Y2K Twenty Years On

Y2K

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

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.

Y2K

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.

No Vacation

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.

Thanksgiving 1999

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.

“Hello”.

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’s dead.”

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.

Christmas Cometh

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.

Y2K Best Buy

Thanks to cousin Kelly for this memory:)

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.

Nothing major.

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.

Epilogue

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.

Uncharted Path

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.

Tasmanian sun.jpg

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.

27 thoughts on “Y2K Twenty Years On

  1. I enjoyed your story and felt your pain at the events that happened to you. It also brought back memories of my Y2K experience. Among other duties I was responsible for computer operations in a Department of Radiation Oncology. The main issue for us was that the radiation treatment machines were all computer controlled. We just could not afford to have the machines down for a significant length of time, since most of our patients were in the middle of a six week treatment that could not be interrupted. We did all the testing in advance, as you did, including advancing the computer clocks temporarily to see what happened. Then when the day arrived we sat and waited until after midnight and then checked everything which took considerable time, but like you, nothing of significance happened. So it was a long night but I did not have to face the personal problems that you did.

  2. Sounds like 1999 was a challenging year for your family. I remember all the hype surrounding Y2K. My husband and I loaded a large plastic tub with non-perishable food. I was a technical writer for a database company and documented some of the Y2K procedures. We watched the New Year 2000 advance slowly around the globe and our lights and power stayed on.

  3. Y2K makes me cringe, too. As a computer programmer, I had seen it coming and did my best to avoid dealing with it by focusing on the latest database technology. But it still disrupted my career for a while. Ironically, I had to take emergency time off just before New Year’s to travel to the middle of nowhere and care for my sick parents and grandmother, all of whom had the flu. My biggest Y2K nightmare turned out to be cleaning a kitchen overflowing with dirty dishes.

  4. Your history is phenomenal. Thank you for sharing your story. My favorite part is how Y2K in the end wasn’t the the terror after all.

    Karen Thomas Swann

  5. They say what doesn’t break you makes you stronger – certainly true in your case.

    I was a consultant for a company whose main thrust was Y2K mitigation. They had hundreds of programmers, many retired COBOL coders, writing and checking and rechecking hundreds of thousands of lines of code. And they did good work and very few things broke. It was a very nervous time.

    • It surely was. I know some of those COBOL programmers that came out of retirement for a pretty penny. They wrote excellent code.

      • Roberta,
        Excellent article, yes I remember the Y2K bug…lol. My ex husband who is a computer geek never did put much stock in the whole concept of the Y2K bug…he puts the blame on the COBOL programmers for that scare…lol…that is another story. I replied to this post concerning one of these COBOL programmers…Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper who by the way has a Naval Ship named after her. If it were not for her and helping construct the COBOL that paved the way for the technology used onboard Naval Ships today and being instrumental in what our Navy can do today and to protect our oceans from the bad influences of the world and protecting our freedoms. I had the privilege of being a Plankowner of the USS Hopper and being part of a family onboard that ship. That ship is the first ship to be named after a woman since WWII. That ship’s motto is “Dare and Do” and believe me we as the Plankowner crew did just that. Here is little more history of the ship…we were in San Diego and the ship was the backdrop for a big COBOL convention…a lot of the big names were there…Bill Gates, Steven Jobs and many others. Definitely a big show.
        I look at this article and see your trials and tribulations during that time frame and I see your “Dare and Do” spirit and knowing God was on your side and saw you and your family through those times of despair and anguish. Great article and thanks for your “Dare and Do” spirit. I see it through many of your articles and the passion you have. Definitely enjoy reading and I have learned so much about genealogy and DNA and I am eternally grateful for this. God bless you and yours

        Regards,

        Cindy Carrasco

  6. What I remember is how little documentation was around & how few oldtime coders were available to do all the extra work.
    Young whippersnappers just couldn’t envision having to work with only one sheet per file or memory limits under 2 KB!!

  7. Your writings amaze me, I hope one day you can put them all in a book, you would have a wonderful following. Happy New Year to you from burnt out Australia.
    Nancye Cowan

  8. As a long-time reader of your blog, I was aware of many of the challenges you had faced—but reading this summary of your life in the 90’s is tough. We’re all very thankful you found the strength to rise like a phoenix from the ashes, sharing so much knowledge and inspiration with us all. Wishing you a very Happy New Year and new decade!

  9. Your Y2K article sparked a vivid memory in me. On New Year’s Eve day, about 10 RVs and 20 people gathered on BLM land in the Arizona Desert. All of us were acquainted with computers and among us were a NASA scientist and several computer programers/coders. The rest of us were not experts, but were versed in many aspects of the early home computers. Our parking site was in the flight pattern for planes leaving Los Angeles and San Diego. We were to celebrate the new millennia watching planes drop out of the sky. It was a joke, because none of us really believed that would happen, but the rest of the country had been hearing that rumor and frightened that would happen . We celebrated around the campfire, on a beautiful, clear, starry, night, It was the best New Year’s celebration ever. And though we saw the con-trails of the departing flights, they all remained in line as they should have. Thanks for sparking that memory.

  10. “when it rains, it pours” – what a awful time with family and work – that you had to deal with
    for the ending of 1999. My condolences to you and family – with all that was happening and having to deal with for December 1999. We here in our 2nd yr in Germany, as USAF at a USArmy location – with an infant, not show what would happen re computers, or general utilities at the point – did stock up on supplies – just in case. Thank goodness all was well.

  11. From the little I knew about coding I was scared that night, believing it might take only a tiny mistake to paralyze a lot of things we took for granted.

    Actually, because of it, a lot of people may have become more accepting of the computer age. There’s no telling what all was found by accident while everyone was double checking. We may have had the cleanest code ever, for a while.

  12. I remember when Queen Elizabeth used the term “annus horribilis” – I kept thinking of that term as I read your poignant story of your life events leading up to Y2K. Amazingly, you survived and continued to move forward. I was a PL/I programmer in an aerospace corp in the 1980’s. All of our “year” arrays only had space for a 2 digit year, due to the computer memory limitations we lived with. We programmers used to laugh about whether our programs would still be utilized in the year 2000. I have had a few years where I finally stopped asking “what next?”. One in particular culminated in spending Christmas Eve cleaning out my mother’s assisted living room because she had to be moved to a nursing home. Happy New Year, happy new decade, and I’m very happy your career path led you to where you are today!

    • Cleaning out Mom’s stuff was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I did mine on Mother’s Day. Not something you ever forget is it.

      • I’ve done that too. It’s hard to lose your parents and the memories associated with them. I also never got the chance to test their DNA!

  13. Roberta, That year had to have been horrendous for you with all the family deaths happening, and being responsible for Y2K planning! I lived through it like you did. I was working for a bank and holding company IT department, and we had to determine what systems would run as the date changed. Fortunately for us only a few old computers were at issue, we could run them with a few tweaks. What wouldn’t run was replaced. Like you said, many thought the entire thing was a non issue, but if all the IT people and programmers hadn’t been so thorough, it could have been much worse. I enjoyed your article, and enjoy all the DNA artlcles.

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