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Ten Years After: How the Y2K Issue Changed Us

Joe McKendrick
Insurance Experts' Forum, December 30, 2009

It seems like a Millennium ago: it's been 10 years since the rollover to the new century, a time when many expected the greatest computer crash in history.

The problem seemed so amazingly simple when I first heard about it in the early 1990s. It was just a matter of a simple code fix. That is, the two-digit year fields embedded in many applications (e.g., '91, '92) could just be expanded to four-digit fields (1991, 1992, etc.). What's the big deal?

It wasn't that simple. One vendor executive described it to me as the “mother of all maintenance projects” for a couple of reasons: the two-digit year fields may appear multiple times across thousands of applications in an enterprise's IT inventory, and, even more vexing, it turns out few, if anybody, within these organizations even knew exactly what applications they had. Thus, the mother of all maintenance projects also became the mother of all IT inventory assessments as well.

Robert Mitchell just published an interesting retrospective in this week's ComputerWorld on the crisis that fizzled. I'm sure many in the mainframe-intensive insurance industry will fondly recall those days of code auditing and remediation. Never before or since have so many peered so thoroughly into the inner workings of enterprise IT infrastructures.

Some major shifts in the IT landscape came out of the whole exercise:

IT was put on the map: IT departments, formerly in the enterprise backwater, were suddenly front and center as companies recognized they would be out of business if their systems failed to process dates properly. Corporate boards were even put on the hook, legally liable if they did not pursue due diligence and make sure their systems would be still running at 12:01 am on January 1st, 2000.

Outsourcing grew: Overburdened IT staffs could not handle the code auditing and remediation, which involved the grunt work of manually going through code, line by line, to flag two-digit year fields. Many domestic and offshore outsourcing vendors jumped on this opportunity and established themselves as players in the market.

Packaged software became the norm. Many companies realized that is was not worth trying to fix their custom applications. In many cases, the original authors of the works were already in retirement. The most effective fix was to let the packaged application provider worry about Y2K.

Of course, there may be Y2K echoes still reverberating in smaller ways within many organizations. Some fixed the problem by rolling back internal system clocks to 1972 (which had the same calendar as the year 2000), thus staving off the problem until the year 2028. In the meantime, bridge utilities would convert all incoming and outgoing dates to and from the 28-year rollback. I remember one informed commentator speculated that sometime in the early 21st century, developers would be scratching their heads over how a four-digit year field gets converted into a two-digit field, sent through the application, and then reconverted into a four-digit field at the other end. But we have until 2027 to figure those out, right?

Happy New Year, everyone!

 

 

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