It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since the Y2K hysteria of December 31st, 1999. Happy New Year! We didn’t die!
Now, you can easily search for the old news reports about the Millennium Bug and read why computer systems were, or were not, going to implode at the stroke of midnight, thrusting all of mankind into a new Dark Ages amid a Y2K apocalypse. This, however, is a more personal story of one small person tasked with testing and patching office computers in the months leading up to Y2K and The End Of The World.
In those days, when the world was new, I was working at a hotel. As the resident computer nerd, I accidentally became the One Man Team in charge of everything on the property that could possibly be affected by the rollover from xx99 to xx00, from documenting to testing and patching or replacing. In early 1999, no one at the hotel seemed at all phased about this whole Y2K thing. I, on the other hand, spent my evenings in a chat room on IRC – short for Internet Relay Chat – hanging with people from around the world who were serious computer geeks. They had been reading and testing and pondering the two digit computer program bug. The majority agreed that the world did need to address the situation or there could be some rather uncomfortable hiccups come New Years Day. Nobody believed that Y2K was The End Of The World but they were convinced that there was a problem. They were most concerned about the banks and the power grid. And I believed them.
This is how I found myself staring down Y2K in a very personal way. A great many news articles assured us that personal computers would be just fine. Microsoft and Apple pcs were totally okay. No worries! One of my chat buddies had a short test program that would simulate the rollover from 12/31/1999 to 01/01/2000 on any OS and sent it to me. I ran the program on my state of the art Win95 home computer. And by state of the art, I mean a big heavy tower with matching clunky monitor, each in a lovely shade of putty, and a whopping 2.5 GB’s of storage. Sure enough, when the short test finished the result was 01/01/1900. Oh boy.
That same chat buddy sent me a Y2K patch program, super simple and written in DOS, to fix my home machine. It worked like a charm. So I went to work and told my boss that things were not as “fine” as we were being told. He said our hotel franchise corporate office had sent out a bulletin that the Property Management Software was Y2K compliant. I nodded. Absolutely. The PMS software might be just fine, written without the two digit year error. But what about the servers at each hotel or the old standalone machines that had been converted over during the last upgrade? It was the operating systems that were most vulnerable, so even if the PMS software was glitch free, the OS is where the Millennium Bug would be lurking, deep down in the core. I whipped out a floppy disk with my buddy’s test program on it and said, let’s test just one of the standalone units, you pick which one. He pointed. I snapped in the disk, keyed in the command to run the program and it came up… 01/01/1900. I believe his exact words were “Oh crap”. Except I don’t think he said “crap”.
I wont bore you with the tedious details of my calls back and forth to corporate tech support. They kept telling me there was no issue and closing the tickets. I kept opening new ones and climbing up the levels of managers and supervisors. I’m no quitter! When I am deep into solving a problem, I am like a dog with a bone, just shaking it. I don’t give up easy, which is both one of my biggest strengths and one of my biggest weaknesses. Sometimes you need to know when to throw in the towel. But on this Y2K problem I knew I was right so I held on. Finally I got to the second in command, or something like that, in charge of tech support. I told him the whole story, again, explaining that I knew the difference between software and operating systems and that this little DOS based test that I had in my possession proved that at least some of the hotel system’s computers were not going to rollover correctly without a patch. I then mentioned all of the many cases I had opened and now served as documentation of my warning. If the main frame in Memphis had the same OS issue, it could be quite a mess come January 1st. I offered to email the test program but the manager said thanks, he knew a guy, he would get his own test.
Let’s cut to the chase. I was right. And he thanked me. A new bulletin went out to all hotels along with a patch to install on the old standalone computers each property might have. I sort of remember there was also another system wide upgrade for the servers, but I’m a little fuzzy on that. By that time I was busy searching the internet for computer chip documentation on our ancient phone system and vacuum cleaners for Pete’s sake.
In the last few days of 1999, before the Y2K Apocalypse, I became accidentally in charge of the emergency kits too, ordering extra flashlights and batteries and even some old fashioned candles, just in case. I told the boss it might be a good idea to top off the hotel generator, just in case. My IRC chat buddies were still feeling a bit wobbly about the power grid, which was pretty terrifying. Had the electric plants been complacent in testing and patching their computer systems, without a Me to goad them? I cancelled my plans to go out that New Year’s Eve, because really, who wants to be stuck in crowd of drunk people when the lights go out, maybe?
I woke up 12/31/99 crazy early, like 3:00 am, to watch the New Year happen live across the world starting in Tonga and Samoa. So far, so good. By the time I got to work that morning, I was a bit like a cat on a hot tin roof. Batteries were fine, generator was topped off, computers were patched, but I was still full of nervous energy. My boss decided to stay on property through the night, just in case, and I offered to stay too. He said no, you go have fun, you did a good job. So I went home and dialed up [you young folk might need to google that] to hang with my IRC buddies. Our first up close and personal test was 7:00 pm when our UK friends hit midnight. We typed frantically… are you there? Are you okay? Cheeky people that they were, they stayed silent for a minute or two before typing HAPPY NEW YEAR we still have lights! Yay! When it was finally the East Coast’s turn, I was punchy from lack of sleep and a few glasses of wine but I was ready. I threw open a window, hit play on my cassette tape of Prince’s 1999, turned up the volume to 11 and went outside to yell HAPPY NEW YEAR with my neighbors who had all came outside, some banging pots and pans. “We have power!” said the couple across the street. “Yes we do!” I replied… oh gosh, the boss, the hotel. I went inside to get the phone and called him. “Are you okay? How are the computers? Do you need me?” He laughed, in a relieved sort of way. “We’re fine, see you on the 2nd.” I went back to the computer and lasted about 20 more minutes before I threw in the towel and went to bed. And that is how I spent the night of Y2K.
So when people talk now about the Y2K hysteria and how it was all a scam since nothing bad happened that night, I usually just smile and bite my lip a little. Nothing bad happened because countless numbers of little people like me were in the background, gathering information, patching systems, cajoling technicians, making sure that everything would indeed be fine.
You’re welcome and Happy New Year 2020.