Y2K, the Crazy: Computer glitch or mind-blowing catastrophe?

Editor's note: This is part III of our series, "Y2K: The good, the bad, and the crazy." Read "Y2K, the good," and "Y2K, the bad," and then take a moment to share your own Millennium Eve tales.

While much of the IT activity leading up to the year 2000 was drudge work -- patching some systems, upgrading others -- sometimes things got crazy. Or management got crazy, or users.

Read on for a few stories from veterans in the trenches, starting with contributions from readers of Computerworld's popular Shark Bait forum.

Yes, Virginia, your hair dryer will still work

Among other odd behaviors, here are a few things Shark Bait readers found themselves doing in the the days and months leading up to New Year's Day, 2000.

* Reassuring acquaintances that nuclear power plants weren't going to melt down and their wood-burning furnaces wouldn't cease to function.

* Convincing officemates that they needn't stockpile dried fruits, water and fuel for a coming apocalypse.

* Patching COBOL code at the last minute that had already been certified as Y2K-compliant -- to the tune of $100K -- by an outside firm.

* Restraining over-enthusiastic co-workers from plastering every available surface in the office -- including shredders, scissors and urinals -- with "Y2K-compliant" stickers.

(Read the full account of Y2K goofs and gaffes, as well as readers' earlier Y2K recollections.)

Other CIOs and IT managers likewise found that non-techies' Y2K priorities didn't always match their own.

Forget Y2K; it's the furniture, stupid

On Dec. 29, 1999, as his team was buttoning up one of the last sites on its list for Y2K remediation at Continuum Health Partners, Michael Israel received an irate call from the CIO of one of the hospitals.

Apparently, a doctor's desk had been scratched.

At that point, Israel's team had literally touched every system used by Continuum Health Partners in New York City, which owned several large hospitals. "We were upgrading the system of one of the lead doctors in the hospital, and we scratched his mahogany desk. It was this crazy doctor who brought in millions of dollars a year to the hospital," says Israel, who was chief operating officer for AMC Computer Corp., which had been hired to do the work.

"After 37,000 system touches nothing else mattered. I was getting screamed at," says Israel, still incredulous. "We had to hire a wood refinisher."

Turn of a century, just not the right one

At Ace Hardware Corp., a team of 30 IT staff assembled in a conference room at 10:00 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1999 to wait for news of how its systems were faring around the globe. "The year 2000 came in first in the Pacific, and a dealer in Saipan [in the Northern Mariana Islands] reported in almost immediately," says Paul Ingevaldson, who was Ace's senior vice president of international and technology at the time.

Pole displays, mounted on the registers in every store, were supposed to show the correct date as well as the sale amount. "Once the [New Year] flipped, the date that came up was 1900," he says. Apparently, programmers had changed the point of sale software, but not the program that fed the pole itself.

"Saipan was our canary in the mines," Ingevaldson says. By the time Y2K rolled into the U.S., programmers had the snafu fixed. A few other glitches came up that night, but nothing quite as visual. Still, he says, it was a long night. "I got home at 5:00 a.m."

Hosting a potential disaster? Invite a reporter

Dick Hudson, CIO at Global Marine Inc., an offshore drilling company in Houston, was so confident that his systems would work at the stroke of midnight that he invited a Computerworld reporter, Maryfran Johnson, into his data center to observe operations on New Year's Eve. It was a gamble that most of his colleagues wouldn't have taken for all the money in the world.

He and Johnson watched together as the time change proceeded from the Far East to Europe and finally the U.S., with nary a data disaster to report. "We had nothing to do," he says.

The live reports on Computerworld.com, posted throughout the evening, made Global Marine look good -- but Hudson says the stunt raised a few eyebrows with top executives, who had been unaware of the presence of a reporter beforehand.

Y2K = The beginning of the end?

Global Marine's Hudson did hear of one Y2K casualty. A colleague, the CIO for a multibillion dollar corporation in the Houston area which Hudson declines to identify, used Y2K as the rationale for migrating off of a mainframe and onto an SAP client/server ERP system.

The company gambled on the project, which began around 1998 -- and lost. "They spent $220 million on the project but didn't get it up in time," Hudson says. The company then faced the task of getting its existing systems Y2K compliant. The ERP system never did go live, and within a year or two the business began faltering. The company was eventually sold at a fire sale price.

One of Hudson's colleagues at Global spoke with the company's CIO about it. "[We] heard from their CIO that cost overruns on the SAP project were a major factor in the sale of the company," Hudson says. In the end, the CIO left, the company changed hands and the entire office staff -- including the IT staff -- was let go.

How techies partied

Bruce Schneier didn't have any systems that required mediation -- he had just founded Counterpane Internet Security and had all new systems. But he did feel a brief urge to exploit all of the unwarranted public trepidation over Y2K.

At a New Year's Eve party in Minneapolis, he considered going downstairs and pulling the main breaker at the stroke of midnight. "I wanted to pull the switch," says Schneier, currently chief security technology officer at enterprise security provider BT Global Services. "But I didn't. My wife talked me out of it."

Have your say

How did you spend Millennium Eve -- partying? Working? Or both?

Benny Lasiter and his colleagues at Texaco Natural Gas, a division of Texaco U.S., had to work on New Year's Eve, but they still managed to create a bit of a party atmosphere.

"We were somewhat on edge, but it was also a little bit loose because we felt that the hardest part was behind us," says Lasiter, now an IT strategy consultant in Houston." So yes, the team did manage to get its funk on, he recounts. "On the evening of Dec. 31, we had Prince blaring the song '1999.' "

More to come?

Now that we've put Y2K to rest once and for all, get ready to roll your sleeves up once more -- after all, Year 2012 -- and the end of the world -- is right around the corner.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

It’s time to break the ChatGPT habit
Shop Tech Products at Amazon