Ready for battle
- By Bob Brewin
- Sep 06, 1998
Bill Curtis, the Defense Department's point man for fixing the Year 2000 millennium bug, sees a certain cosmic balance in his assignment. Curtis, who worked on Army information systems in the early 1970s, said he was among the Pentagon programmers who "made some of the early decisions [within DOD] that left us with a two-digit date code.''
Curtis said the limitations of 80-column cards used for programming at the time dictated a two-digit rather than a four-digit date field, a bit of binary shorthand that ended up resulting in a $1.5 billion DOD-wide effort coordinated by Curtis to insure that the military's most critical systems continue to operate at the turn of the century.
Curtis has spent more than 30 years in federal service, mostly on active duty in the Army, and views his job as special assistant for Year 2000 to Secretary of Defense William Cohen as the culmination of a career that started with his job as a second lieutenant straight from the ROTC program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute during the Vietnam War. "I've been training for this job my entire career,'' Curtis said.
That training, Curtis emphasized, included not only the 20 years he spent on the Army staff and more than five years at the Defense Information Systems Agency, but also his Airborne Ranger and infantry experience. "I think I learned everything I need to know to do this job in basic infantry training,'' he said, referring especially to its emphasis on teamwork within a chain of command.
He said managing DOD's effort to resolve its Year 2000 situation requires the same approach. "This job is a delicate balance of getting the services and agencies to do what they need to do and providing enough guidance to get the job done,'' he said.
Leading the effort to fix Year 2000 bugs in more than 25,000 Defense information systems has been described as leading a complex, multifront battle, an analogy to which Curtis applies his infantryman perspective. His two-year Vietnam tour dovetailed with the fierce 1968 Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese. Decorated with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart during that tour, Curtis gained the firsthand experience necessary to help him understand that the term "mission-critical system'' has a more immediate meaning in the field than in the sterile halls of the Pentagon.
Curtis started working on the Army staff in 1972, after picking up a master's degree in business at Tulane University, and stayed there until 1992 when he transferred to the then-infant DISA. At the Pentagon, Curtis helped install one of the first e-mail systems used by the Army— IBM Corp.'s Professional Office System— and helped build decision support and personnel systems.
Curtis also helped develop and maintain two systems that gave him a unique window into history in the making: a database management system for Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North's congressional appearances and subsequent trial in the 1980s and a document imaging system for the trial of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.
People who have worked with Curtis describe him as a "true gentleman" in the old-fashioned sense of the word, a leader who leads without anyone even knowing it. While ducking the gentleman statement, Curtis said, "I like to cajole people into doing things. You don't get much out of confrontation. When I'm working with someone, I always take the approach of 'The glass is half full rather than half empty.' "
Curtis said he developed this management style early in his Pentagon tour "when I was a captain in a colonel's job and knew I could not tell people what to do.''
Curtis took the same approach on his Year 2000 job, which requires a cooperative effort across all the services and Defense agencies. "I think our success of the last six months on Y2K is not the result of telling people what to do but on getting people to agree on what needs to be done," he said. "I want to help them become part of the solution.''
Curtis has applied this inclusive approach to the ever-growing pack of Year 2000 watchdogs from congressional committees, the DOD inspector general's office and the General Accounting Office. Curtis said he decided to let them sit in on his meetings rather than dealing with them afterward because "this is not the time to engage in normal processes; I don't have time to argue."
Breaking Down the Process
Anyone who has gone through basic training knows the Army likes to break down simple processes— disassembling a rifle, for example— into even simpler constituent parts. Curtis took the same approach to the far more complex Year 2000 problem. His method for fixing the legacy software in the mainframe megacenters operated by DISA offers a prime example of the approach. "We can't look at the megacenters as one item," he said. "We have broken them down into 50 domains, and now we're going to break them down into domains within domains.''
Despite the progress he has made, Curtis knows he still has a long way to go in his race against the millennium clock. That is why he supports the software development moratorium threatened by Cohen that will allow the department to focus its expertise on hunting down bad date code. When asked to estimate the likelihood that Cohen will have to impose that moratorium next year, Curtis bluntly answered, "100 percent.''
Asked why he has become so outspoken, Curtis said he views Year 2000 as "the No. 1 problem'' within DOD. "I took this job because no one else wanted it," he said.
Some Pentagon lifers have never developed the ability to get away from the demands of the job. Curtis knows how: He occasionally flies off in his single-engine airplane to spend two weeks at his vacation home in Nova Scotia. "It's a good way to escape,'' Curtis said. He also escapes into the music of Bach, and, not surprisingly for the man responsible for rebuilding information systems from the basic code level up, he likes to build and fix things around his vacation home.
At work, Curtis approaches fixing the DOD Year 2000 problem with gusto. "I'm always looking for a challenge," he said. "I like hard jobs.''
But Curtis does not call his Year 2000 mission a "tough'' job. "A tough job is waking up every day as an infantry commander and knowing that that day someone [under my command] was going to get killed or wounded," he said. "That's a tough job; Y2K is a hard job.''