back to article You want a Y2K crash? FINE! Here's a poorly computer

Welcome to Y2K, a mercifully occasional dip into that time, 20 years ago, when the IT world seemed to lose its collective mind, and governments were only too keen to empty their collective pockets. Today's story comes from a reader working for the UK government at the time in question. The ever creative Reg anonymiser had only …

  1. Just Enough Silver badge

    Same as Audits

    It's the same story as IT audits. Make sure there's something obvious for the auditors to find, and report on. Preferably something you've already told your boss about months ago. If the auditors don't find something to report, they're liable to inflate something irrelevant into an issue that they can report on. The last thing they want is to have nothing to report on, and nothing to justify their fees.

    However, I'd hate anyone to think that this tale is just another example of Y2K panic where nothing happened. Nothing happened because a lot of time and effort went into ensuring it didn't.

    1. iron Silver badge

      Re: Same as Audits

      My Y2K days were spent working for a company that was ISO certified. My predecessor left suddenly due to illness and I was shuffled sideways into his job about 1 week before an ISO audit was due. When I looked at the handbook for my job it was complete nonsense, at the least it was woefully out of date but tbh I don't think it was ever accurate. I made a couple of minor updates, told my manager it was all correct and made sure I was out at customers all day when the auditor visited.

      1. Wellyboot Silver badge

        Re: Same as Audits

        Suspicious minds may think your predecessors sickness was due to the worry of being fingered by an audit.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Same as Audits

      "However, I'd hate anyone to think that this tale is just another example of Y2K panic where nothing happened. Nothing happened because a lot of time and effort went into ensuring it didn't."

      Oh pull the other one mate!

      • Countries such as South Korea and Italy invested little to nothing in Y2K remediation, yet had the same negligible Y2K problems as countries that spent enormous sums of money.

      • The lack of Y2K-related problems in an estimated US 1.5 million small businesses that undertook no remediation effort. On 3 January 2000 (the first weekday of the year), the Small Business Administration received an estimated 40 calls from businesses with computer problems, similar to the average. None of the problems were critical.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Year_2000_problem#Opposing_view

      1. big_D Silver badge

        Re: Same as Audits

        Small Business Administration? Yes, they were probably using PCs.

        The mainframe and mini systems I worked on all certainly had Y2K compliance problems, to begin with, because they only used 2 digit dates in COBOL. They were either updated to 4 digits or used the sliding window technique. But there were definitely problems.

        On the other hand, the Mac and PC systems I worked on were generally fine, because they used floats to store dates, which meant that their fail date was another 36 years in the future, when we put Y2K to bed...

        1. Terry 6 Silver badge

          Re: Same as Audits

          God yes.

          We had to have our PCs and laptops Y2K somethinged by outside consultants At significant cost to our tiny budget. A simple risk assessment would have immediately told everyone that nothing was worth doing. At the very worst the same action could be taken in January 2000 to fix them, if it was needed. (Can't think how it would have been- half of them probably didn't even have the right date in 1999).

          But no, it had to be done.

          None of them, in those Y2K days, were properly networked, if at all. Some were ancient laptops that were barely used anymore, except for a bit of quick typing. Even the PCs had only a small shared area partition on one underused PC for file sharing. And literally all we had were a bunch of outdated WORD files -mostly local copies of reports that had been sent to schools, almost all on paper, or teaching materials. We could have cheerfully scrapped the lot - except we wouldn't have gor replacments.

          One laptop, that had been forgotten, lay in a cupboard for years. I took it out one day when we were really busy, so I could work in the staffroom. And of course it was perfectly fine.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Same as Audits

          which meant that their fail date was another 36 years in the future

          Fortunately the industry seems to be all over that particular problem, so I expect we'll all be fine when that time comes.

          1. big_D Silver badge

            Re: Same as Audits

            Only if the application is still supported, is 64-bit capable or you have the source code...

        3. thosrtanner

          Re: Same as Audits

          Storing dates in floats???

          1. richardcox13

            Re: Same as Audits

            Yes.

