Friday, December 17, 1999

George Mindling Column 12-17-1999

Timing is everything


Is 2000 really Y2K? Computers don't count in the decimal system people use. 2K, in the computer language of binary, means 2048. Coining the phrase "Y2K" is a perfect example of how the Year 2000 bug came about in the first place.

Y2K is a quick, glib and not necessarily accurate way of describing the "millennium" or the Year 2000 bug. Go take a look at all the corporate Web sites on the Internet. Only a few refer to the potential problem as Y2K; most use the standard "Year 2000 problem" name.

The problem, as everyone this side of Mars knows, is that your old programs and some older computers won't know which century it is after Dec. 31. It's a mistake shared by some of our politicians.

If you haven't received the "free Y2K checker" from an online buddy by now, you may have been spared one of the few feeble attempts at humor about the impending date change. Watching your PC computer screen go through what appears to be a thorough check of your system, then start changing every letter "Y" it finds to the letter "K", is a heart stopper. January becomes Januark; February changes to Februark, and so on. Of course it doesn't really corrupt your data, it only displays the joke on your screen. At first, I didn't laugh either.

The dilemma is real, of course, and I'll finally have to upgrade my trusty and well-worn version of Quicken to a "Y2K compliant" version. There are other programs that will need to be replaced as they can't be upgraded to new versions.

Several of the spreadsheet programs and even my word processor won't know what the date is if I have to compute a moon landing or a solution to world famine.

There is no alternative but to replace them. The data can be exported from the old programs and imported into the new ones. Most programs update existing databases automatically. My old PCs will have to be manually reset after the Dec. 31, 1999 rollover, but that will take about 30 seconds each. I already have the default short date (in Windows 95 & 98) set to the four-digit size field, rather than the two-digit size that got us all into this mess.

All my business records are backed up on tape and on diskette. Maybe I'll break down and buy a CD/RW, a CD unit that allows me to save single copies of massive data quickly. I have the same standard plan for the Year 2000 problem as I do for any unseen occurrence that might knock out my computers. So I have taken all the necessary safeguards but perhaps not all the ones available, though. We're not moving to an underground bunker, nor are we taking everything we own to the mountains (though we would for a Category 5 hurricane).

And I'm not going to stand here New Year's Night with the power on watching PC screens. I just might spill something on these marvelous, time-saving devices. Oh yes, I bought a new calendar, too.


George Mindling © 1999

Friday, October 15, 1999

George Mindling Column 10-15-1999


Bitten by the Monkey!


I had read many articles about computer viruses, and, quite frankly, I paid no serious attention to any of them. The vulnerability of my company's PCs was not an issue as far as I was concerned. After all. I used only "shrink-wrapped" software. Everything I loaded was purchased from software companies and only in sealed boxes. Pirated software is known to be one of the prime source of viruses, and I don't use any of it.

Besides, running the virus programs had never found anything anyway, and they simply took too much time. I backed up my data regularly and wasn't too concerned about the threat of a virus. Not until the day I tried to boot the 486 PC with all my company's financial records from the “A” drive, the floppy diskette drive, and got the message 'Invalid Drive Specification" instead of my customary "C>" when I tried to switch to the hard drive.

Out of curiosity. I ran the virus checker. "Monkey-2 virus has been detected" was the response. As the realization sank. in, my initial reaction boiled over to outright anger! I had the virus checker available but had never enabled it. What was this Monkey virus going to do to my data? I had never even heard of the Monkey virus. I had to determine what damage had been done and remove the virus as quickly and as intelligently as possible.

I had been told improper removal of an active virus can destroy the FAT, or File Allocation Table. That in itself will make data impossible to recover. I ran the virus program several times on both of my company PCs with always the same result. Both PCs were infected with the Monkey-2 virus. I purchased a new version of McAfee's Virus Scan from among several available virus detection and protection programs. After loading Virus Scan, it was confirmed again, both computers had "Monkey-B", as McAfee calls it. Again, the virus couldn't be removed!

