Y2K--What Really Happened? Robin Guenier, UK's Taskforce 2000 Director

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Y2K - What Really Happened? Source: By Robin Guenier Date: 28 January 2000

The Y2K computer problem is boring  explaining it, fixing it, even its outcome. Its amazing it got any attention.

However, one aspect should not be boring: its extraordinary cost. Globally, it may exceed #400 billion. I doubt if there has been a single problem since World War 2 that has cost so much  enough to eliminate much of third world debt. So, as little seems to have happened, its probably not surprising that commentators are suggesting that much of that spend was unnecessary  even that it was all a hoax. But, if so, its the most amazing hoax of all time.

Sadly, there is little sign of a serious review of what happened. Apart from attempts to discover the greedy consultants who made fortunes by encouraging the scam. Incidentally, its hard to find any  one British Sunday paper dropped the story altogether. So the issue may fade away. Despite that enormous cost, despite suggestions of incompetence, waste and fraud. Few people are interested in computers  unless the story is about some amazing new whiz-bang development. Yet this extraordinary episode should demand attention. It raises important questions.

What really happened? Did we vastly overspend? Was it a fraud? Was it overhyped?

Well, yes, of course there was overspend. But thats normal on large projects, particularly where there is no established experience. Nothing remarkable there. And, no it was not a fraud.

Overhyped? Hardly  from the outset, it was difficult to get any serious attention. We tried to explain to the media that it was about how computers process information containing dates. Boring. We went on about data bases and millions of lines of code in systems for accounting, billing, order entry, taxation, payroll and so on. Yawn. A desperately unglamorous project. How could something so dull be newsworthy?

Then the embedded chip problem emerged together with warnings of serious consequences if it was not solved. Interest began to stir. And soon a myth evolved  Experts tell us that planes will fall from the sky, nuclear plant go into meltdown . . . and microwave ovens explode. No expert made such predictions: most avoided prediction altogether. But the clichi was established. Then there was something else: it was all about the drama of the new Millennium. Date processing may be dull but not so the radical change that was coming when clocks moved from 1999 to 2000. So the clichi was expanded: At the stroke of midnight on December 31st, planes will fall from the sky . . . Or so experts tell us. And, having created a myth, it was easy to show it was unfounded  so now the whole story, including the real message, was branded as hysteria and doom-mongering. Not very helpful.

Thankfully, most businesses listened to the real (boring) message: dedicated and hard working people did a huge amount of work. Not all of it successful: partly because some left it late or took it less seriously than others and partly because of the complexity of the task, there were a lot of problems scattered throughout 1999. Then some at midnight on December 31st, and many since. But largely isolated and, it seems, nothing very dramatic. Overall, the outcome has been satisfactory so far  because of all that unglamorous hard work. We should be grateful.

But note the so far  we may not be out of the woods yet. Those accounting and order entry systems, etc. had little to do with midnight on December 31st and are only just being fully tested in the real world. Difficulties are still possible over the next few months. Its much too soon to relax  although I expect few major problems.

However, planes didn't plummet from the sky on 1st January . . . there were no riots on the streets. Which proved, said the media, that it was all a scam. Nonsense, of course. But there are valid questions. Why did countries and organisations that seemed to have largely ignored the problem experienced little more difficulty than those that did a lot? And did it have to cost so much?

I will try to provide some answers.

First, in matters of technology, countries are not equal. In particular, developing countries are far less technology dependent than are developed countries  and, in any case, they are more used to things going wrong and better able to cope when they do. That would apply also, for example, to Russia and eastern European countries, often cited as places where little was done. Also, for smaller countries with a simple infrastructure, the problem was easier to solve. So the relatively small number of large developed countries was most at risk  and thats where most of the money was spent. Even so, it is claimed that in some not much was done. Italy and Spain have been mentioned as examples. Their governments may have been less publicly active than in, say, the US and UK. Yet government services and large corporations didnt ignore it  for big business, in particular, Y2K was a global not a national problem.

And thats important: Y2K was essentially a problem for the bigger, more complex organisations. Just as with countries, smaller organisations faced simpler problems. Many are finding that they still have time to fix the problem today: if an invoicing system isnt compliant, its easy enough to replace it and, in the meantime, invoices can even be done by hand.

Also those that started late benefited from the pioneers. On most jobs, its usually more expensive to be first  especially true of Y2K where the leaders had good reason to help the laggards. The scale of international co-operation was remarkable. Initiatives taken, for example, by the US and Britain did much to get things moving globally. As a result, they spent more than others: but should they be criticised for that?

As for cost, the sums spent on Y2K were not so large per organisation. For example, British Telecoms #350 million is a relatively small percentage of its IT budget. As is the #60 million average for the top 100 UK businesses. Yet that meant a #6 billion total  so the #20 billion plus quoted for the whole economy is less surprising. And the businesses that spent these sums have a better understanding of their IT resources, they know what matters and what doesnt, they have sharpened up their contingency planning, they have done valuable housekeeping. Money spent on Y2K brought unexpected advantages.

All this goes a long way to answer the difficult questions. But not entirely. Those who feared that things might go badly wrong must recognise that those fears now seem over cautious. After all, its hard to believe that every organisation got it right, that every programme was finished on time, that nothing of significance was missed  anywhere throughout the entire developed world. Yet there have been few major problems: and such an outcome just doesnt fit with normal experience of big projects. So, perhaps it wasnt quite such a big threat  perhaps everyone could have escaped with smaller budgets and less effort?

Of course, its easy to be wise in 2000. When the pioneers started their Y2K programmes in 1995 and 1996, the fears were real enough. And the greatest was the unknown: no one really understood our dependence on computers. Or the interdependencies between computer systems  both within and external to organisations. Or the impact on wider society if things went wrong. The risk that they might go badly wrong was clear: it would have been irresponsible to have ignored it.