            MS Excel,... which copied Lotus 123

          2. big_D Silver badge

            Re: Same as Audits

            Most databases used a floating point number to store dates these days. Mostly UNIX dates, an offset from 1970.

            Which is why databases and spreadsheets are generally useless for historical research. Try entering the Battle of Hastings, 1066, as a date in Excel, it borks.

            1. Kennelly

              Re: Same as Audits

              Excel uses days since 1900

              DateValue("1/1/1900") is 1

              DateValue("12/2/2020") is 42873

              DateValue("31/12/9999") is 2958465

              Anyone still using Excel 2019 on 1 Jan 10000 will have a problem.

              1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

                Re: Same as Audits

                Shrug. In my experience, anyone using any version of Excel any time has a problem: they're using Excel.

            2. Kubla Cant Silver badge

              Re: Same as Audits

              Try entering the Battle of Hastings, 1066, as a date in Excel, it borks.

              So that's why the English lost!

      2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Same as Audits

        "Oh pull the other one mate!"

        OK, I've told this one before but I'll have to trot it out again.

        Client had a couple of Unix boxes running an industry-specific application. One box was a hot standby for the other, production box. The version of application they ran was not Y2k compliant. Note that "not", A/C. There was a Y2K compliant version available and would run on the main box but not on the standby which had an older OS version and wouldn't accept an upgrade. The OS itself wasn't a problem, of course; it was Unix. The problem was compatibility between it and the later release of the application.

        My job was to set up and oversee UAT of two new boxes that would run the new version. This was accomplished in good time to cut over between Christmas and New Year.

        The accountants threw a wobbly. They wouldn't accept running on the new, "untried" setup in January because it was a critical time for finalising their year end. In retrospect this should have been scheduled for a few weeks earlier so we could have got it out of the way before year end. The penalty: we had the vendors dailling in just about every day for the couple of weeks or so before we could cut over. They had to keep fixing the data errors which occurred due to running a non-compliant application.

        So, yes, the problem was real and my client's beancounters put us to significant trouble to prove it.

      3. smudge Silver badge

        Re: Same as Audits

        On 3 January 2000 (the first weekday of the year), the Small Business Administration received an estimated 40 calls from businesses with computer problems, similar to the average. None of the problems were critical.

        And just how many small businesses would have been working on 03 Jan 2000?

        Several years before 2000*, I wrote an article about the possible Y2K problems, in which I pointed out that 01 Jan 2000 would be a Saturday, and that it could thus be several days before we realised that anything was amiss with, say, our bank accounts.

        *1992, in fact, because I began the article by anticipating leap year date-related problems.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Same as Audits

          Leap year date-related problem.

          Well I hope most programmers realize leap year isn't always every 4 years. The year 2000 is the exception that follows the simple 4 year rule. The first century leap year problem will be in 2100 when overly simple leap year code will fail.

          Oh wait. I forgot Unisys messed up their 2200 OS's new date format that was supposed to have a 0 date of January 1st, 1900. But they didn't realize that 1900 was NOT a leap year.

          1. Mr Humbug

            Lotus 123, and therefore just about every other spreadsheet (including the latest version of Excel) believes there was a 29th February in 1900. However, Excel* does not allow 29th February 2100 as a valid date

            * probably other spreadsheets too, but Excel is the one I have immediately available

            1. -maniax-

              Just tested LibreOffice (x86) on Windows (x64) & LibreOffice (x64) on Linux (x64), both see 29/02/1900 & 29/02/2100 as text, any attempt to do calculations on the fields returns a #VALUE! error

            2. katrinab Silver badge
              Happy

              Collabora Office (web version of Libre Office) is not bug compatible with Excel in this respect.

              If you enter the date 28-Feb-1900, and a formula to add 1 to it, in Excel, you get 29-Feb-1900, and in Collabora, you get 1-Mar-1900.

            3. Malcolm 1

              Excel is that way exactly to maintain compatibility with Lotus 1-2-3. There's a nice blog post from Joel Spolsky on his days as a Microsoft Excel PM which mentions this.

