Friday, January 1, 2010

Y2K - no problem?

It is exactly ten years since civilisation failed to collapse in the wake of the Millennium Bug. And as people reminisce about the decade just passed, they are likely to make smug comments about the apocalypse that didn't happen.

In the anticlimax, after all the hype and the worry of Y2K, after power stayed on and planes didn't fall out of the sky, the media were full of scorn for the dire predictions that people in the IT industry had been making for the previous decade.

I work in IT.

Ten years ago, my department, like countless others around the world, had spent months auditing our systems for potential issues.

We counted ourselves lucky. Our application architecture was not overly sensitive to millennium date issues, for example standard stored formats and calculations didn't depend on two digit years, and all date handling went through a small library of standard functions. We had it easy. Even so, we found and fixed many problems ahead of time that could have wreaked havoc with our financial systems if left unresolved.

And in the early days of January 2000 we encountered more problems that we and our trading partners had failed to spot.

We dealt with them. No big deal.

But it could have been very different.

We were able to cope only because we, and countless others, had already put so much work into making our systems safe. We were able to cope only because when the clock ticked into the new century we were in good shape. We had some panics that January ten years ago. We had some extra work to do, but it didn't overwhelm us.

We coped, and nobody noticed.

It is easy to dismiss the fact that what we dealt with was just the tip of the iceberg of what might have been. And it is especially frightening to realise now just how fragile the world economy is, when the failure of a couple of banks can plunge the world into recession. If we'd had a few more serious hiccups, our team would have struggled to cope. If we'd struggled, others would have felt the effects. Who knows how far those ripples might have spread?

Y2K is remembered as the disaster that never happened, but that is not because the threat wasn't real. It is because people in the IT industry around the world had taken it seriously.

In this case, no news really was good news. Don't knock it.

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