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The Real Lesson of Y2K, 20 Years Later

What caused the global panic at the turn of the new millennia turned out to be a false alarm. No, computers didn't malfunction as a result of changing the year from 1999 to 2000. But there is an important lesson that the world probably missed in the wake of the misunderstanding.

The two narratives explaining the Y2K incident are somewhat in contrast with one another. Either it was simply a non-issue, that we had nothing to worry about with the machines that we built or it was because of the skilled programmers who averted the problem.

The two, combined, narratives of what transpired on Y2K — that it was strictly a non-event, or, that it was a non-event because of programmers were skilled enough to predict and avert it — actually bred something else: confidence.
Armed with this confidence, in the years since Y2K, we have created more and more complex networks and systems to enhance, guide, or even take over many facets of our daily lives.
Now, we’re discovering what a false sense of security we’ve created. Along with it should come the realization of just how little we understand about the programs that permeate our lives and the networks that link them. Unlike 20 years ago, we appear less and less capable of predicting what will go wrong, or of stopping it before it does.

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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I was one of a team of programmers, at a computers-for-hire company in Ontario in 1999. We blitzed through about a thousand programs, everything from financial to inventory-control. Took about eight months, and all because one of my smart friends mused about what would happen when...
And at the end, when we sat with bated breath, everything worked out just fine. And after the end, the whole exercise was razzed as a hoax! No hoax, just a hell of a lot of good work!
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At least diesel is fungible (not so much the effort of moving it around).

I had two different license servers refuse to recognize dates after 1999, and the companies said it was only fixed with a paid upgrade. So in a sense I lost a couple hundred dollars as a teenager buying new software from a competitor (no sense rewarding their bugs)
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I was working at Cornell doing some research on an invasive insect species, the Asian Long Horn Beetle. I had charge of an underground quarantine facility that had some sensitive environmental controls. If they failed for any reason, we'd have to start all over again after a couple years of work. That morning, a Saturday, I went there to make sure--just in case--they were not working. They were.
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Doesn't matter the issue; you yell "Wolf!" enough times and it will eventually be ignored. Y2K was "Wolf!" on steroids. Most of us in IT knew it would be a non-event. Here's the two things I remember:

1. Being asked to store 55 gallon drums of diesel fuel in my garage in case we needed it for our generator. No. (My polite business response.)

2. Being forced to sit on the sidelines at the advent of a new millennium; because, you know, we were headed back to the dark ages.

Thanks for the memories.
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