Learning Y2Ks lessons

Michael T. Burr,


By mid-morning on New Year`s Eve, when countries on the other side of the world began making the Y2K transition without apparent trouble, any lingering fears of a Y2K disaster were largely dispelled. Under the piles of confetti and broken champagne bottles lie several important lessons that the industry should take to heart.

Lesson #1:

Never let your guard down. Although New Year`s Day is past, we`re not out of the woods yet. January billing statements still must be mailed. Who knows what gremlins might be hiding in legacy data, ready to foul up the works of newly Y2K-compliant systems? Further, cyber threats don`t show any sign of diminishing. To the contrary, hacker attacks are increasing as quickly as firewalls can be raised to thwart their assaults, and cyber bombs planted by outside Y2K contractors might explode at any time.

Lesson #2:

Information technology is a thankless business. The smooth Y2K rollover is attributable in large part to the information technology (IT) specialists who carried out the Y2K remediation effort. They did a great job, and they deserve recognition for it. Unfortunately, cynics speculate that the whole crisis was manufactured by the computer industry for self-enrichment, and will point to the smooth rollover as evidence of the ruse.

These people are only slightly less ignorant and paranoid than the extremists who believed the Y2K bug was created by the United Nations as part of the so-called New World Order plan for global domination. (For more information, see the FBI`s “Project Megiddo,” which summarizes the Bureau`s assessment of Y2K-related terrorism. Scary stuff.)

In any case, IT specialists get little credit for averting a potential disaster. Instead, the same talking heads on TV who fomented panic with half-truths and disinformation now smugly imply the Y2K bug was a red herring.

Lesson #3:

The truth shall set you free … sometimes. Thankfully, the American public as a whole seemed fairly nonchalant as the new millennium approached, and did not overreact. Credit goes to the communications professionals who provided a forthright and sober counterbalance to the hysterics spread by the mass media. One might wonder, however, whether the constant stream of Y2K hype might have dulled people`s senses to it, and thus minimized their reaction.

Lesson #4:

Nerds rule the world. The fact that the lights did not go out restores many people`s faith in the modern world, and in humanity`s ability to persevere. However, the Y2K scare leaves an uncomfortable awareness of two key facts: 1) how completely we`ve come to rely on IT; and 2) how fragile IT systems can be.

Given the economy`s reliance on critical infrastructure, it`s unsettling to think that the weakest link in the chain is a system that might be inherently flawed and vulnerable to attack. In the effort to integrate information systems and raise them to ever-higher levels of functionality, are we building magnificent castles out of sand, ready to melt with the first rising tide or rainshower?

To a degree, the Y2K problem teaches a Luddite lesson-too much reliance on technology can be a bad thing.

Lesson #5:

Don`t waste a teachable moment. Rather than simply breathing a sigh of relief and going on with business as usual, the industry should take advantage of the experience gained from Y2K preparation.

The tools and methods used to analyze and debug Y2K compliance problems should be employed to test and improve the overall function and fortitude of key systems. Further, the cooperative effort marshaled to achieve the goal demonstrated the power of teamwork in a way that no Outward Bound weekend ever could. Here is an opportunity to study the way these efforts were planned, organized and executed, and to use the knowledge gained to improve processes in the future.

Failure to learn the lessons of Y2K would not only be a terrible waste, but also a mistake that could prove fatal the next time a similar juggernaut raises its head.

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