      4. General Purpose

        Re: Italy invested little to nothing in Y2K remediation

        That's a zombie "fact", sometimes rendered as "Russia and Italy." Alternatively,

        The mayor and his aides attributed the absence of difficulties to a burst of hard work, most of it in recent months, by experts who rewrote software code so computers would recognize the year 2000. "Rome has never confronted an organizational challenge so complex," Rutelli told reporters.

        The city spent millions of dollars to fix its own computer systems and took some extraordinary precautions. It instructed its computers, for example, that city employee paychecks for January are really extra pay for December, effectively freezing time in the second millennium to give itself some leeway to handle the unexpected.

        As part of the nationwide effort to overcome a computer flaw that as recently as a few weeks ago nearly half of the Italian population said it had never heard of, the heads of large corporations formed joint task forces to share repair tips and contingency plans, said Augusto Leggio, technical director of the country's Y2K commission.

        ENI, the oil and gasoline giant, spent tens of millions of dollars and "experienced nothing" over the weekend, said Michelle Favorite, a company spokeswoman. "I hate to sound so uneventful, but that's the story," she said.

        "I'm so sorry, but Italy works sometimes," said Lorenzo Robustelli.

        https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WPcap/2000-01/04/035r-010400-idx.html?

      5. Pascal Monett Silver badge

        Re: "Oh pull the other one mate!"

        I think it is time to educate yourself : watch this and learn.

      6. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Same as Audits

        "Oh pull the other one mate!"

        I worked for a global financial institution on Y2K preparations. We found a few issues that were fixed in advance. The hidden benefit was that we found loads of sloppily written stuff, mostly exotic spreadsheets created by an enthusiastic amateur not familiar with the concept of testing. Most of those would have been OK with the date change but some had been churning out wrong results, on which business decisions were based, for years.

        I was aware of another team that got 48 hours overtime on 1 Jan fixing a financial system you and I will probably interact with nearly every day, needless to say details of that incident was not widely shared...

      7. biolo

        Re: Same as Audits

        As someone who was working at a small to medium business at the time I can tell you that, whilst the vast majority of the checks revealed nothing, or nothing with any significant impact, they did find that their warehouse management system did have a series of problems, that would have caused them serious issues storing and retrieving clients materials with dates after 31/12/1999. They spent quite a bit of time having to hunt down and re-write various bits of their code to cope with that properly. I think they spent about 6 person-months fixing and testing it. If they hadn't then it would have had serious impact on the business and on their clients confidence in it, and given a lot of those customers were financial and legal institutions, notoriously risk-averse, they would have probably lost a lot of business.

        Whilst there absolutely was a lot of overblown hype there were real problems caught and fixed, and real businesses that were saved from going under by having the foresight to check for the issue. This notion that the whole thing was a complete waste of time and money is untrue. Was the reaction over the top? Yes, but it had the benefit that most organisations checked their critical systems, and that absolutely paid off. Could the same result have been achieved with less cost? Absolutely, but some heavily regulated industries had a legal need to ensure everything was checked and would continue to operate, including down their supply chains.

    3. big_D Silver badge

      Re: Same as Audits

      I was working on Y2K compliance in 1990/91 (COBOL accounting package on a VAX) and then sporadically on other projects over the next decade, to ensure everything "just worked".

      1. Chris King Silver badge
    4. Rich 11 Silver badge

      Re: Same as Audits

      If the auditors don't find something to report, they're liable to inflate something irrelevant into an issue that they can report on.

      This is true.

      Some 15 years ago a PHB decided it would be fine and dandy idea to hold a software standards audit. Those of us who knew that for the entire previous decade he'd consistently refused to allow us to build documentation time into project schedules glared daggers at him, but the proposal was accepted by senior management, the money was conjured seemingly out of nowhere and the auditors appointed (a famous company whose name begins with 'L' and ends with 'bastards').

      Three months later we submitted all our source code, documentation, working procedures, standards, QA evaluations, meeting notes, etc, etc to them. Excepting the source code, half of it hadn't existed three months earlier. Interviews commenced, with all staff required to assist to the best of their ability. For a week the auditors poked around our systems, demanding demonstrations of procedures put into practice, all that sort of stuff. It was exhausting but it actually went quite well, although only because of all the preparation we'd put into it.

