Merrill Lynch programmers take easy approach to 2000

Tucked away in a nondescript suburban office park 96km from Wall Street is a platoon of programmers charged with fixing the 170 million lines of code needed to keep the world's biggest brokerage alive.

The programmers are among the 100 full-time staffers and 150 consultants who make up the year 2000 project team at Merrill Lynch & Co. Given the global reach of the New York-based brokerage, the world's markets teeter on the success of this year 2000 project as much as any other. In spite of the pressure that comes with having to fix 1450 applications, this group of casually dressed, mostly fortysomethings exudes a quiet confidence. They are pacing themselves, working 40- to 50-hour weeks and occasional weekends to test repaired code against production systems.

The biggest near-term challenge Merrill Lynch faces is keeping the recruiting wolves from snatching away staff and contract programmers from any of the seven software "factories" the company has set up in New York and New Jersey to fix date-sensitive code.

Merrill Lynch offers bonuses that range from $US15,000 to $US45,000 for Cobol programmers who remain through to May 2000. Cobolers are also guaranteed training in any area they want, such as client/server programming.

It might prove tougher for the company to hold on to contract programmers. In October 1996, the brokerage signed three-year contracts with three consulting shops, locking in the services of programmers for $US500 per day each. Each vendor must supply Merrill Lynch with programmers who are trained to use automated conversion tools from Peritus Software Services in Massachusetts.

But there are no guarantees that the same people will remain on the project through 1999.

"I'm not concerned about losing employees; this is the place they want to be," said Susan Luechinger, a Merrill Lynch vice-president who oversees its year 2000 program. The main concern is keeping the consultants, she said.

Luechinger said she meets regularly with consulting vendors on retention strategies. If challenged, Merrill Lynch will flex its market muscle. The company spends more than $1 billion per year on information technology and has set aside $200 million to make its systems year 2000-compliant.

Any contract programmer who tries to squeeze Merrill Lynch for more than the $500 per diem will "never work at Merrill again", said Howard Sorgen, the company's chief information officer. Merrill Lynch is still on schedule with a year 2000 effort that included the renovation of 35 million lines of code last quarter. Sorgen credits Luechinger, a 49-year-old who three years ago steered Merrill Lynch through T+3, another gigantic reprogramming project with an immovable deadline.

T+3 was a securities industry initiative that forced brokerages and clearing houses to settle transactions in three days instead of the old five-day standard.

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