Ian Wells
Y2K Lowell List


"Y2K Was A Test"
Ian Wells
Sunday, January 14, 2000

Y2k was a test. Although problems are going to continue to appear for a long time, the most significant results are in. Our infrastructure did not collapse. Was it brittle or resilient? The answer is resilent.

Y2k is over and more successful than most informed people expected. We succeeded. I'm the kind of guy who likes to sum up. Here is a chronology, and then how I see the results of various tests: test of observation, test of infrastructure resliency, test of media, test of the Information Technology industry, test of connectedness, test of values and test of community response.

I'd also like to shut down the Y2k Lowell list at the end of the month - it's job is done. Thank you to all who have contributed to this list over the last 2 years.


Y2k has been an emotional rollercoaster for those who have been following the issue for the last several years. Here is a brief chronology of the events as they have appeared on the Lowell Y2k listserver.

Before 1998, computer experts were grappling with Y2k remediation efforts due to prodding by several people, including Peter deJager. In 1998, the system-wide risk of Y2k became known to the public through books and the Internet. In 1998, many risks were unknown - would computer systems be remediated in time? Would politicians and industry leaders allocate sufficient resources to fixing the problem? Could they be fixed in time? Were embedded chips going to fail and bring disasters? In 1998, many politicians and emergency management professionals became aware of the risks of computer failures to infrastructure. Y2k community groups emerged around the country, including the Lowell Belvidere Neighborhood Association Y2k committee. John Koskinen began connecting industry and government groups together to prevent Y2k failures and to create contingency plans where necessary. In 1999, the risks became better understood - experts looked at embedded chips and found less problems than expected. Companies created contingency plans, as did emergency measures organizations. Managers in government and industry got marked on how their Y2k preparedness. More public status of Y2k. Community Y2k groups disappeared. And there were fewer failures in 1999 than some expected, few failures due to the GPS rollover, few failures when fiscal year 2000 started - these were all good signs. Public panic did not occur. Those people who wanted to make personal preparations, did so well before the end of December.


Y2k for me was a test of observation. In 1998, there was a lot to worry about because of lack of understanding of the issue by public officials. In 1999, the actual number of failures should have been an indication that the actual situation emerging from the fog of uncertainty was better than the projected in 1998. Many observers picked up on the actual observations, John Koskinen and Peter deJager, to name two. The actual number of computer failures Jan 1-6 is very low.

The remediation and preparation work has paid off. Beyond what almost everyone predicted. Wonderful news.


One of things I have been most interested in is the "traffic jam" effect. Y2k was a way of testing the resiliency of our information infrastrucure. "System" types of problems are ones we would expect to surprise as we grow the world information system. Biological systems grow and self stablize or fail. Although many critical systems are fixed and as of today many are working, there will still be code running erroneously on many systems.

I have never seen any computer models of this resiliency - the resilency depends not just on the code itself but on our communication and social responses to failures. It depends on our ability to predict system effects - how observant are we and how quickly can we respond, together? The most likely time for that to occur would have been at 1/1/2000 which is why so many command posts were on alert that night and why so many computers were turned off. This effect could still occur if the number of failures outraces the speed they can be analyzed and fixed. The awareness of Y2k globally is reassuring because if y2k failures do occur, there is a way, outside current infrastructure, to talk about them and resolve them.


The media was tested and I have been very impressed with their handling of the rollover. There was a clear distinction made between y2k failures and normal failures. The media did not hype the situation, such as I have seen them do before hurricanes arriving. The folks there have been educated into what high-tech/infrastructure failures are and have learned that they have a responsibility to provide accurate information - we are all in this world together. I hope that the media continue their informed coverage of all computer failures.

I hope our regular media or our internet media provides more worldview, person to person, facing the future with hope, looking for opportunities to share.


Information technology response has been impressive too. Y2k was obviously a risk to the reputation of the computer industry and Y2k hit up several weak spots in IT processes - meeting deadlines, hype over fact. Remediation has been extensive worldwide, not just fixing existing code, but also replacing whole systems. I wonder how this has contributed to the current economic boom?

Many other industries have succumbed to their own success. The North Atlantic fisheries for example continued to grow, despite data warning of overfishing, until one year there were no fish.