I called McAfee's technical support desk. After being switched four times in less than two minutes, I had the right desk. and the bright young woman on the phone had the right answers. "The Monkey virus has been around since 1992." she said as she keyed her PC's keyboard in the background, "I believe that one is from Eastern Europe, maybe Bulgaria ... "

Thirty minutes later with the help of Norton Utilities, both machines were clean. How did I get the virus? It came from a diskette that accompanied an external modem I purchased at my computer store. The virus was found on a "factory", write-protected diskette. The modem company guaranteed me their diskettes are shipped "clean". They suggested someone had purchased one of their modems which. included the software diskette, contaminated the diskette, then returned the modem with I its software diskette to the store for a refund. I called the store and asked their pol­icy on returned components. If a unit is returned new for other than defective reasons, the contents of the box are checked for completeness. and the box is shrink wrapped again and returned to the shelf. I now run the PC virus detection programs on every boot on both PCs. I scan the boot records and changed files. I scan both systems completely on a weekly basis. A little paranoid? Perhaps, but once bitten...

George Mindling © 1999

Friday, September 24, 1999

George Mindling Column 9-24-1999

 Protect That Modem!

With the advent of personal computers and several great, easy-to-use software packages, many accounting and business programs now run right in the small office with a minimum of training or education.  But important data held on those programs are in danger without certain protection.

Most owners have some type of surge protection on their electric power to protect their computers. Indeed, surges can be devastating to any sensitive electronic machine.  However, few protect their modems.  Modems are the devices that allow machines to communicate over regular telephone lines.  While the local telephone companies install lightning protection at the demarc (the point in the telephone line where their responsibility stops and the business owners starts), a lightning strike will almost always damage a modem.

While few modems are protected, they can use the same protection offered by a good, solid UPS that incorporates telephone protection in the same case as power protection.  No, not that UPS, the other one, the Uninterruptible Power Supply.  

A UPS offers not only surge protection, but protection against power loss as well.  Severe damage to the hard drive can occur when power is lost or dropped while writing to the hard drive.  After two drive crashes, I haven't had a hard drive failure since installing UPS units on our office PCs.  A good UPS is relatively inexpensive compared to the cost of what it protects.  Prices range from under $100 to several hundred dollars for office type UPS. 

The size of the UPS unit needed depends on the type of equipment plugged into it, the length of time the battery back must function, and the ability to report automatically to another location.  Large computer installations all have UPS backup power as a power standard.  These larger units are tied into a power grid and must be installed by qualified electricians.  The new office units are small plug in boxes. Most fit under a desk, alongside the PC they serve.  The batteries in the small units are easy to replace if needed.  The battery backup in any UPS is intended for orderly shutdown after a certain time frame.
If power isn't restored in say, five minutes, close down and power off.  All data should be intact on the hard drive ready to fill out the forms when the power comes back on.

Your customers will love you.  Your accountant will love you.  The IRS will love you. So will the Florida Bureau of Unemployment Compensation.  And the sales tax people.  And everyone else who needs you data.

George Mindling  © 1999

Sunday, September 19, 1999

George Mindling Column 9-19-1999


You Make the Call


After waiting all afternoon for a scheduled appearance from a contractor who never showed or called, I called the contractor's office. After being put on hold for a few moments, I was told the contractor was on the road. She would beep him to call me. Twenty minutes later he called. He offered no explanation for missing the appointment and only said it was too late today; he'd try to make it tomorrow. Too bad, but I won't be here tomorrow.

He had a cell phone and my telephone number. If he had called earlier to inform me there would be a delay or change in plans, I could have changed my plans too. Waiting all afternoon for a no-show used all my time.

I was in the service business twice, so to speak. I spent eight years as a technician in the Air Force, where quality control insured the work ethic, in case you didn't have one to start with.

I then worked for many years with one of the best service organizations in the world. Not surprisingly, our first concern was customer satisfaction. We sent annual satisfaction surveys to all our customers) and any less than-satisfactory response required a management visit to find out why. Invariably, the prime complaint was lack of communication. We worked under a two-hour response time to our customers. A return phone call to a customer as soon as the service call came in was one of the prime performance appraisal items. A change in plans meant we would call the waiting customer again. Plans change continuously. It isn't surprising for a new part to be defective or to discover problems deeper than first encountered. Even accidents and weather will interfere with a service schedule; anyone who has ever been in business will testify to this.

Most customers understand the service environment and will work with problems affecting service, especially if the call isn't urgent. But if service is impaired because someone is trying to print the payroll, that's a different matter. Customers expect the response to a service call to reflect the urgency of their problem.

If you get diverted by a priority call, you still need to call the customers you have committed to and tell them there is a change in schedule. If you can't call them all, have someone else make the calls.

