IT's Finest Hour

Last week, we posted a story on our Web site titled “Don’t Believe the Hype: The 21 Biggest Technology Flops.” It was one of those articles that elicited pages and pages of reader comments. Most were insightful; many were amusing; a handful were disturbing.

Among those in the “disturbing” category was the very first comment. “What about the Y2k bug? [Weren’t] there supposed to be banks losing all the money they had in their vaults, [airplanes] dropping from the sky and general global unrest as the clock ticked over to midnight?” the reader asked. “Must be THE most overhyped event of the 21st century, as none of it happened.”

“Absolutely!” another reader agreed. “Y2k has to be THE single biggest overhyped nonevent in the technological era!”

“As soon as I started reading the article, I thought of Y2k,” a third reader chimed in. “It was really overhyped by the media.”

Really? That’s not the way I remember it.

I spent the evening of Dec. 31, 1999, in the data center of Hong Kong’s largest air cargo handler, Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Ltd., better known as HACTL. Granting a journalist unrestricted access to the data center that night was a phenomenal risk, especially when you consider that just a year earlier, systems failures associated with the relocation of HACTL to Hong Kong’s new airport created cargo-handling chaos that caused widespread damage to the local economy.

There’s no question that tensions had to be high in that data center as the clock ticked closer to midnight. Yet you never would have known it. Thirty programmers and systems administrators were calmly monitoring HACTL’s two critical systems: the cargo inventory system and the warehouse activity management system, both of which operated on IBM RS/6000s running Software AG’s Adabas database.

To this day, I remember the moment that Marcus Mok, HACTL’s general manager of information services, managed to smile. It was about 1 a.m. on Jan.1, 2000, and both the systems were performing flawlessly. His sense of relief had to be almost overwhelming. Mok no doubt had the utmost confidence in his crew and the preparedness of his systems. The fact is, though, that none of us really knew what was going to happen. In the end, at HACTL, like virtually everywhere else, Y2k had indeed proved to be a nonevent.

But to attribute that outcome to media hype is to engage in a destructive, disparaging revisionism that mindlessly casts aside the foresight and dedication of an IT community that worked tirelessly for years to fix the problem.

Thankfully, other readers of that “Don’t Believe the Hype” article remember what really happened.

“Y2k was a nonevent because thousands of IT professionals worked many thousands of hours, often late into the night, to [ensure] that it was a nonevent,” one reader explained. Another agreed, noting that had Y2k gone ignored as long as the daylight-saving time issue did, “we’d still be in a world of pain.”

But it was this reader who really nailed it: “I was one of those people who spent literally months plowing through thousands of lines of mainframe Cobol,” he wrote. “Were it not for people like me all over the world who fixed the problems in the legacy code, Y2k would have been the financial disaster of the century.”

He’s right. And he was right when he entered this into the subject line of his posting: “Y2k was IT’s finest hour.” To forget that is to forget what a galvanized IT community is capable of accomplishing. And we simply can’t allow that to happen.

Don Tennant is editor in chief of Computerworld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com.

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