FRAMINGHAM (03/13/2000) - When John Koskinen agreed to be President Clinton's Year 2000 czar in the summer of 1997, his friends thought he was crazy.
Managing the federal government's Y2K effort seemed like a no-win situation. If systems crashed, he'd be blamed. If systems didn't crash, he'd be accused of exaggerating the threat. And in the meantime, he'd spend several years in what was perceived as a technical backwater - overseeing the rewrite of millions of lines of Cobol code.
Today, however, Koskinen's career choice seems brilliant. By regularly testifying before Congress and briefing the media, Koskinen became a visible figure in Washington, D.C. He also earned a reputation as a calm and competent leader able to motivate federal workers to get their systems fixed on time.
As he prepares to shut down the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion at the end of March, Koskinen says he's looking for a career challenge outside of government.
"When I started, this looked like an impossible job. But I had spent the last 25 years managing large-scale problems, so I found it interesting," Koskinen says. "My most interesting jobs have had two things in common: they've provided good conversation at cocktail parties, and they've prompted people to say, 'Why are you taking that job?' My next job will do the same."
Koskinen isn't the only Y2K manager looking for work. Across the country, leaders of corporate Y2K efforts are hoping to leverage their experiences into new career directions.
That's what Rich Alden, a vice president at First Union Bank in Charlotte, N.C., is trying to do. Alden was responsible for system integration work related to mergers before he took over the bank's Y2K effort in June 1996.
Ultimately, he led a team of 110 employees and 70 contractors. His budget ballooned to $70 million.
Alden says the biggest advantage of the Y2K post was being exposed to issues and people outside of the IT department.
"When it first started, it was a data-processing problem. As it evolved, it became a customer communication problem, a vendor problem, a business risk assessment problem and an internal communications problem," he says. "It was a true enterprisewide effort."
Alden has applied for several positions that would let him be a liaison between the IT department and its customers.
Although it's a hot job market, experts agree that Y2K managers like Alden are most valuable to their current employers. That's because Y2K managers understand their companies' computer systems, how they integrate and which ones are most important to day-to-day operations.
Y2K managers also gained visibility within their organizations, particularly with top executives who have a newfound understanding of the importance of IT to their businesses.
"My advice is for Y2K managers to leverage the relationships they've built," says Paul Brown, executive director of Christian & Timbers, a Cleveland recruiting firm. "They should look for opportunities to drive a business process within the company such as a sales force automation or supply chain management project."
Most of the 600 members of DuPont's Y2K team have found jobs in high-profile areas such as e-commerce and enterprise resource planning. A new safety management business recently launched by the Wilmington, Del., chemical giant snapped up several others.
DuPont's Y2K team is in demand because "the project was highly successful and visible throughout the corporation," says senior vice president and Y2K project leader Cinda Hallman. Members of the Y2K team learned "the ability to work together across organizational lines and across geographies. It's unusual for people to get that kind of exposure." What's more, the Y2K group gained experience with new systems purchased as part of the preparedness effort.
For Hallman, the Y2K effort required her to achieve a new level of focus and enthusiasm. "I felt like the woman on the front of the Viking ship," she says.
"I could never be down about this project. I always had to look like I was in charge. It was very draining."
For those lucky - or crazy - enough to lead Y2K efforts, the most marketable skills they have are in project management, experts agree.
"The skills that are in demand are meeting deadlines, discussing customer requirements, getting things done," says Mike Bourret, senior account manager at Paracom Technologies, a San Francisco executive search firm. "It's really easy to transition those skills to a completely different project."