In 1998 and 1999, when thousands of his peers will have to give up their weekends and drag themselves into the office to oversee year 2000 conversion and testing projects, Larry Imes will be playing golf, gardening and videotaping his grandson.
The vice president of information systems at The Lafayette Life Insurance Co. can afford to kick back, he says, because he and his staff solved their company's doomsday problem back in 1990.
That's when the US$755 million insurer finished a three-year effort to consolidate its four IBM VM batch-oriented systems into an IBM DB2 relational database format. During the conversion, Imes and his staff began expanding two-digit date fields in the company's core administrative applications to four digits so that the insurer could forecast interest-rate calculations beyond the year 2000.
The year 2000 problem "didn't just fall out of the sky on people," says Imes, 50, a 30-year industry veteran. In fact, Imes became aware of the millennium bug in 1968. At the time, he was working at a different company where senior managers shot down a proposal to expand the company's two-digit date fields to four digits because it would have "cost three more disk drives at $150,000 a pop," Imes says.
Imes also had a tough time convincing Lafayette Life's top brass that the company's IS department should develop what is now called the New, On-Line Adminstrative Computer System (NOLAS) - year 2000 issues aside.
"When this proposal came up, I didn't think we could do it. It was too big of a job to bite off with our internal staff," says Tom Gross, executive vice president at the Lafayette, Indiana-based insurer.
But Imes convinced Lafayette Life officials that a 14-member project team could develop NOLAS within 40 months and help the company build insurance products faster by speeding data retrieval under a relational database architecture.
Imes was right. Using NOLAS, Lafayette Life developed a graded premium whole-life product in six months, vs. the 12 to 18 months it would have taken to "spin tapes and match data" under the old environment, Imes says. That package has been the company's top seller for the past two years, said Larry Mast, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Lafayette Life.
"At [three] other insurance companies I've worked for, [insurance] products had to match what the systems could do," Mast says. At Lafayette Life, systems "are never a hang-up for us getting products to market."
Aside from NOLAS, the only other software Lafayette Life runs is Lotus Notes and SmartSuite - neither of which are date-sensitive.
Bruce Hall, a research director at Gartner Group, says Lafayette Life probably covered "most, if not all" of its data points when it converted its Cobol and assembler batch code to a relational database format. But even the most scrupulous conversion efforts can be undermined by hidden code buried deep within legacy systems, according to Hall. "If you look hard enough, you can usually find failure points," he says.
Imes isn't worried. "Our policyholders are going to be taken care of after year 2000. That's the most important part."