The whaling industry in the 1800's ridiculed one captain who warned that one day there would not be enough whales in Antarctica to whale. The timber industry works to cut down all oldgrowth forests until constrained by people with a view of the bigger picture. What is truly striking is that for Y2k the IT industry appears to have anticipated the system effect of computer failures and responded to the potential disaster, before it occured.

Perhaps the concerns voiced in 1998 struck a resonant chord in the IT industry - they did for me - the IT industry has been burned by large system effects in the past, for example, delivering operating systems on time and knew the effect was real. Perhaps just having a worldwide communication system, for example this email message and Y2k web sites, meant that critical feedback mechanism and observations of real problems, could be communicated quickly enough to get response needed. There was public concern in 1998 and IT (Information Technology) managers in organizations got high visibility, for example, the City of Lowell hired a computer manager for the first time. Information technology is now pervasive and Y2k forced management to recognize this, organizationally and with resources.

Y2k was a system problem and has been overcome by this curious cycle of worry and action. Those who raised concern led to action by the software engineers and managers. Sufficient action would not have occured without public concern. In fact, in 1998, many managers and public officials did not even know about the system risks of Y2k. At the end of 1999, managers and public officials had public contingency plans in effect which reduced panic and provided a safety net for inevitable computer failures.

Could Y2k have been remediated cheaper? Probably - this was the IT industry's first walk through such a system threat to public safety. If better records had been kept of exactly what software was where (configuation management), code could have been tracked and fixed faster.

Perhaps "y2k compliant" was not the most effective metric. Better record keeping of embedded chips and their characteristics would have allowed pinpointing of date problems. I look forward to analyses of what could have reduced cost of Y2k. IT is the industry that we all know depend on for our well being. Again, what is most impressive, is that the IT industry, for this problem, developed a way, on the fly, to prevent major problems. Let's hope we can apply this to other system problems that occur.


I watched the Friday coverage of new years celebrations, hour by hour, on Friday. It was wonderful, not only were there few computer failures, but many people were celebrating this single event - the coming of the year 2000. We are all one world and we are all one world where we can approach the future together with optimism of what we can do together. I was caught up in the symbolism of it. ABC had thoughtful pieces on Africa and there are many ways we have much to share, applying our optimism. Y2k gave us a chance to step back and see the effect of this new information technology we have adopted so completely over the last 50 years. Our computer/communications give us the chance to share events together, to share optimism and to respond together when potential problems arise.


Y2k from a community perspective is an ongoing test and offers many chances to examine our strengths in community organizing. Y2k infrastructure failures was a totally unexpected risk to our community. How did we respond as a community? Those folks who were working in their communities to raise awareness of the issue two years ago, know how challenging it was to make known why this was not a "business as usual" problem to local officials. Many individuals realized the risks before government leaders who we expect to watch for global issues. If there had been dramatic failures, then businesses and governments and were ready, but churches, non profits and neighborhoods were not prepared, from what I saw.

Why was this? Were they not aware of the effect of technology on our lives? Were they too busy on business as usual? Did they decide to let others handle this? Pervasive information technology is prioritized and leveraged by businesses and governments. I suspect that non profits, neighborhoods, churches have not learned to use information technology to respond to a system problem, such as Y2k.


Because of the high impact, low probablilty nature of the Y2k risk, it has made many groups show their hand. I was particularly struck by Jerry Falwell who had stated a year ago that Y2k was God's retribution on mankind. So today, we have no Y2k failures. Does this mean our engineers thwarted God's will? More likely is that Jerry Falwell would have used Y2k failures as a way to get power and attention and that he was using God's name for his purpose. Gary North explicitly wanted Y2k failures to bring down our economic system. There are those who said there would be no problem and to ignore Y2k - if our engineers and community leaders had done that, then we wouldn't have had "insurance" plans in place, thus encouraging panic. On a personal level too, Y2k has allowed us to show our hand of what we do when dealing with unknowns in life. Does family come first? Are we willing to buy a gun and shoot others who may steal our stuff? How much of our fears and risks are we willing to share with others? How do we turn worries into optimism into action?


Y2k was an amazing test. I've learned more than I can describe. I thought I was going to learn how our infrastructure is dependent on computers and I ended up learning about myself and my family and friends. It's been a great trip with, thankfully, a happy ending.

Ian Wells