Chicago Tribune, Commentary Section, August 13, 1998
I ran into the “Millennium Bug” this morning while I was trying to pay for breakfast. The manager of the coffee shop looked sorrowfully at my credit card, and asked, “Do you have anything older?” He pointed to the expiration date, which indicated the year 2000, and said, “Our machine won’t take this.” Although the millennium is 16 months away, the “Year 2000 Problem” was, for me, already here.
By now, everybody knows the substance of the Year 2000 Problem (Y2K for short). A large proportion of the computer systems we depend on share a systematic buy—an inability to calculate dates beyond the present century. Back in the early days, when memory was precious, it was generally decided that when storing computer information only two digits were necessary to specify the year. That practice continued until the early 1990s.
The technical fix is trivial (all that’s necessary is to make a place for four digits rather than two). Computer systems that don’t have room for the extra two digits, however, can fail in all sorts of interesting ways (good thing I had cash with me to pay for breakfast).
What everyone would like to know is, will the millennium bring a bang or a whimper, a disaster or a ho-hum non-event? My experience in the coffee shop indicates that the question is no longer abstract in nature.
One way to gauge the probabilities is to think of the Y2K problem as a human problem, which it is, rather than a technical problem, which it isn’t. We know what to do to fix the technology. What we don’t know is whether, in order to do it, we can discipline ourselves to do a hard, uninteresting and extremely expensive job of work for other reward than the ability to stay in business.
Consider what’s necessary to fix the “legacy systems,” the biggest, oldest and most important programs in existence (including, probably, the database accessed by that coffee-shop terminal). These huge computer programs have been handed down by people who may no longer be employed, or even alive. The programs have been modified in multitudinous confounding ways over the years. They can contain millions of lines of code, written in obsolete languages. Every line may have to be searched and, if necessary, corrected. Often the original source code is no longer available, requiring a complex reverse-engineering of the existing programs.
Fixing such a program is the kind of problem that brings out the very worst aspects of corporate and organizational culture. Solving the problem adds nothing to the bottom line, but failure can represent a significant career hazard (40 percent of the 250 largest U.S. companies have replaced their top technology executive this year). If an organization’s culture tends toward shooting the messenger who brings bad news, or if there is significant denial in the executive suite, it’s possible that the problem may be left until too late.
Computer scientist Jim Keogh, author of “Solving the Year 2000 Problem,” describes the leadership at many of the companies and government agencies he deals with as, “frozen in their tracks, facing down the headlights of a Mack truck”—roadkill on the information highway. In May, Newsweek reported that 60 percent of company information-technology officers had begun work on the Y2K problem. Good news. But what about the 40 percent that had not? Only weeks ago, President Clinton spoke to the National Science Foundation about the millennium bug, noting that, “this is clearly one of the most complex management challenges in history.”
Miriam Goddard of the Brockback Group, underwriters for companies up against the Y2K bug, recently said that “for all its complexity, the Year 2000 Problem has a simple underlying theme: Companies will spend money because they want to stay in business.” There is a consistent theme of optimism along these lines in current coverage of the issue.
My trouble with this optimism, reinforced by my experience at the cash register this morning, is that history is full of examples of the failure of brute force in dealing with complex problems. What appears simple often falls afoul of deeper and more complex realities involving human nature.
For the manager of the coffee shop where I had breakfast, the year 2000 is not in the future; it’s here, costing him money. With both worry and resignation in his voice, he complained of losing dozens of customers because they couldn’t use their credit cards. Considerably more than a year before the supposed deadline, he’s already waiting for an answer.