Have We Learned Nothing from the Y2K Episode?

Peter de Jager, who wrote one of the first warnings about Y2K in Computerworld [Sept. 6, 1993], was confident enough that nothing would go wrong, that he spent New Year's Eve on a plane. Yet he laments that few companies learned the lessons Y2K had to teach about project development, documentation and when to toss systems rather than modify them. He spoke to reporter Dominique Deckmyn on New Year's Day.

Q: Your 1993 story in Computerworld estimated the cost of fixing Y2K at between $50 billion and $75 billion. Gartner Group Inc.'s estimate is $600 billion. So you were initially on the conservative side.

A: Very conservative. And one of the things I keep getting asked is, was it all hype, and did we really need to do anything. And I find that really bizarre.

The premise is that there was no problem, that the only reason we spent this money is because people like myself convinced you to do it. And I find that a rather peculiar compliment, in a way.

Q: Do you think IT has learned anything from this episode?

A: I'd love to say yes, I really would. Certainly there are lots of lessons available to us. But I don't think we've learned anything from this. We will still not do documentation properly. We will still modify systems instead of replacing them when they need to be replaced. We will still have a gap between the IT department and the business part of the world. One of the reasons we had Y2K in the first place is that IT was more concerned with technology than with the needs of the user.

Y2K is one of the biggest embarrassments of our profession. And I don't really believe we've learned anything from it. The proof of that is we've solved Y2K not by getting rid of the problem, but by postponing it and by using windowing instead. [Editor's note: Windowing fools an application into thinking two-digit dates are four-digit dates.] Windowing is a stopgap, and the excuses we gave were exactly, exactly the same excuses we used when we used the two-digit year in the first place.

Q: Will Y2K leave us with better-designed or at least better-documented systems?

A: No, absolutely not. In fact, I would guess that most organizations, if you asked them today how many different pivot dates do you use in your windowing scheme, where exactly are they and have you documented when they absolutely must be fixed, I think you will find that they would be unable to get you that information.

Q: So do you see any positive effect coming out of the Y2K exercise?

A: I think that what is going to happen is that there will be a better appreciation of how much we actually depend upon technology. And maybe, just maybe, management will realize we're not an overhead, we're not a cost center, we're actually an important part of the business.

I think certification is something that will arise out of Y2K. Specifically, within the next five years, unless you are certified as a project manager, for example, you will not be allowed by law to work on projects above a certain size, in the same way that a doctor cannot perform heart surgery without having that certification.

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