Just looking at those 3 characters, 2 letters and 1 number, probably caused you to do one of three things:
- Cringe reflexively (that’s me)
- Roll your eyes, thinking, “what a nothingburger”
- Wonder, what’s Y2K?
Twenty years ago last evening, I spent the day, and night, fully awake and worrying. Probably obsessing is more like it.
I was responsible for the smooth transition of several governmental clients into the new millennium – and that meant, specifically, making sure we had found and addressed all of the potential Y2K bugs and issues both apparent and inherent.
Y2K, for those of you young whippersnappers in category three, was a computer issue in which the date did not roll correctly from the last day of 1999 to the first say of the year 2000 – the new millennium. Specifically, the date incremented to 1900 (best case,) not 2000. Computers failed and came crashing to a halt with all types of unexpected issues, a combination of both hardware and software – operating systems and applications both.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “how stupid,” there were actually good historical reasons that happened, given the few bytes of memory that programmers had to work with in the decades before the year 2000. Ah, the law of unintended consequences. No one thought about or imagined that foundation code would still be in use decades later. But, it worked and it was.
The biggest issues turned out to be in buried or embedded systems – like systems used in wastewater treatment plants. Systems that literally no one thought about until they stopped working for some reason.
If you’re in category two and think that absolutely nothing happened, that’s not quite accurate either. Lots of things either didn’t work or didn’t work correctly – especially interconnected dependent systems.
More to the point, the very REASON that nothing catastrophic happened is exactly because of the thousands of people who did obsess, who did prepare and who, like me, sat watch just in case. Fortunately, few had to spring into action.
Y2K was a nothingburger because we were successful.
You can read more about Y2K, what did and didn’t work, here.
I Almost Forgot
It’s somehow ironic that I almost forgot about this significant anniversary. Not only did Y2K consume about 2 years of my professional life, ramping up to what we surely hoped was literally nothing at all, Y2K also culminated the literal “decade from Hell” for me personally.
I was incredibly glad to see the new millennium arrive, shepherding out the old and welcoming new opportunity. A transition I desperately needed.
Here’s my Y2K story. What’s yours?
Where were you and what were you doing?
The 1990s began with so much promise. I was living the dream; all-American kids who danced and played football, white picket fence home with a few cats and 2 rescue dogs, along with my husband as my business partner in a high-tech consulting firm. However, tragedy quickly reared its ugly face.
In 1978, I had found my only sister and become quite close. In June of 1990, Edna, who had survived breast cancer, or so we thought, died of a massive heart attack while on vacation in another state. Her loss struck at the core of my being, a devastating loss. I would stand in the hot summer sun burying her ashes, only having 12 short years with her.
My beloved step-father’s health began declining.
In June of 1993, my husband, young and vibrant, in his 40s, suffered a stroke, but didn’t die. We would find a way to survive, feeling like we escaped a very close call.
A month later, in July, he suffered a second, massive stroke, but still didn’t die. Your reaction might be that was good – but trust me – his quality of life was terribly diminished. He was paralyzed and his brain was approximately half destroyed. There was no recovery. That stroke upended the life of everyone in our family, permanently, in indescribable ways.
In the blink of an eye, I became the only bread-winner, inheriting all of the bills while losing his income, plus his massive medical bills. Oy! I had to figure out how to provide full time care for a severely disabled spouse – and work at the same time.
Not to mention, I had children who suffered immensely and whose needs didn’t abate because their parents had become incredibly challenged.
In September of 1994, my step-father died.
My mother struggled, and a year later, she left the farm and moved to town.
You might guess that I was reeling by this time – and you’re right, I was.
Everyone in my family was struggling mightily.
I was and am incredibly grateful for my high-tech profession and the ability it afforded me to work in a less-structured environment – meaning not 8-5, 5 days a week. I don’t think I would have survived otherwise. My clients were incredibly helpful and understanding, and did not abandon me when I needed them most.
My son and husband both were volunteer firefighters. God bless them all, including the fine people of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormons, of which I am not and was not a member. I was, however, a regular weekly visitor to the Family History Center at the local church and they stepped forward to help.
We were in desperate need for so much help. I, we, would not have survived that first year without them, all of our friends. Nothing in my small 1960s ranch home was wheelchair accessible – but a few months later, it was, allowing my husband to come home, at least for awhile.
My life, however, was upside-down and in a constant state of turmoil where it would remain for the next several years.
People didn’t think much about Y2K until about 1998 or so. Generally, there was a widespread belief that either nothing would happen because it was nothing but a lot of hype, or software vendors would magically ‘take care of it.” It wasn’t until we began actually testing hardware, specifically specialized governmental hardware and software combinations that we discovered problems that no one even thought about.
For example, a small computer controlled a drawbridge that raised and lowered the bridge for ships to pass beneath. That “computer” didn’t look like a computer, per se, and no one even thought about the fact that it had an embedded clock and/or date. It did, and yes, when testing, we made the discovery that it wouldn’t work. However, that system was so old there was no “fix” and another solution had to be found, and quickly.
I developed a Y2K evaluation process for governmental clients and prayed that we had unearthed all of the potential issues. If not, then my next prayer was that no one got hurt. That the issues weren’t with something like stop lights, railroad crossing signals or anything that could endanger people.
After I thought I had everything Y2K in hand and was attempting to plan a vacation, to Machu Picchu, to welcome in the millennium far away from any computer, my client announced that they had a different idea entirely.
They did not wish me to be absent.
What I had not told my client was that the visit wasn’t just to be a vacation, but potentially a wedding.
That’s kind of when everything began to unravel, like dominoes falling in a row.
I stepped outside at a client’s office to take a “difficult” personal phone call when I turned around to discover the client standing behind me. He didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but given what had just transpired, and the fact that I was in tears, he couldn’t exactly ignore the situation.
