Have I been wrong about Y2K?

For the last couple of years, editorial director Bob Artner has played the role of Y2K skeptic. What's happened to change his mind?

For the past couple of years, my role in the Endless Y2K Debate has been professional skeptic, The Amazing Randi for the IT community. (You remember Randi, don’t you? He’s the guy that debunked Uri Geller and others who claim to have psychic powers.) Sure Y2K will be a nuisance, I’d say, but it’s not going to mean the end of civilization as we know it. As a true skeptic, I spent a good deal of time at parties or while watching my kids’ soccer practices explaining to questioners why I didn’t think it would be necessary to cash in their 401Ks, load up on shotgun shells and dried fruit, and move to Montana.

Now something’s happened to puncture my complacency—at least a little bit. Before I tell you about that, let me explain my views on the real significance of Y2K.

“…but is it Y2K compliant?”
Like a lot of observers, I’ve been amazed at the ingenuity of IT executives in inflating their budgets, under the guise of fixing their company’s Y2K vulnerabilities. To me, this has been the real Y2K story. (And I’m not the only one who feels that way, as you can see in our recent interview with The Yankee Group’s Howard Anderson.)

While some companies have been smart and have taken this opportunity to upgrade their systems, other firms seem to have lost perspective, agreeing to any spending proposed by their CIO or consultants. No amount seems too large to keep the Millennium Bug from “infecting” their company and driving down their stock price.

Now I’m not blaming the CIOs. Like the Tammany Hall politician, they “seen their opportunities and they took ‘em.” After all, for many companies, this was the only occasion in recent memory when IT executives were actually being encouraged to spend money. Usually when they present their capital budget to their board, they’re treated like thieves taking food from starving children.

So who can blame some managers for doing a little Y2K featherbedding? If you need the hardware, you need the hardware, and if you have to use Y2K to justify it, well, what’s the harm?

We must be in the front row
It reminds me of something I learned while managing a restaurant. One Saturday night, one of my employees got a mild shock while cleaning a blender. He seemed okay, but I didn’t want to take any chances, and I took him to the emergency room.

As you can imagine, Saturday night in a hospital emergency room looks like something out of a war zone. The waiting room was packed.

Between the guy with a huge gash on his arm sitting in handcuffs between two cops (one with a shiner) and the half dozen pretty serious accident victims already there, I was afraid we’d be there for hours. We walked up to the admissions desk. “What’s the problem?” the triage nurse asked. “Well, he received a mild electric shock at work—“

Before I could finish, she practically jumped over the counter, then threw my friend on a gurney and sprinted down the corridor to an examining room. We were out of there in about half an hour, averting our eyes from the stares of all of the sick and injured people who had been there ahead of us.

My policy from that day on has been to include a mild electric shock in my symptoms whenever I have to go to the ER: “Well, I cut my hand open with a knife—and I also got a mild electric shock.” As I said earlier, whatever works.

Have I misjudged Y2K?
Now that I’ve established my credentials as a confirmed Y2K skeptic, let me tell what happened to shake my confidence.

It was a letter my wife received a couple of weeks ago.

She had ordered a number of coloring books from Dover Publications, a small publisher in Mineola, NY. It specializes in inexpensive art books, paperback editions of public domain novels and poetry, and coloring books on historical topics. My wife had mailed in an order for our kids from its catalog, just as she had done every Christmas season for the past several years.

Instead of her order, she got a letter in reply, which started:

Dear Customer,

Thank you for your order. Unfortunately, we are unable to process it promptly because we are now installing a completely new, Y2K compatible billing system. Our old system was shut down at the close of business on Friday, December 3.

The new computer system should be in operation on or about December 27, and shipments from our warehouse will resume shortly after that.

If this delay is acceptable to you, please return your order and the coupon at the bottom of this letter in the enclosed postage-paid envelope. We will process it soon after the new system is available to us…

It was a very nice letter, promising my wife free shipping if she wanted Dover to fill her order. All the same, there was no way to get the coloring books in time for Christmas. (Don’t worry about my kids—they’re getting more than enough stuff.)

Now, I’ve got no idea what’s going on at Dover, but as a customer, you have to wonder about a Y2K strategy that effectively closes a business’ doors for more than three weeks, during the big shopping season.

As an industry observer, the letter from Dover made me wonder: Are other companies taking such extreme measures to ensure Y2K compliance? It’s a novel strategy, akin to having the nation’s power companies assuring Y2K compliance by shutting down the grid a few minutes before midnight.

A return to complacency
Well, since we got the letter I’ve gradually returned to my role as a Y2K skeptic. I still think we’re going to look back at this whole episode more for what it says about our fears about technology than about actual technological problems.

Still, I remain a little worried about what companies might be doing, or have done, all in the name of Y2K.

Bob Artner is editorial director of TechRepublic. Most of his Y2K planning involves trying to find a reliable babysitter and decent champagne at a reasonable price.