      A month later we got the report. They didn't find (to my mind) any major problems but just a handful of small ones. One of them was with an old Perl script of mine, which unfortunately the lead auditor used as an example at the presentation. His complaint was that the script was unreadable by any normal human, and as such recommended that we revisit our coding standards. Our PHB got on his hind feet to announce that the review would be led by the auditors and they would provide subsequent training sessions to all programmers (no doubt at extra cost). He wasn't pleased with the laughter that provoked, and I had to point out that the auditor was complaining about a script which had been minified (for some reason now lost in the mists of time) and wasn't the version which should have been submitted for auditing -- so sorry.

      1. brotherelf
        Trollface

        Re: Same as Audits

        > old Perl script […] unreadable by any normal human

        *buzz* Repetition of "Perl script".

        1. Rich 11 Silver badge

          Re: Same as Audits

          I heard that in Nicholas Parson's voice and my lip quivered, briefly.

          1. lesession

            Re: Same as Audits

            Not a challenge within the rules, but you can have a bonus point as we enjoyed your contribution

          2. 2+2=5 Silver badge
            Joke

            Re: Same as Audits

            > I heard that in Nicholas Parson's voice and my lip quivered, briefly.

            NP: I asked my lovely assistant Samantha if she knew anything about Perl and she said she'd received a string of them from a gentleman admirer only the other night.

        2. Andy 68

          Re: Same as Audits

          Incorrect challenge. the repetition was actually "script" - you lose a point

    5. Imhotep

      Re: Same as Audits

      I managed our company's financial systems and had written the processes that allowed the different systems to talk to each other, as well as the ones that routed invoices for approval for payment, determined which invoices should be paid on which date, cut the checks, etc.

      Every year the external auditors would ask me if I could enter invoices for payment and issue payment bypassing the safeguards I had put in place.

      Every year I had to tell them that I could indeed do pretty much what I wanted since I was a sysadmin for the systems and had coded the processes and it was the auditor's job to make sure I had done none of those things.

  2. Dal90

    Knew a manufacturer that kept a toaster above the toilet.

    Gave the OSHA inspector something to write up every time he visited.

    1. whitepines Silver badge
      Coffee/keyboard

      Ew.

      Dare I ask what kind of spread was put on the toast?

      That's vomit on the icon...

      1. imanidiot Silver badge

        Note he didn't say he USED that toaster. It's just inspector bait, not intended to ever be used.

      2. TimMaher Bronze badge
        Joke

        Maybe it was Marmite?

        (Other yeast extracts are also available but first check where from).

  3. Terry 6 Silver badge

    Every inspector does this

    It doesn't matter how well you do. They have to find something.

    In my initial teaching ("Probabation") year I was passed well before the end of the year by the inspector. "You've passed. If you can teach here you can teach anywhere". His verbal feedback was glowing.

    But in his written report there was still a snotty paragraph about how untidy my desk was.

    1. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: Every inspector does this

      He did you a favour there, people have a tendency to disbelieve reports that don't contain atleast some negative points. So anyone that reads that report in future is more likely to believe the positive points.

  4. Commswonk Silver badge

    Once Upon A Time...

    Having once been a staffer at <redacted> I was invited back for a few weeks on contract in (IIRC) 1996 to check Y2K compliance on a certain department's equipment. As absolutely none of it contained anything resembling a clock or a calendar in some senses it was tedious certifying that audio amplifiers, video amplifiers, power supplies and so on would not fall over at the start of 2000. No IT equipment involved as there was another group looking at that. On the plus side it was an easy way of earning a few weeks money.

    Then in 1997 I got a permanent job within the Ministry of <redacted> and had to go through the whole process again. This time it was a bit more tedious because there were some items where the HoD wouldn't take my word for it that such and such was immune to the Y2K transition so I finished up having to write to various manufacturers and suppliers to get their assurance that all would be well, backed up by surreptitious 'phone calls apologising for asking such damn - fool questions.

