Starting the Millennium Off Right

I was actually hoping, as I looked across Boston harbor, that at midnight on December 31, I would see the lights of Boston’s skyline flicker out just like in a pre-Y2K Toyota commercial or bad NYC blackout movie. Yet, nothing happened. Midnight came and went and the only thing we saw was a rather dull fireworks display. Of course, by that time, I didn’t expect much as I had watched midnight pass across the globe in big-budget millennial splendor without so much as a power plant failure or financial market crash.

After I had slept off the effects of one too many glasses of fine French champagne, I woke up and turned on the TV to see if there had been any Y2K failures in time zones where I had not witnessed the turnover, (Those west of Chicago as my friends are babies and made me leave the party early.) To my utter disappointment, there had been no Y2K failures spectacular enough to merit network television coverage.

What did catch my eye, in the absence of Y2K disasters, were multiple pundits proclaiming that a large portion of the time, money and effort put into the global Y2K remediation effort was wasted. Initial figures put the waste at $41 billion in the United States alone, with $100 billion wasted worldwide.

I think these Y2K recriminations send the wrong message. The overall sentiment was not, “Thank you very much for a job well done,” but condemnation for ripping off the entire planet. I am waiting for accusations that the whole Y2K problem was a global conspiracy, hatched by the programmers, to make them indispensable. Certainly, when I was doing COBOL programming in 1986, I was thinking to myself, “I can definitely leverage two-digit years into a lifetime job!”

It’s too bad that the pundits have this attitude. I challenge any of them to prove that a smaller expenditure of time and effort would have resulted in the same positive outcome. In fact, a state government agency (the actual state was never revealed) left three old, non-compliant, systems on over the New Year’s weekend and they all crashed! This fact doesn’t convince me that we spent too much time and money fixing the problem.

I commend the effort of John Koskinen, chair of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion. Seen mostly as a doomsayer, in my opinion, Koskinen’s efforts paid off with little or no disruption to our lives. Also, I applaud the draconian policies of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) which, due to the possible ripple effect throughout the United State’s financial systems, threatened the closure of any securities firm that did not meet SEC standards for Y2K compliance. Peter De Jaeger, Ed Yourdon and Ed Yardeni might have been annoying with their end of the world prognostications, but they did make us think twice about ignoring the problem.

Moreover, I think we should congratulate the programmers and other MIS staff that worked long hours to make sure our computing infrastructure functioned properly after midnight on New Year’s Eve. Rather than blame them for causing the problem, pat them on the back and tell them, “Good job!”

I guess this is one of those damned if you crash, damned if you don’t crash situations. I surmise that if all of the world’s computers came crashing down on New Year’s Eve the pundits would be saying that the programmers didn’t do enough and the money we spent fixing the problem was wasted because the problem wasn’t fixed.

This brings me to my ultimate point. There are just some things in computing you can’t guarantee. You can model something to your little heart’s content, but in the end, it is all one big crapshoot.

Take data backup, for instance. Most IT shops spend boatloads of money backing up their data and if luck holds, never have to restore even one file. I am sure that most IT shops restore files from backup on a routine basis, but the Holy Grail of backup ROI is discovered when a disaster strikes your data center. Only then do you get a full return on your investment, many times over. It may never happen, but when it does, you thank the good Lord that you had an adequate backup system in place, not to mention the fact that you get to keep your job.

There are many other situations where the ROI only comes with the worst case–disaster recovery and capacity planning come immediately to mind. Let’s face it. You don’t know you really need these things until you really need these things, but you plan for the worst just the same. I think this is what happened with Y2K, and I am glad that most IT manager’s took Koskinen et al seriously and got their houses in order.

I myself would have been entirely put out if I had come home to an apartment with no electricity and a Visa bill for $378,500 of back interest charges dating from the year 1900, 90 years before I got the credit card in the first place!