Down the Toilet: The Cassandra of Cobol
by Sam Williams
July 20, 1998

Bob Bemer may know how to save your company's IT system from millennial meltdown, but here's a word of advice: Don't let him touch your telephone.

"I'm not too good with this new technology," says Bemer, struggling to switch his office phone over to speaker phone.

Fortunately, what Bemer lacks in button-pushing skills he more than makes up for in street credibility. As co-developer of the Cobol computer language and the main force behind landmark software achievements such as ASCII, the ESCape sequence and computer time-sharing, Bemer, 78, has been instrumental in making computers a ubiquitous part of daily life.

In an attempt to protect that legacy, Bemer has recently reappeared in the very center of the ongoing Year 2000 controversy. Last year, Bemer came out of retirement to launch Bigisoft, a company that markets Vertex 2000, a one-step software tool that promises to make Cobol programs Y2K-compliant without altering their original source code.

While some in the industry have scoffed at Bemer's solution, calling it a "silver bullet," the company currently reports 90 percent coverage of the IBM 390 Cobol market.

Recently, Down the Toilet spoke with Bemer to get a historical view of the Year 2000 crisis:

DtT: Some people have referred to Y2K as "the coder's revenge." You, however, maintain that programmers shouldn't take the blame for this. What do you think were the major cultural decisions that led to this becoming such a widespread problem?

Bemer: It was just that, a cultural decision. People were lazy. It's like the checks you see where they print a "19" and leave the last two spaces blank. I hear the story that [programmers] used two digits for the year to save storage. That's hogwash. It wasn't storage at all. It was unthinkingness.

As for the revenge part, I admit that programmers are a recalcitrant bunch, and they like to do tricky stuff. But really they had the management behind them telling them to use the two-digit year. Most of them just said OK and did what they were told.

What motivated you to come out of retirement? Was it a sense of guilt or the challenge of coming up with a time-saving solution? I can't say I felt guilty. I mean, I was talking about this back in 1970. I wrote a paper on it in 1971, titled "What's the Date?" In February 1979, I wrote an article called "Time and the Computer" for Interface Magazine. It addressed this entire problem and how companies were choosing to ignore it.

When nobody paid attention to the articles, I didn't take offense. I've been ignored a lot in my career. This time, I finally figured it was serious enough that somebody had to do something. I also knew that we'd lost a lot of the original source code.

What was it about the institutional mindset that forced companies to go for the quick fix all these years, waiting until the last minute to overhaul their legacy systems? I blame the business schools. I think the Harvard Business School is treasonous. The mentality coming out of that place says don't plan more than three to six months ahead because somebody else will be handling your job at that point. That's not the way to do things for the good of the country. I think people ought to be responsible for what they do over the long range.

Doesn't the same go for programmers? Every program I write starts with, "Author = RBemer, Tel = my home phone number." It's like a signature on a painting. I did it. If it doesn't work, it's my fault. Blame nobody else but me.

With management, there's no accountability. In fact, you even have a lot of [management] people retiring now or taking early retirement so as not to be in the top dog position when this whole thing blows. It's irresponsible.

So whom do you blame? Richard Nixon.

What did he do? I proposed a national computer year back in 1970. I wanted to model it after the IGY [the International Geophysical Year was from July 1957 to December 1958]. I could see that people were not prepared for the influx of computer usage that was sure to come. I thought that if we all put our minds to it and planned ahead a little bit, maybe it would be easier. Year 2000 was just one of the issues we would have addressed.

President Nixon was very suspicious of computers, though, and wouldn't sign off on it. Without his proclamation we couldn't do it. I think he'll go down in history along with King Canute.

What are your plans for after the year 2000? We're going to be fixing up the laggards who didn't get it done [before 2000]. This is going to run another five years at least. We're going to pick up the pieces and do it right for a change.

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