Surviving Y2K: What did we learn from the biggest tech scare in history?

With teamwork and clearly-stated goals, big transformations can take place — swiftly.

TONY SALDANHA: Many of our younger folks really don't realize that the year 2000 or Y2K digital transformation was perhaps the biggest digital transformation to date across the world. So here's a little bit of context. Y2K as a programming problem was caused because two digits were allocated to computing related to the year. So 98 instead of 1998 which is perfectly fine until then you added one for next year. So 98 plus one is 99 and then 99 plus one is 100 which was three digits. Suddenly it was not two digits. And so as a result of this programming was actually going to explode. Planes were going to fall out of the sky. Banks were going to go bust. And so this was a real catastrophe. And this is one of the reasons why I consider the organizational changes that happen and how the world came together to successfully drive Y2K conversion as one of the most successful examples that humanity has of digital transformation.

Here's what happened to drive successful resolution of digital transformation during Y2K. Y2K was such a massive challenge that it would take every programmer that wrote their program to go back and change it. So there was no way on earth a central authority was going to coordinate all of the changes that happen. However, there were several things at play that made this possible. One was there was clear understanding even among politicians that really didn't know what Y2K was. There was understanding that this was important and so space was made to give technology organizations the room to go get it done. And that kind of empowerment is absolutely essential when you're faced with a massive change.

The second thing that happened was the empowerment of local teams. So every person, every IT organization whether they work for a massive company or a small mom and pop shop knew that they had to protect their own programs and they did whatever was necessary in order to get that done.

And the third thing was the clarity of the goals. The deadline was very clear. It was going to be December 31, 1999 and you had to get it done or all bad things could potentially happen. And that's really what worked in our favor. The entire world came together to make Y2K successful and it did. There were no major catastrophes. I remember Jan. 1 came around. I was celebrating in Florida with the family. We kept a close eye on TV and all I could see was celebration.

  • In terms of programming, the year 2000 was perhaps the biggest digital change to date across the world. The reason for this is because, in the years before, two digits were allocated to computing related to the year. With 2000, three had to be allocated.
  • Programmers around the world came together and successfully drove the Y2K conversion. The freedom they were given by politicians, who didn't entirely understand the problem, gave programmers the space they needed to make the changes expediently.
  • When goals are clearly stated—in this case, December 31, 1999—people understand that there is a deadline on when they have to be done with their work before bad things happen. As a result of the teamwork operating under a clearly stated goal, there were no major catastrophes when the new year rolled in.

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