently. IT staffers were not notifying colleagues when applications and services were changed, says Mannix, the director of corporate online systems. "Our support center would get a call saying that something that worked yesterday wasn't working today." Y2K was not only a wake-up call for Mannix, it was an unprecedented opportunity to lay the groundwork for a new era of organized growth.

Y2K is the biggest project, both in scope and cost, that CIOs have ever had to tackle. But even a cloud this dreary has a silver lining. For all its attendant aggravation, Y2K brought unexpected advantages to CIOs. It has given IT a higher profile within executive management; a host of new systems, skills and proficiencies; and an opportunity to make a fresh start. Smart CIOs are using what they learned from Y2K as a launchpad for more efficient operations -- essentially transforming a catastrophe into an epiphany.

Lesson 1 -- Managing Source Code
What complicated remediation for a lot of CIOs was years of accumulated spaghetti code. Encountering code that had been jiggered and updated and patched so many times, no one knew how one Y2K-related change would affect a previously smooth process. Although many CIOs chuckle at the suggestion that companies will be starting 2000 with clean code, others have been carefully inserting documentation into their renovated code so that the next programmer will always be able to go back and look at what their predecessors did. And like Mannix, they're insisting on better source-code management so that the next time there's a grand remediation (think euro or eight-digit phone numbers), it won't be like walking into a jungle without a machete.

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