As the New Year arrived in city after city around the world, those of us involved in the Y2K problem were paying little attention to the fireworks. We were focused instead on the lights in the background. Despite our technical competence, hands-on experience, diligent testing and confident statements, we were still holding our breath as the Year 2000 arrived -- and we released it in a sigh of relief when the lights stayed on.
Throughout the globe, the phones worked, and nuclear reactors hummed. Missiles remained undisturbed in their silos, and planes flew through the air. I was particularly grateful for the latter, because I was at 37,000 feet over Toronto on a United Airlines flight to Heathrow just to prove a point about my confidence about Y2K.
But before dawn even broke over party-weary cities, the Y2K critics were sharpening their knives. To them, the lack of havoc was proof that the Y2K problem was an illusion, just as they suspected all along. Within nine hours of midnight, Universal Time Code (formerly known as Greenwich Mean Time), I gave several interviews to reporters who seemed to be gloating over the apparent lack of Y2K problems.
Y2K has always been a question mark. The possibility that a Y2K problem would affect power was remote, but even a slim chance for failure required contingency plans. We knew from the beginning, though, that if we had any success in fixing Y2K, the critics -- supported with the infallibility of 20/20 hindsight -- would claim the problem never existed.
That argument does not hold up to examination, however. The critics contend that the continued use of a two-digit year would not cause any "significant" problems and that money spent on the project was unnecessary. The truth, however, is that the hype about Y2K, including some of the more ludicrous statements, forced companies to examine their systems with the goal of answering one question: Did Y2K pose a threat to the computer system that provided benefits to their organization? If the answer was yes, they took appropriate action; if the answer was no, they did nothing.
Each time that money was budgeted for Y2K problems, the expenditures were initiated by technical and management experts who had the skills to comment on whether the two digits would cause problems that required remediation. Because of these projects and the efforts of hundreds of thousands of programmers around the world, the phrase "Happy New Year" is still a pleasant greeting and not an exercise in irony.
What is ironic is that unlike the critics, only a few Y2K managers are willing at this early date to pronounce the Y2K operation a success even though it is way too soon to signal an all-clear. Over a holiday weekend, especially this holiday weekend, only a tiny percentage of computer applications are active. Most of these relate to the infrastructure, which received a tremendous amount of attention and was predicted to run smoothly. The real test arrives when the engines of commerce are restarted today, and all the applications in the world deal with the Year 2000 for the first time.
We need to wait a month or two before detailing our success or failure. We avoided chaos because programmers and managers around the world did their best to solve this potential problem before it became a reality.
Of course some projections were inaccurate, falling on both the low and high sides of reality. Were the assessments of a foreign country's Y2K status accurate? I doubt it, because they were based upon the unknown accuracy of the most accurate data available.
Ironically, the greater our success, the more "evidence" critics will cite for declaring that Y2K was an illusion. But it's always easier to predict the future after it becomes history. Meanwhile, programmers around the world wish you a Happy New Year.
The writer is a consultant on Y2K issues.