Koskinen vs. Y2K: IT showdown

A year ago, John Koskinen was vacationing in Morocco with his wife when he received a telephone call from Washington, D.C., about a major opportunity that would consume his life for at least the next two years.

A former deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget, Koskinen was appointed assistant to the president and chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion in February. He is responsible for coordinating the federal government's efforts to ensure that its mission-critical information technology systems, and those that it interfaces with, operate smoothly through the Year 2000. A self-proclaimed optimist, Koskinen noted that most people would not accept the responsibility.

"It's a fascinating challenge,'' Koskinen said. "I don't know if there's been a management problem quite like this one.'' But, he added, "if you spend as much time as I have managing crisis, you learn how to take one step at a time as long as you understand not every system will get fixed. But it is a big job."

Crisis Management

Indeed, Koskinen has 21 years of experience managing crisis in the private sector, including restructuring a range of large, troubled operating companies as president of The Palmieri Co. He worked three years at OMB, which required him to "worry about everything, including Year 2000 problems.''

He has served as special assistant to the deputy executive director of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, representing Mayor John Lindsay and New York City in Washington. After that, he served as a law clerk to U.S. Court of Appeals Chief Judge David L. Bazelon. Then, from 1969 to 1973, Koskinen spent time on Capitol Hill as an administrative assistant for Sen. Abraham A. Ribicoff (D-Conn.).

Koskinen is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and a member of Phi Beta Kappa Associates. He served as chairman of the board of trustees of Duke University for three years during his 12 years as a trustee and was chairman of the board of the National Captioning Institute.

Since taking on the job with the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, Koskinen has organized 34 working groups, from the electric to the health care industries, to provide the support that the industries will need to solve their Year 2000 problems. Good Samaritan legislation introduced last month by President Clinton is intended to encourage businesses to share information on Year 2000 solutions without the threat of liability.

"The biggest thing [the council brings] to the table is the ability to bring everyone together and get them to work together,'' Koskinen said. "The council is more like a facilitator. We're trying to do what we can do to be supportive.''

He also supported development of the council's new World Wide Web site home page (www.y2k.gov), which offers information about the council and provides links to Year 2000 information in the states and the District of Columbia.

Koskinen admitted that sometimes the job requires more of his time than he had initially expected.

His day begins at 8:30 a.m. with eight meetings, press interviews and more meetings with officials at agencies. He receives at least three invitations a day to speak to groups that play a critical role in solving the Year 2000 crisis.

"Most I have to reject, especially if they are not in Washington,'' Koskinen said.

He spends an hour responding to e-mail messages about the Year 2000 and government reports. He usually eats dinner four nights a week at the White House and leaves work typically between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.

"But I'm trying to break that habit because I want to spend more time with my family,'' said Koskinen, 59, of his wife, Patricia, and two adult children, Cheryl and Jeffrey. "The job is taking more time than I thought because we're still in the organ-izing phase. I have no spare time. I work fairly long hours, and I'm usually here on Saturdays and take stuff home to read on Sundays.''

When he's done fixing the millennium problem, Koskinen has his eyes set on another challenge. He wants to manage one of the nation's troubled urban school systems, such as that in Baltimore, to make it an exciting place for people to work and learn. "I like to do things [that make] people say, 'Why would you do that,' '' Koskinen said. "It's just a genetic flaw. I like doing something different and unique.''

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