Suffice it to say that neither the trip, nor wedding, was going to take place.
Don’t ever say, “what the hell else can go wrong?” because fate always takes that as a challenge.
We began counting down to the great unknown of Y2K.
The phone woke me ringing at 4:32 AM. Those calls are never good news.
However, I was on call for clients – but the chances of a client calling me before 5AM on Thanksgiving was virtually slim to none.
I grabbed the phone.
In response, my mother said one word, my name, like she didn’t know what else to say.
I barely recognized her voice.
I knew something was very, very wrong.
“Mom, what’s wrong?”
Gary was my brother.
I got in my car and drove home, immediately.
Investigators were everyplace.
Gary died unexpectedly, in suspicious circumstances.
The events surrounding Gary’s death would ricochet through my family like a deadly, stray, bullet – and never be resolved.
We were literally counting down, day by day then hour by hour to Y2K. What was initially circumspect confidence on the part of my municipal clients had turned to nervous paranoia – and not necessarily without reason.
Other municipalities continued to find previously undiscovered issues, especially with custom code, sending everyone scurrying to check and recheck everything.
Everyone wanted me to be on site at the same time the last few weeks of the year. If I could have cloned myself, I would have made a small fortune.
Mom was driving to my house on the 22nd for Christmas because I had to work the day before and after. In fact, Mom was pretty much in charge of Christmas that year, because I couldn’t be.
On the morning of December 21st, my phone rang again.
Mom called to inform me that her brother, Lore, had died.
Lore’s death wasn’t exactly unexpected, given that he suffered from advanced Alzheimer’s. His death had been approaching for a long time. In many ways, it was a release. However, for numerous reasons, the timing was terrible .
Lore was mother’s only sibling, and his death left mother as the last of her generation.
Mom never got over Dad’s passing in 1994 and Gary’s death was less than a month old when Lore died. I wasn’t with her when this news arrived and Mom was already feeling extremely sad.
I was entirely overwhelmed.
Worse yet, the funeral was to take place on Christmas Eve – in North Carolina – a day and a half drive from where Mom lived – on icy roads. Who schedules a funeral on Christmas Eve anyway??? Mom made it clear that she was going, with or without us.
Thankfully, my only living sibling and his wife stepped up to the plate and drove Mom to North Carolina, over ice covered mountain roads for her brother’s funeral. Mom could do nothing but cry, for days.
In my world, in 1999, Christmas simply didn’t exist.
New Year’s Eve
While the rest of the world was celebrating the arrival of the new millennium, I was preparing to handle a disaster.
I didn’t know what disaster, but given the way my life had been unraveling recently, I was just SURE that I’d be dealing with SOME disaster.
We tested and tested and retested in the days before New Year’s Eve. Every governmental and military agency had people on site and on stand-by with backup plans for how to function if necessary. Emergency preparedness fully deployed.
In the days of inter-dependence, no person and no governmental unit is or was an island.
We began by watching municipalities as the international date line began to roll over to January 1. Our major concern was the power grid.
The first large city was Sydney, Australia. I watched the celebrations closely and carefully, not the fireworks, mind you, but the news channels.
I’ve never watched more New Year’s Eve celebrations in my entire life.
Finally, it was time in Europe, then Iceland, then in Maritime Canada, then in the eastern US. The ball dropped.
Then, it was time for my clients.
I held my breath.
Nothing, absolutely nothing.
What a HUGE relief.
Finally, about 5 AM, I fell asleep – Champagne untouched.
Y2K came to represent much more in my life than a technology issue. The arrival and non-event of Y2K itself heralded a new millennium – and a new beginning.
The 1990s were indescribably brutal, both due to the unexpected illnesses and deaths, and the surrounding circumstances.
I left that behind when 2000 arrived.
I never thought much about where I would be or what I would be doing in another two decades.
Two decades earlier, on New Year’s Eve of 1980, I would celebrate a milestone of a different sort – my first New Year’s Eve after having moved away from Indiana. I don’t recall what I did, exactly, but my life was new, a bit frightening and full of hope. Wonderful career opportunity in a new location – making new friends.
At Y2K, I was ever so grateful to be shed of the 1990s and that 2000 entered sheepishly, with no fanfare of the type I had been fearing. It was almost like we were being mocked for our feverish anxiety, much like millions of ants scurrying from place to place. It’s ironic that “nothing” was the measure of our success.
It was exactly that OCDish preparation that prevented large-scale catastrophe.
Once again, in spite of the 1990 tragedies, I was full of hope for the future.
Unbeknownst to me, Family Tree DNA, the company that would establish the genetic genealogy industry was a fledgling startup in Houston, Texas, with two principles and little else on that fateful New Year’s Day. I found them through genealogy, little dreaming of what the next two decades would hold.
Within a few years, my life would realign in many ways. I would remarry and gradually shift my profession, focusing on DNA, genetic genealogy and writing Personalized DNA Reports.
One day at a time, my career morphed from one type of technology to another.
Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined where I would be, literally and figuratively, twenty years out from Y2K. The technology and science that I depend on today didn’t yet exist in 2000.
As I sit in the sunshine this beautiful New Year’s Day, looking forward to the future and embracing a journey I never imagined, I can’t help but wonder where I will be and what I will be doing in 2030, and beyond. What wonderful gifts await? What does DNA hold, for me, and for all of us? Which ancestors are just waiting to be discovered? Who will I discover and get to know?
I’m oh so grateful for this uncharted path. Y2K wasn’t just a technology event. For me, the new millennium signified molting the heavy past in order to embrace a promising future. A transition – an exit from a dark tunnel into the light.
And I thought Y2K was just an inopportune catalyst for change in the computer industry.