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Lessons Learned from the Y2K Bug: Business Continuity in the Face of Uncertainty

What We Can Learn From Y2K

What We Can Learn From Y2K
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Where were you on the evening of December 31st, 1999?

I was with my family, in a large, cubicle-soaked office block in the dark, wet corners of Reading, United Kingdom. I was nine-years-old and didn’t question any of it solely for the fact I was contempt with the huge office chair I’d perched myself on, the computer games I could play, and the amount of space available for me to burn all the remaining energy I had for that century.

My father, however, was locked in the data centre of British Telecom (also known as BT). No windows, empty chairs to his left and right, large square monitors draping the walls and an intimidating phone in the middle of the desk. His orders; wait and see.

My mother waited near the coffee and wine hoping two things: that the world didn’t end, and that the world didn’t end so we could go skiing with the invoice my father was just about to submit for this once-in-a-lifetime 2-hours piece of work.

I regularly think about that evening. As a young child, I had no idea of the extreme concepts being fed through the media all because of the clocks. Nowadays, the idea that computers would simply stop because of time is like me showing a floppy-disk to a 13-year-old; “that’s the save symbol” they said to me. But, curiously to me, my father was part of that, he was the resource to try fix it if the world was going to end. Him and a few hundred other IT pro’s spread across the globe.

Last week, I sat down with him to ask him about that night.

“What even is Y2K?”

“Ironically, I ended up on a desk, running my own business as a consultant and it was a completely different life to what I was used to while in the Army. A culture-shock actually”.

Although the internet had been around for five years, many people were still not using it. Only larger enterprises were adopting it for internal communications and sharing capabilities. The idea of cyberthreat was unknown at the time.

“The threats are always changing. The more stuff we introduce to this world, the more threats we introduce. The word Cyber wasn’t even in the dictionary back then, as far as I was aware”, but Y2K was.

Y2K, also known as the Year 2000 Problem, Y2K problem, the Millennium bug and the Y2K bug, was a class of computer bugs related to the formatting and storage of calendar data for dates beginning in the year 2000. Alien to the world we know now, the issue was not caused by a hacker or cyberattack, but simply an oversight on production of technology.

“The basic idea on Y2K was that for convenience, most computers only used two numbers for the date. Why use four numbers when you only need two for the date [the last two digits of the year]. Then they realised, what date is the computer going to think it is when we get to 2000?” said James B. Meigs of Popular Mechanics.

The problem that the majority of computer systems made in the 90’s were unable to adjust to a new millennium, caused major concerns across the globe. What would the effects be? Would planes fall out of the sky? Would digital banking crash?

“That was my biggest payday ever as a consultant. I had a couple of systems that had been built back in the 80’s, the date format was not capable of switching over to 2000. It was as simple as someone had not projected that possibility. So, when the clock changed over, it went back to zero and everything would simply stop working”. The system clock would either go back in time to 1900, or continue by adding a 1, making it 11999 – which, as you know, isn’t the correct date to add to invoices and receipts.

“People were saying planes would drop out the sky and all the rest of it, there were huge concerns. So, I had the job at half-passed-eleven, on the 31st of December to sit in the comms room and wait for the clocks to tick over. I basically stared at the screen…and waited to see what happened. It was probably me and few other thousand IT specialists doing the same thing that night, waiting, seeing what would happen, and uh…nothing happened!”

Fortunately, the unknown turned out to be nothing more than an over-exaggerated possibility of events. Media attention around something alien to our world for the turn of our new millennium. What was definite though, was the concern of our times. Thousands of organisations were only able to employ people to “see what happens”. No plans or steps were put in place for the worst-case scenario. The seriousness of Business Continuity had taken a major U-Turn to organisations around the world.

 Lesson learnt

“I had two feelings: one I was really, really disappointed because I wanted all the lights to go out at least, but two, also really happy because I’d made a lot of money for not really doing anything”.

When events like this occur, no matter their credibility or media hype, lessons can always be learnt. We can still go back eighteen years to that night and revisit the revolutionary changes organisation knew they had to make.

“Future proof is the keyword. Really, people who are technically savvy enough to understand the coding still need to be prepared. That planning & preparation. Looking back, I can’t remember what I was actually going to do if the lights did go out”.

“It’s really about us accepting that if the lights are going to go out, what are we going to do about it? And that’s what Business Continuity is all about, that’s what we try to preach; yeah, probably nothing will happen now, but if it does – what are we going to do? Having a plan and knowing it, saying this stuff happens and making sure you don’t ignore it means you’ll be ready to deal with it”.

“At the stroke of midnight of 2000, elevators may stop. Credit cards and ATMs may cease to function. Aeroplanes and trains may come to a halt” Leonard Nimoy dramatically stated during a National Geographic documentary.

With tensions growing across the United States, people were literally arming themselves for the worst. President Clinton appoints a crisis management expert to prevent a national meltdown.

John Koskinen, chair to the President’s Council on Y2K ’98 – ’00 said “10% of the population was fairly confident there was going to be an apocalypse. The president called me one night and said ‘here’s an office, an assistant, don’t let the world stop…’”

Of course, now, those outcomes seem almost comical. How could the change of two digits cause such havoc and devastation? Regardless of the nature of this scenario, there was still a threat to people and organisations, it was just that no one knew exactly what that was.

“On the night of 21st December 1999, I was pretty much stood there with a fire extinguisher waiting for the fire to start. Beyond putting the fire out, we didn’t really have a plan! No one really knew what would happen, but we didn’t really plan for the worst-case scenario. Remember, always plan for the worst and hope for the best!”

The lack of action from most organisation caused years of re-planning and rescoping business continuity for many organisations. If this were to happen again, what would we do to ensure we had the most effective processes in place to fix it?

“The cost to fix the Y2K across the world has been estimated to be around 300 billion [1]. That was the technical aspect of it” says Quora user Shashank Chidambara. “A few known incidents because of the bug affected a hospital in Sheffield, UK [where their] automated mailing system sent wrong medical reports to mothers about the fetus status. Telecommunication companies worldwide had erroneous billing results on Jan 1st”.

In all, the enormous hype around the event turned out to be nothing more than just that, however, with so many organisations hoping for the best-case scenario, it was a huge risk.

We can learn from this event from eighteen years ago even today. Don’t allow possibilities to control the situation, be in control and plan a strategy you know will work. At the very least, make sure you’ve got someone like my father on board, sitting in that dark comms room with his family outside, who are waiting to go skiing.

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