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A $300 Billion Dollar Con?

September 26, 2014


I work in IT. We are the ones who get asked to make the microphone work and then get sent out of the ballroom before the speech starts.

We setup the fiberoptic light display and then don’t get invited to the party.

So Y2K was a BIG deal for us. The Year 2000 problem was a software problem where computers that could only store two digits for the year couldn’t tell the difference between 1900 and 2000. In the early days of software, computer memory was very precious. You wrote programs to use absolutely as little as possible. It took twice as much RAM memory to store 1900 than it did to store 00. And 40 years ago there wasn’t much concern about the problems that it would introduce at the turn of the century.

Eventually, we, the IT community were able to convince you, the rest of the world that this was a very big problem. One that needed to be fixed. We convinced all of you of this by explaining that if we didn’t fix it

– Airplanes would fall from the sky
– Nuclear power plants could melt down
– Elevators would stop between floors and never open
– The sun would refuse to shed it’s light on the earth if the problem wasn’t fixed

Okay, that last one wasn’t an ACTUAL Y2K problem. But, us IT guys realized that the rest of you needed us. You REALLY needed us and for once we were not only going to set up for the party, we would be invited to attend.

It was a great time to be in IT. The two or three years leading up to December 31, 1999 were great. How often do you get to go back and fix a mistake from your past? We had that opportunity. IT budgets ballooned. Programmers, project managers, testers, quality assurance folks. All across the board, everyone was hiring.

It’s estimated the Y2K preparations cost $300 BILLION dollars. But, we assured you that it was going to be worth it. We promised that we would keep the planes flying. We would keep the elevators working. The lifesaving medical equipment wouldn’t stop working at midnight.

We promised you a lot of things. But, we also knew we could deliver on those promises.

The big night finally arrived. We were nervous. Of course, we knew our fixes would work. We had tested by resetting the clocks on our test computers to 11:59 December 31, 1999 multiple times until we got it right. Our biggest worry was

What if we missed something?

We knew the systems we’d patched were going to work, but what if we missed a critical system? It was on every programmer’s mind that night as the clock wound down.

Interestingly, we also knew that Jan 1, 2000 was not the start of the new millennium. Hey, we lived and breathed number systems. We understood that the calendar system started with year 1 instead of year 0, and therefore you wouldn’t get to 2000 years until January 1st, 2001. But, we stopped explaining that fact to people when they threatened to un-invite us from the cool New Year’s Eve parties.

As the ball dropped in Time Square and the calendar rolled over, we all held our breath. (No, we didn’t kiss someone. We were geeks at the cool kids party. we didn’t have dates!) And the lights stayed on. The airplanes kept flying. The medical devices stayed on. And we all breathed a sigh of relief, congratulated one another and lined up at the snack table to get some champagne, or sparkling grape juice depending on our preferences.


And it was right then that the problems started. We started getting some snide looks from the other people at the party.

Hey, Rodney, I thought you said that awful things were going to happen at midnight. Looks pretty normal to me.

Well, we fixed it. That’s why nothing broke. Cool huh?

No, you didn’t think it was cool. In fact, people started to feel like maybe the IT guys had pulled a $300 billion dollar con.

But, seriously ‘the worst bug in history’ and NOTHING broke? Really?

Yeah. We’ve spent three years making sure we found every last little system that might break. We are really good at our jobs. It’s awesome that we managed to find them all!

Nope. You didn’t think it was awesome either. You felt like we’d duped you. No matter how much we tried to explain that the emperor really did have clothes, you insisted he was actually naked the whole time.

We’d gotten new computers, new systems, tons of overtime. (We’re salaried so we don’t really get overtime, but you still accused us of overbilling.)

I was working for Microsoft in 1999. I’ve often thought about how Y2K truly was the IT crowd’s finest hour. We proved that given enough time and money we could fix a computer issue that was buried so deeply in critical systems that it made brain surgery look simple.

And yet, at the time when we felt we should have been hailed as heroes for literally saving the planet, we were branded as shysters and conmen. We quickly got uninvited from the cool parties. We went back to our cubicles and returned to being geeks and nerds.

But for one glorious moment, we were kings of the world.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

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