After all, no insurance company, whose essential business is the assessment of risk, would provide Y2K cover  except under near impossible conditions. In retrospect, they could have made a lot of money. And none of todays I told you so experts was explaining then why it was all unnecessary. They too could have made a lot of money. Senior people who examined the risk decided that the job had to be done. I know of none that made a deliberate decision to ignore it  where it was ignored, it was the result of carelessness or ignorance rather than careful assessment. Uncertainty about the outcome continued right to the end: I know of no organisation with a major programme that scaled it down as it learned more about the nature of the problem.

I believe that those that did relatively little and escaped problems were lucky. Just as someone who ignores fire insurance is lucky if his house doesnt burn down  even if the house was less combustible than everyone thought. But that doesnt mean that those who did take out insurance should feel that they wasted their money  or regret that the house remains unburned.

No one who examined the problem in those early days doubted its reality. No one asserted there was no risk and that action was unnecessary. But no one understood it well enough to predict how things would turn out. As it was, the outcome seems to have been relatively benign, even for those who didnt finish on time. It might not have been  and those who pioneered solutions, got on with it and did the boring job took the only rational and responsible course. None regrets it today.

But there may be a more fundamental issue. Y2K has demonstrated that we dont really understand the importance of computers to business and society. Probably we are less dependent on them than we thought. Perhaps the claims made by the computer industry are false. Are we really living in the digital age? Arguably not. Yet that digital age is coming. Unless we improve our understanding of these matters, we may not be ready for it when it does.

) Robin Guenier  Executive Director, Taskforce 2000

-- Old Git (anon@spamproblems.com), February 04, 2000


Y2K has demonstrated that we dont really understand the importance of computers to business and society. Probably we are less dependent on them than we thought.

Actually, there were those who did understand the importance of computers and our dependence on them and provided startlingly accurate predictions based on this understanding.

They were called "pollies."

-- (hmm@hmm.hmm), February 04, 2000.

I'm reminded of those stock-picking contests that pit darts or monkeys against the professionals. On Y2K, some of us--polly, doomer or middle-grounder--were monkeys. Others were "professionals." But let those who pat themselves on the back for being "professionals" remember: the monkeys often win. It seems to me that predicting Y2K was every bit as complex as predicting stock behavior. In short, in Y2K as in stock picking, we were really all monkeys.

-- Thinman (thinman38@hotmail.com), February 04, 2000.

In short, in Y2K as in stock picking, we were really all monkeys.

What's interesting is that nobody brought up this point before the rollover.

-- (hmm@hmm.hmm), February 04, 2000.

Can't remember the source for this quotable bon mot:

"Sometimes a reasoned error is less harmful than an irrationally held truth."

Was it Huxley, someone like that?

Anyhow. Still too soon to say that we *rational* doomers were making an *error*. (Anyone want an ice cube for their drink?)

--Andre in southcentral Pennsylvania

35 Jan 2000

-- Andre Weltman (72320.1066@compuserve.com), February 04, 2000.

I don't remember you bringing it up--or anything else--before rollover either, hmmm. You ain't one o' them there debunker refugees, are ya?

-- . (huh@huh.huh), February 04, 2000.

<<< I don't remember you bringing it up--or anything else--before rollover either, hmmm. You ain't one o' them there debunker refugees, are ya? -- . (huh@huh.huh), February 04, 2000>>>

I assume this odd comment is directed at me, since my post comes immediately before it. If it is directed at someone else, well, oops.

To be truthful, I don't even know exactly what I am being accused of here. <<>> What the hell does that even mean? No, I take that back, I don't care to know. It sounds like some kind of insult.

As it happens, I am posting here and there much more often than I used to, simply because I find myself with more time to do so. My extra time comes partly because of changes in my work situation, and partly because I have finally reached a point where I feel comfortable, after almost 3 years of hard effort, with my personal preps...for *whatever* is coming (I think most likely Great Depression II.) As regards TB2000, I don't know that I spent much time even *lurking* on this particular site pre-Rollover, as I didn't appreciate this forum and its value until a month or so ago.

This is exactly why I don't post very often anywhere. What a waste of bandwith. I apologize to the rest of you for even taking the time to respond.

End of thread, for me at least.

And by the way...*I* at least use my real name and e-address.

--Andre in southcentral Pennsylvania

-- Andre Weltman (72320.1066@compuserve.com), February 04, 2000.

Andre, read it again. It's not directed at you. The post right before your first one reads: "What's interesting is that nobody brought up this point before the rollover." And it's signed: hmm@hmm.hmm. The post to which you refer reads: "I don't remember you bringing it up--or anything else--before rollover either, hmmm." And it's signed

-- . (huh@huh.huh), February 04, 2000.



MR HUGO PLEASE REPORT to a thie courtesy terminal ......

What has happened to Ian hugo of the REAL UK Taskforce 2000? He had some great calls as to when systems would begin to misfire. But I haven't heard a thing since rollover. Also, aside from problems with birth registries and most recently a shortage of antibiotics in the hospitals, there has been very little Y2K glitch news from Britain.


-- Squirrel Hunter (nuts@upina.cellrelaytower), February 04, 2000.

Taskforce 2000


Action 2000

-- Old Git (anon@spamproblems.com), February 04, 2000.

Nope, Guess no one remembers ANYONE bringing up the fact that embeddeds (the thing that got people interested like airplanes falling out of the sky) were a bunch of hype before the rollover... no never saw it written anywhere, especially here......

-- Cherri (sams@brigadoon.com), February 05, 2000.

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