Don't let customers hang. It will ruin your business, even if you are the only one in town today that knows how to fix whatever is broken. Somebody will pick up the excess, and if they give better service than you, they will take away your business.

It takes communication to work, and in this day where everyone has a cell phone and a pager, not calling your customer is a sign of poor, unacceptable service. If you fail to call, you will have an irate customer, instead of a loyal one. It is such an easy problem to fix.

George Mindling © 1999

Friday, September 17, 1999

George Mindling Column 9-17-1999


Where to Start

The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. The journey to a solid business recovery plan begins with the simple realization that one is needed.

Business interruptions come in many different variations, from minor irritations to the major problems that will actually shut the doors of a business. Experience has proven that planning for the "show stoppers" can actually prevent those show stoppers from closing your business.

In the corporate world, an analysis of the complete business is maintained to determine the actual portions of the business that must remain functional in order for the business to remain viable. Those services or functions are ranked based on their importance to the success of the business. Plans are then developed to reinstate any of those services that may be lost due to unforeseen circumstances. Large corporations usually have staffs that do nothing but prepare for interruptions that may in fact never come.

The business analysis is called risk assessment. It means knowing what actions or circumstances will be an interruption that can be sustained temporarily, to those that will stop cash flow and jeopardize the business.

In the normal business day, for example, if a manager calls in sick, the load can be picked up or deferred until the manager's return. As long as the absence is temporary, no action is required on the business owner's part. However, if a manager leaves a company permanently without warning, the situation is graver and now requires action. Something must be done to fill the position so the business can continue without interruption.

Is there an employee ready for the task, or must the company hire from outside the business. Does the owner assume the task personally? These are normal business decisions done on a daily basis in every company.

Contingency planning is the same basic process, only done beforehand. It is a detailed plan of everything relative to the business, from loss of vendor's supplies, to the loss of power and water or even telephone service. The resulting plan can be implemented with surprisingly good results.

Planning doesn't have to be a painful struggle to undertake. The resources to assist are available to the small business owner from SCORE, to the local Chamber of Commerce.

The Red Cross has planning documents available to assist in disaster preparation. Disaster Recovery Journal maintains an informative, free web page at http://www.drj.com.

Contingency Planning and Management also has a great, free page, even though you must register, at http://www.ContingencyPlanning.com. Picking up a pad and a pencil is a great second step.
George Mindling © 1999

Friday, August 20, 1999

George Mindling Column 8-20-1999


Now What?


When you are finally allowed into the area that used to be your business, the first thing that strikes you is the absolute devastation. Where there used to be sinks are only PVC pipes sticking up from the concrete. What used to be your roof is laying across most of your work and service areas. There are no windows with glass, and quite often, no walls at all. Your PCs are lying in the debris, as are all of your file cabinets. Water runs out of any remaining desk drawers. While you are standing in shock, trying to comprehend the fact that you are now out of business, your lead foreman shuffles through the debris that used to be inventory and says, "I gotta have a pay advance, I need money right now!!!"

You have to put it all back together and make it a working, profitable business again. The storm could have been a hurricane. It could have been a tornado. It doesn't matter.
It doesn't happen here? I lived in Kendale Lakes in southwest Miami when Andrew went through. We were fortunate, only losing part of my roof and having my 120 mph rated garage door blow in. My daughter lived in Cutler Ridge, right in the path of the most severe weather of the storm. She and her husband lost everything. All of our local businesses for many, many miles around, looked exactly as I described.

What do you do? Will you be out of business? Unfortunately for many, the answer is yes.
The lack of planning will be more devastating than the storm. Inadequate insurance coverage is the most obvious. Questions will arise that you didn't bother with before. If you lease your space, you rely on the landlord to rebuild the physical structure, but when? After years of litigation?

It doesn't happen here? Our son-in-law's parents, who also had their home destroyed by Andrew, moved to Kissimmee to escape the coastal threats of hurricanes. The deadliest tornadoes in Florida history ripped through their new neighborhood several years later, reminding everyone that it can happen anywhere, at any time.

Talk to your insurance agent about business continuity insurance. Attend the hurricane preparedness seminars and lectures. Preparedness is the first step. The Charlotte County Chamber of Commerce developed a Workbook titled "Developing a Disaster Plan for Business Survival" It is a great first step for those small business owners that have no idea what to do.

Some consider disaster planning a waste of time. Some even consider it morbid. The truth is Disaster Planning and Business Recovery planning are absolutely essential!

George Mindling © 1999