'I predicted the Y2000 problem'

It was a frigid Wednesday in February 1984, and I was stumped for a story idea. The software business was dead that time of year - not good news to a guy who wrote about software for Computerworld. Then the phone rang. On the other end was a guy who had an idea that was so offbeat, so screwy, that I thought it just might make my editors happy. It was good for a laugh, at least.

Bill Schoen had this wacky idea that a lot of computers - I mean a lot of them - would stop working on New Year's Day 2000. Schoen wasn't just curious about this problem, he was passionate about it. He had even formed a one-man consulting company to try to spread the gospel. But no one, he said, wanted to listen.

I listened. Heck, I was desperate. I interviewed Schoen, talked to one of his clients and wrote it up. My editors put the story on page 7 of the Feb. 13, 1984, issue. It was the first article to appear in a major publication about the year 2000 problem. (You can see a copy of the original story at www.computerworld.com/more.)I spoke to Bill Schoen again the other day. Now 51, he's still programming and a little amazed about how prophetic his crusade was. Though he wishes he could have had a piece of the five-figure speaking fees that top year 2000 consultants make, what Schoen really wants today is a little recognition.

Schoen first stumbled on the year 2000 problem in 1983 while programming in the basement of a big car maker. It wasn't rocket science; data processing people had known about the risk since the 1970s. It's just that no one thought their code would last that long.

Schoen thought it might, and a little analysis of his employer's code library proved to him that software had considerably more staying power than many people thought. If business had started coding for the millennium in 1983, "95 per cent of the problems wouldn't be there today," he says wistfully.

For Schoen, the year 2000 problem became a mission. He coded up a little Cobol routine on his Commodore 64 that solved the problem. He named his company Charmar Enterprises and created the Charmar Correction, a cure for "the serious problem ignored by the entire data processing community".

He was an army of one. Booted out of the CIO's office in some of the biggest companies in America, Schoen landed only two sales for the Charmar Correction. He folded Charmar's tent in 1984 and went back to programming. "I've never been able to rise above the level of working stiff," he says.

Schoen's story is about missed opportunity and being too far ahead of the curve. The New York Times called him in 1988 to ask about the year 2000 problem, but Schoen was sick of rejection and asked the reporter not to quote him. His efforts to launch a year 2000 consultancy last year fizzled when the client's CEO died. Now he's got a Web site (www.flash.net/~bschoen) that tells a little of the story of the guy who had an answer long before anyone else was asking the question.

Visit Bill Schoen's Web site. Send him an e-mail. This guy was really on to something.

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