    ISTR being given a 3.5" floppy that had a simple routine on it that would check any computer into which it was inserted would work or not after 31/12/1999, and it did prove marginally useful on one or two occasions. Probably still got it somewhere should the year 2000 happen again sometime soon.

    1. katrinab Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Once Upon A Time...

      "Probably still got it somewhere should the year 2000 happen again sometime soon."

      Well Jacob Rees Mogg is Leader of the House of Commons, so yes it probably will happen again in about 300 years.

  5. Tinslave_the_Barelegged
    IT Angle

    Are you sure this was 20 years ago?

    Seems terribly current:

    'We'll leave that to Boris: "Sometimes you have to tell a tiny lie..."'

  6. Zakspade

    Won't Happen...

    Ah, I worked through the Y2K era and had such fun!

    All went well, and because there were no problems (we worked hard), everyone (that's management) claimed it had been hyped up and demanded that we now justify our overtime etc.

    At home my 14-day programmable VCR went on the blink when it failed to handle 2000 in the date...

    1. sofaspud

      Re: Won't Happen...

      This. This right here.

      I was a consultant during Y2K and we busted our asses getting dozens of clients ready. Every single one of them made it through with no problems. We were called in after the fact to several more to clean up the problems that Y2K had caused that they hadn't shelled out ahead of time for us to fix.

      Meanwhile, our internal systems had a few problems, because the PHB had decreed that internal maintenance was not billable hours and therefore it only happened when we had no clients we could bill. But nothing terribly serious. Our PBX was the biggest nuisance and all it meant was that we couldn't use voicemail for a couple days.

      Fast forward to the beginning of February -- NET 30 DAYS, sayeth the invoices, but nobody ever paid before 60 -- and most of those clients were calling the PHB to complain about the bill. *Obviously* Y2K had been overhyped and the expenditure hadn't really been necessary, we were clearly just trying to pad our wallets at our hard-suffering client's expense, etc.

      After all that finally died down, the PHB declared that "any future Y2K work will be paid in advance".

      I wish I were joking.

    2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: Won't Happen...

      14-day programmable VCR went on the blink when it failed to handle 2000 in the date

      I still have a Panasonic VCR I purchased in 19911 which wasn't Y2K-compliant. The only effect, though, was getting the day-of-week wrong for programmed recordings. Since I never used it for recording anything after the late 1990s,2 that didn't really matter, but it was amusing to see.

      1For around $300 - not that long ago I found the original receipt. Around $565 in today's money.

      2It having been superseded by a somewhat fancier Sony model, equipped with one of those variable-speed rewind-and-forward dials and a "cable mouse" which could send IR signals to the cable box to set the channel. That was actually pretty handy for a few years, before we got a DVR. And the DVR was handy for a few years, before we started watching everything on streaming. I expect streaming services to be useful for a few years before I give up on television entirely.

  7. Andy Non Silver badge
    Go

    Y2K proved relatively lucrative

    A few years before I'd left paid employment and set up as a freelance software developer. I remember attending a small Y2K conference, probably arranged by the government, can't remember now and all attendees got a free Palm Pilot. Nice bit of kit in its day. I also did some contractor work at contractor rates for my former employer ensuring that software I'd written 10 or more years earlier was Y2K compliant. Most of it just needed a little tweak here and there with a couple of exceptions - software I'd written at the birth of the first IBM PCs in BasicA that at the time I was told was just a stop-gap measure until the main IT dept incorporated the requirements into the mainframe software. Short on available RAM but gorged on data to process it was necessary to do things like hold the date as YYMMDD. Of course, nigh on 15 years later the software was still in use and now deemed business critical. Happy times. It felt really strange going back to the company I'd worked at as a full time employee for many years but now as a contractor, raising invoices with them etc. Entirely different dynamic with the people there I'd worked with over the years.

    1. Criggie

      Re: Y2K proved relatively lucrative

      I still use a palm TX to this day. Downside, its not quite a smartphone, but on the other hand its not a smartphone.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Y2K proved relatively lucrative

        I miss my Psion 5mx......

