Y2K and Today

Even though I work from home full time, I have a little extra time available since most things have been closed by a gubernatorial executive order. During downtime, I’m doing a little tidying, and it’s amazing the things you find and realize you’ve held onto.

At this time twenty years ago, I was probably be in some conference room receiving this plaque along with a couple dozen other people as our efforts related to Y2K had concluded. Our effort was small – to monitor potential degradation to physical infrastructure related to any unfixed Y2K bugs. The real work had been occurring for a few years prior, to get the world ready for the rollover. I couldn’t help but think about the parallels to the current COVID-19 situation.

Y2K required a sustained worldwide mobilization across multiple industries and technology sectors. It was all the rage to point at old COBOL software as the potential culprit, but a friend who worked in the financial sector (and a COBOL programmer) said they’d been ready since the first 30-year mortgages had been processed in 1970. He said it was the cowboy C++ programmers and any shortcuts they took in firmware we needed to worry about.

That’s how it went. For the better part of two years, everything was patched, tech sectors pointed the finger at each other, the media predicted doomsday, and who knows how many coffee cans full of cash are still buried in back yards, waiting to be found.

In the end, it was all fine. Nothing significant happened. I watched on TV as Auckland, New Zealand welcomed in 2000 with no ill effect and went to bed.

In the following months, there was an interesting reaction that took place. Many people I knew scoffed at all of the “wasted effort” and all of the hype for something that “turned out to be nothing.” It seemed to get lost that maybe the day went off without a hitch because of all of that effort and hype.

Twenty years later, I hope beyond hope that all of “social distancing” we’re doing helps to minimize the human toll of COVID-19. There will be a definite economic toll, but we’ll recover from that. I also hope that, as a society, we’re smart enough to recognize that a lessened human tool will be because of everything we’re doing, rather than in spite of it.