Have we learned nothing from Y2K?

Have we learned nothing from Y2K? Peter De Jager, who wrote one of the first warnings about Y2K in Computerworld (Sept. 6, 1993) and has spent much of the last decade spreading the word about the problem, sees little reason for IT to crow about its success so far.

Most of the fixes have been stopgap measures, De Jager argues, and neither IT nor business people have changed their behavior to show that they've learned any lessons from Y2K. IT still develops projects on an ad hoc basis, doesn't document them enough, and modifies old systems that should instead be replaced.

De Jager angrily rejected suggestions he and other analysts overhyped the Y2K problem. He does predict, though, that certification and other advances will bring more professionalism and expertise to the profession. He spoke to Computerworld Saturday morning after a singularly uneventful New Year's Eve.

CW: Should we all be feeling a bit silly this morning?
De Jager:
(annoyed) Why? Because we haven't seen problems? You know, I have been doing [interviews] now all day and I keep getting asked the same questions. And it's a rather silly approach. First off, the notion that we haven't seen any problems is rather weird.
All of last week in London we've had a problem with credit-card swipes. Ten thousand devices that would not allow people to swipe credit cards or ATM cards. In a Cap Gemini report where they asked the question, have you already seen a Y2K problem, 82% of the companies they surveyed said yes they had seen problems.
CW: Your 1993 story in Computerworld estimates the cost of fixing Y2K at between $50 billion and $70 billion. That's way below the Gartner Group number of between $300 billion and $600 billion having been spent, or the IDC estimate of $280 billion. So in fact you were initially on the conservative side.
De Jager:
Very conservative. And one of the things I keep getting asked is, you know, was it all hype, and did we really need to do anything. And I find that really bizarre.
The premise is that there was no problem, that the only reason we spent this money is because people like myself convinced you to do it. And I find that a rather peculiar compliment, in a way. It suggests that I, or the other consultants of which there are many, are such convincing speakers that we could convince people to spend billions of dollars [unnecessarily].
But the reality is they didn't spend money because we said there was a problem. They spent money because they looked at their systems and went 'Oh my God, we have a problem.' You know, we're damned if we do and damned if we don't here. If there are no problems, then people say, well, there was never an issue.
Meanwhile we've been working really hard for a long, long time. If there is a problem, then we didn't do our job. I find myself in the peculiar position sometimes of practically wishing that we had failed in some way in order to prove that we were correct. That's something I find very very strange.
CW: Indications seem to be that we've done pretty well at addressing Y2K, at least so far. But do you think IT has learned anything from this episode?
De Jager:
I'd love to say yes, I really would. Certainly there are lots of lessons available to us should we choose to learn. But I don't think we've learned anything from this. We will still do not do documentation properly. We will still modify systems instead of replacing them when they need to be replaced.
We will still have a gap between the IT department and the business part of the world, and there should not be that type of gap. One of the reasons we had Y2K in the first place is that IT was more concerned with technology than with the needs of the user. Y2K is one of the biggest embarrassments of our profession. And I don't really believe we've learned anything from it.
The proof of that is we've solved Y2K not by getting rid of the problem, but by postponing it and by using windowing instead. (Editor's note: Windowing fools an application into thinking two-digit dates are four-digit dates.) Windowing is a stopgap, and the reason we were doing it, the excuses we gave was: it was cheaper, it's what we had to do at the time, someone else will fix it later, we'll replace the software by the time it breaks. Which are exactly, exactly the same excuses we used when we used the two-digit year in the first place.
CW: What will the legacy of Y2K be? Will it leave us with better designed or at least better documented systems?
De Jager:
No, absolutely not. In fact, I would guess that most organizations, if you asked them today how many different pivot dates do you use in your windowing scheme, and where exactly are they, and have you documented when they absolutely must be fixed, I think you will find that they would be unable to get you that information.
CW: So do you see any positive effect at all coming out of the fact that we have been reexamining our old code?
De Jager:
I think that what is going to happen is that there will be a better appreciation of how much we actually depend upon technology. And maybe, just maybe management will realize we're not an overhead, we're not a cost center, we're actually an important part of the business.
If you look at groups like CIPS [the Canadian Information Processing Society] and a couple of others, there is a push towards certification of programmers and programmer/analysts, project managers. I think certification is something that will happen, that will arise out of Y2K. Specifically, within the next five years, unless you are certified as a project manager, for example, you will not be allowed by law to work on projects above a certain size, in the same way that a doctor cannot perform heart surgery without having that certification.
CW: You expressed regret that people have been patching up old systems. Will we ever get rid of them?
De Jager:
[laughs] I don't think so. I think those systems will just perpetuate. They don't go away overnight. There's always a 10% replacement level every year, and it's sort of random. A hundred years from now there will still be code that was written in the 1960's running somewhere, because it works, so why replace it? There's not a nice clean transition from old systems to new systems, it's random, it's very chaotic.
CW: So you see Y2K as a missed opportunity to make a fresh start?
De Jager:
Oh, there's no doubt. We could have done this right, but we left it too late and therefore we rushed it and did the best we could. We've been lucky so far, certainly. Telecommunications and power were the two things that kept everybody awake. And we have come through that without problems. But we could have done a better job if we had started earlier, and if we weren't in a panic towards the end. It's going to be interesting to watch how it unfolds in the next couple of days and weeks.
I think that one of the things that is going to happen is that once we are through Y2K -- and we are not yet, despite what some of the media is saying -- that management will say "OK, we've patched it long enough to make it through, but we are now going to go to packaged software."
I think the two biggest projects in the near future will be moving to ERP and e-commerce, which is an opportunity we didn't get to in the last couple of years because companies were so focused on Y2K.
CW: Do you think this is the year of opportunities for IT?
De Jager:
Yes, I think there is going to be a huge growth period. What we have done through Y2K is we've created a bulge of work in the IT industry unlike anything we've seen before. We've always had the backlog of work that we couldn't get to. But the backlog, for the most part, has been a bit of an illusion.
Basically, there is always stuff that you can do [but] you do the things that have the best ROI. This backlog is different, because we put stuff to the side not based upon ROI decisions, but because we had to do Y2K. There were things we would love to have gotten to, but couldn't. The stock exchange in North America, was supposed to have gone to decimalization in 1999. That was very very important to the stock markets, and it didn't happen. Not because we didn't want it but because we couldn't get to it.
CW: How did you spend New Year's eve?
De Jager:
On a plane, flying from Chicago to London on United Airlines.
CW: Were you trying to make a statement?
De Jager:
The only way I knew how. I mean, I've been at this for nine years. How do you encapsulate what you've seen over a nine-year period and make a statement that you believe everything is going to be fine? How do you prove that you truly believe that without doing something like this?
I had absolutely no concerns at any point during the flight. I knew that we would come through it, in the same way I knew that we would not have power failures and that the telephone systems would work.
CW: How big a part of your life has Y2K been?
De Jager:
It's been everything, for the last five years.
CW: Finally, you have put the year2000.com domain name up for auction. How did that go?
De Jager:
Oh, we don't know yet. I mean, we have a bid on the site right now for $4.5 million, but quite frankly I believe it's a hoax. I believe that the bids that have come in are phony. I get enough hate mail on a day-to-day basis that [I know] there are more than enough people that would just like to annoy people. It would be great if it got sold. But I'll only believe it when it's sold and we receive the check.
What do you think? Was Y2K overblown or handled appropriately? Post your comments in forums.

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