In 1998 I left my job as a computer “consultant” to pursue a master’s degree in Telecommunications Management. I was stuck in my job, tired of troubleshooting people’s email clients and installing Word on their desktops, and was looking for a way to make a leap into bigger and better things. That did happen–although not how I expected–but meanwhile for two years I needed to support myself while achieving my degree. I took the easy path and stole a client from my previous employer. This was at the height of the dotcom boom, and he was frankly too busy to even notice. For a couple years I worked part-time at my advertising agency client, setting up computers, managing the servers, running the fairly simple network they had implemented. It was a good deal for both of us, as the office manager had responsibility for IT and little inclination to work on technology.
Anyone who was around back then will remember the “Y2K” scare. As we approached the year 2000, someone realized that many computers had been storing the year part of dates with only the last two digits. For example, a program would store “98” instead of “1998.” This meant that, as we moved into the new millennium, the year 2001 would be interpreted by these systems to be “1901”. A legitimate problem, to be sure. Some software, such as banking programs running on mainframes, could act unexpectedly and potentially lead to serious consequences.
However, the panic that followed was completely out of proportion to the threat. Instead of focusing on the limited systems that would likely experience problems, a paranoia built up fueled by newspeople who had no idea what they were talking about. People became concerned that, on January 1, 2000, our entire society would melt down and we would descend into chaos as the financial system melted down, stoplights stopped working, water and power systems crashed, and millions prepared to regress to living like cavemen. A brilliant ad from Nike from just before the millennium captured the overall belief of what would happen come New Year’s Day. (Sadly, the ad looks more realistic for 2020 than it did for 2000).
The ad agency I was working was told by their parent company that every single piece of electronic equipment they had needed to be Y2K-certified. The downside of capitalism is that armies of opportunists arise (sound familiar?) to take advantage of social panics like these. In fact, for such opportunists, exacerbating the panic is in their best interests. Thus were spawned legions of “Y2K consultants”, non-technical business-types telling us that even our smoke alarms needed to be Y2K-certified and receive a literal sticker of approval.
When my office manager boss told me I needed to certify every piece of equipment I controlled my response was as follows: “It doesn’t matter whether a network switch has the Y2K problem or not. Most of the network gear was built recently and doesn’t even have this issue. But if the vendor did make the mistake of storing the date with two digits instead of four, the worst that will happen is the time stamp on the log will be off. Everything will still work. So, rather than bill out hours and hours of me doing the certification, I’m going to do nothing. And if I’m wrong, you can personally sue me for negligence.”
My boss didn’t care much about corporate HQ and took my advice. New Year’s Eve, 2000, came and went. A lot of people, expecting the worst, stayed home. I went out and partied, well…like it was 1999. And nothing happened. Of course, the Y2k consultants patted themselves on the back for a job well done. If the army of MBA’s hadn’t saved the day with their stickers, life would have ground to a halt. I, on the other hand, knew the reality. A panic was whipped up by the media, a bunch of opportunists swooped in to make a buck of the crisis, and helped to whip it up further, and life would have gone on either way.