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How we survived Y2K

No one in the federal information technology community who survived the millennium rollover will ever forget the work, the anxiety and the dollars spent to alter or replace millions of lines of programming code so computers would recognize Jan. 1, 2000. We asked Jim Flyzik, former Treasury Department chief information officer who is now president of the Flyzik Group, if the massive effort to make computers safe for the new century was unnecessary, in light of the relatively problem-free rollover reported in Federal Computer Week and elsewhere. Or was it because of all that work, anxiety and money spent that we avoided a computational doomsday?

 “We went into the project, and the objective was to have nothing happen,” he said. “So it’s somewhat ironic that when nothing happened, it was seen as all hype. In my mind, it was an example of the government mobilizing around a project and getting all the work done that needed to be done.

“I do believe that in the case of Treasury, in particular the Internal Revenue Service and many of our other bureaus, that had we not put in all that time and effort and work, we would have had major, major problems,” he added.  “There’s no doubt in my mind that we accomplished a great deal, and that we succeeded in achieving the objective of nothing happening.”

From the Jan. 10, 2000, issue of  Federal Computer Week

Y2K mayhem? Just ho-hum

The biggest Year 2000 problem for the federal government may have been getting stuck at work during the celebrations. As computer systems functioned through Zulu time, midnight Eastern Time and the good times, millennium bug watchers may have felt a bit let down. Simple repairs and some red faces followed a series of minor glitches. For example:

  • A few alarm systems and computerized locks failed, but they were fixed in short order.
  • A power plant in Wisconsin shut down briefly.
  • The Energy Department’s headquarters could not receive updates from a system at one of its national labs.
  • A backup system at a regional Federal Aviation Administration site failed but also was fixed quickly and posed no significant threat to safety.
  • A software glitch at the Department of Veterans Affairs was discovered that could have resulted in VA invoices being dated 1900 instead of 2000.
  • A Justice Department switch that relays information from FBI crime information databases to other agencies relayed information just fine but dated it as 01/01/100.
  • Perhaps most amusing of all, the World Wide Web page for the Naval Research Laboratory’s Director of Time proclaimed briefly that we had arrived at the Year 19000100.

Not all problems were trivial, however. One of the more serious failures crippled the software used to process firearms licenses at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The ATF halted its licensing operations for five days.

Another significant Year 2000 failure popped up in one of the Defense Department’s satellite-based intelligence systems. Although DOD announced that the system was down for two hours during the date change, the event remains a tightly guarded secret. There are other failures in DOD that remain classified, according to a DOD source, adding to the argument that we may never fully know the extent to which DOD operations were affected.

Overall, so little happened that agencies might find it difficult to convince the IT rank and file that the next big challenge — security — is a challenge at all. “We cried wolf and then apparently nothing happened,” said John Pike, a defense analyst for the Federation of American Scientists. “Not even a stoplight conked out.”
Ringing up the new yearHere’s the total amount government and industry spent on preparing the world’s computer systems for the Year 2000:

World total: $500 billion
U.S. total: $100 billion
Federal share: $8.5 billion
Source: Commerce Department

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