      2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Y2K proved relatively lucrative

        I used a (second-hand, from my wife) Palm of some model for a couple of years. I was somewhat fond of it, with its stylus and odd handwriting-recognition system. I still have it in a drawer somewhere, to annoy the grandkids with when they're old enough to find it properly tiresome. ("Look! It uses alkaline batteries!")

  8. Persona Silver badge

    Innovative fix

    I was working that night for a financial firm that had spent a large fortune on being Y2K ready. On the stoke of midnight I looked around to see if anyone looked surprised. No one was. But the digital wall clock that showed the time in multiple cites around the world didn't look right. It had grown an extra digit. It didn't really matter but it was a little embarrassing. About 30 minutes later a chap came round with a ladder and stuck a piece of black card over the offending digit. The issue had been fixed for the cost of a piece of black carboard.

  9. Joe Harrison

    Loadsmoney

    It just so happened that in something like September 1999 our organisation was finalising the sale of a subsidiary to another company. The acquiring company insisted on solid gold platinum palladium assurances of no Y2K issues in the stuff they were buying. As I had the best understanding of the subsidiary's business I was assigned as Y2K tester/auditor for the project.

    It was important that the divestment went through smoothly and any expenses I incurred were nothing in the scheme of things so for once I didn't have to grovel; all the flights, overtime, anything I wanted was automatically signed off. The deal went through successfully in November-ish and that was that. So I had a fun lucrative few months and didn't even have to be on call for the actual date rollover. Good times...

  10. Mike Timbers

    What a waste of money

    Well, no it wasn't, was it? I was the tech director of a software firm at the time and therefore had multiple clients using software "designed" by my employer. Because many of them dated back ten years or more, it pains me to admit they'd used short dates in many tables and so date calculations around payment dates, lease lengths, etc. would have failed to work correctly had the dev team done a huge amount of work to change the databases and code.

    Come the new year and all was working well although a few former clients who were using the software past their licence expiry dates tried to make a fuss.

    Y2K wasn't a disaster because a lot of money was spent ensuring it wouldn't be. Yet these days it's used as an example of unnecessary concern. "Look at what happened with Y2K! Nothing! It'll be just like that with <insert impending disaster of your choice>"

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Passing Inspections

    I had a little vacation from IT for a couple of years and bought a Pub (don't do it!)

    One of the compulsory courses you have to do is the food handling one. The teacher on the course gave the best bit of advice I have ever had with regard to inspections and inspectors, and I have used it for all sort of inspections over the years from IT Security, to Health and Safety, VAT (!) etc. The advice was "Always let them find something. That way they can give you some advice, and they feel they are doing their job. If there's nothing to find they will get suspicious".

    Tip: for VAT inspections make sure the error they have to find is a small payment in your favour :-)

  12. gwp3
    WTF?

    It couldn't happen again, could it?

    Home Office tells man, 101, his parents must confirm ID

    https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/feb/12/home-office-tells-man-101-his-parents-must-confirm-id

    When the volunteer who helped Palmiero, a great-grandfather, scanned his passport into the EU settled status app to share the biometric data with the Home Office, the system misinterpreted his birth year as 2019 instead of 1919

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: It couldn't happen again, could it?

      Yes. Many others have noted this in comments to other articles (I don't think I saw any here), but lots of software was remediated with fixed or configurable date windowing, and those are just errors waiting to happen.

  13. Plest
    Happy

    Here's the thing...

    We did all the Y2K work, we made sure we're OK as most systems store dates in UTC, or floats, larg ints, whatever, however most are only safe until 2036. Now around 1999 the year 2036 is yonks away and we'll all be long gone from IT by then.

    Well my dears...the beloved UK Gov has seen fit to ensure that no one is ever allowed to retire, they will keep working until they drop dead no matter what age. So there it a very real possibility that quite a few of us who's first few jobs encompassed dealing with Y2K will still be working in IT jobs when Y2036 hits us. There's a lot of old kit and Windows 7, 2000, 98 ( to name just 3 O/Ss ) are not dying as fast as they should.

    15 years to go and a shed load of overtime I see in the distance! Ker.....ching!!!!

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2020