Column: Insidious glitches are real Y2K concern

Many people believe the Y2K storm has passed with few glitches. This has caused some to think the problem was overblown, while others believe we beat the bug into submission. While the media is playing out these two scenarios, it's too soon to say if either perception is correct. Y2K is too insidious a problem for us to have a full picture at this early date.

To my knowledge, no one has died because of a Y2K problem, and global infrastructures are holding steady. This is no surprise. Before folks with little knowledge of computer systems began beating their chests about the end of civilisation, Y2K was a systemic problem with the potential to ripple across systems and environments. Over the past few years, this original assessment of Y2K's impact was lost in concerns over our survival.

Any real challenges to the human race quietly passed into the night over the weekend. This leaves us with the mundane reality of applications, networks, non-IT systems and spreadsheets continuing to test year 2000 compliance for years to come. In the second book I co-wrote with Ian Hayes, The Year 2000 Software Crisis: The Continuing Challenge (Yourdon Press, 1998), we compared the year 2000 scenario to an old Chinese proverb termed "death by a thousand tiny cuts."

These tiny cuts stem from miscalculations or errant decisions and result in bad data. Errors, which may be driven by cycle dates or just an odd combination of data, can build up and contaminate related systems. Some problems will be caught immediately, while others will be discovered down the road or maybe never. Derivative errors can then result from bad data being used by downstream systems. All of this can cause problems in inventory, distribution, tracking or financial systems, or myriad of other problems.

When Armageddon is stripped away, we are left with a relatively boring story. Don't get me wrong. Some embedded systems can loop for awhile and fail later. Others may fail on leap day (February 29) or at year's end. All of this may provide some temporary media excitement but is unlikely to be any worse than the 01/01/2000 rollover itself.

The real Y2K bug (not the hyped one) sneaks up on companies. It is complex, hard to identify and fairly run-of-the-mill. Time will tell if these problems get an honorable mention in the Y2K media frenzy or stay buried in the world from whence they came. In the meantime, let's keep our eyes and minds open as we enter the year 2000.

William Ulrich is president of Tactical Strategy Group Inc. and co-founder of Triaxsys Research. Contact him at

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