IT Spending Lets Loose, Post-Y2K

Call it the January thaw of the Y2K freeze.

Big companies such as Sears and Allstate, which have experienced few if any Y2K-related glitches, have started to end self-imposed Y2K systems lockdowns and are moving full-steam ahead with information technology projects that had been put on the back burner.

Still others are busy posting press releases and nailing up new door plaques as CIOs at several companies switch gears or depart altogether in post-Y2K job shuffles.

And all around, the mantra seems to be speed, speed, speed.

Retail giant Sears, Roebuck and Co., for example, is already in the thick of developing a new freight tracking system, which, like all IT projects to be launched by the retailer this year, has a required turnaround time of less than six months. Web-based projects must be completed in three months under the company's new, stricter IT project deadlines.

"I think all of us wanted to do a lot of things last year, but we were reluctant to take the focus away from Y2K," said Sears CIO Jerry Miller.

Unlike some other companies that had planned to freeze changes to their systems until February or March, Allstate Corp. had always planned to lift its ban by Jan. 15, said Rich Harris, assistant vice president for the Y2K effort at the Northbrook, Ill., insurer.

Now the company is focusing on the IT aspects of a new business model announced in November that was designed to let customers do business with the company through a variety of channels, including call centers and the Internet. In fact, the company has already begun to roll out new desktops and software packages to its sales agents, said Harris.

Yankee Energy Systems Inc. in Meriden, Conn., began lifting its Y2K lockdown this month, a week early, to focus on its acquisition by Berlin, Conn.-based Northeast Utilities, a deal that's set to close at the end of the first quarter, said Scott Waleski, the company's director of IT and services.

"We'll spend the rest of 2000 focusing on integrating systems," said Waleski.

Meanwhile, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. rang in the new year with a new CIO, Robert DeRodes, who was recruited from Citibank last summer to become Delta's senior vice president of operations and technology.

Former Delta CIO Charlie Feld, to whom DeRodes will continue to report, is now the airline's "e-leader," a new post in which Feld will focus on forging partnerships and joint ventures with Web-based ticket and travel companies, among others.

Feld also is overseeing projects to bring wireless Internet connections to Delta's airport-based frequent-flier club rooms and to deliver updated flight information to passengers' pagers and cell phone voice mail systems.

PG&E Corp. CIO John Keast saw the company over the Y2K hump, then departed for Branders.com, a San Mateo, Calif.-based Internet start-up that sells customized promotional merchandise on the Web.

Railroad giant Union Pacific Corp. in Omaha is kicking off the year with a multimillion-dollar customer relationship management software project that former Y2K project manager, Tim Brechbill, is heading. The system will centralize all information about the railroad's customers, such as billing information, shipping requirements and locations, into a single system.

The smooth transition to the year 2000 thus far "has been no surprise to us," said Lou Marcoccio, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn. But one surprise is the speed with which companies have moved their Y2K spending to e-commerce initiatives. Just three months ago, Gartner had predicted that most companies would do so mid-2000. By December, Marcoccio and his group had moved that date up to March.

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