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Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Is anyone planning on celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Y2K scare? And if not, why not? Maybe if I play my cards right, we can actually re-live it.

For those of you who were either not yet born or were just not paying attention, bad things were predicted for New Year’s Eve, 1999. According to some reports, people wouldn’t be able to order Happy Meals or flush their toilets. All traffic lights would go dark, and nuclear power plant meltdowns would force us to duck and cover. Reactionaries hoarded food and water, bought guns, ammunition, extra door locks, gas masks, survival books, and hazmat suits. Bank failures and a global economic collapse would trigger the launching of nuclear missiles. Even normally rational people were withdrawing all their cash from banks, because there were rumors that ATM’s would not work, all because mainframe date fields might remain at two digits instead of increasing to four. Because it was over-reported, people naturally overreacted. There was global paranoia.

Instead of the earth exploding, people woke up on the first day of 2000, amazed to find their televisions still working, and all channels were running endless loops of Emily Litella chirping, “Never mind.”

Y2K was a scam. Overnight, people who were good proposal writers became millionaires. According to a February, 2000 article in Money magazine, the Y2K scare cost American businesses half a trillion dollars, all of which, I suspect, was awarded to contract workers from Bangalore, India. After, of course, the proposal writers who procured them were paid.

I worked in IT at the time and was relieved to learn one Friday in late 1998 that not one person on our staff would be dedicated to Y2K repair. It would all be taken care of by a group of contractors. I was so thankful to learn that Y2K would not interrupt my afternoon tradition of playing endless games of Space Cadet: 3-D Pinball for Windows that I took that afternoon off to go and play it at home rather than from behind a locked office door. It was so much more fun with the sound turned on.

I worked in a rural town of 1800 people. When I moved in, there was one stoplight. When I left, there were three. Most of the jobs in the area were manufacturing jobs with companies that produced either a) drugs, or b) alcohol. In fact, I challenge any other city of 1800 to show that the majority of their residents work for companies that enable addiction. I suspect that Elkton, Virginia, has the highest per-capita rate of workers dedicated to making people drunk or high. It is so remote and out of the way that the nearest town with a movie theater or a Walmart is Harrisonburg, sixteen miles away. There is no public transportation. Most people have pickup trucks. Ours was the only one without a gun rack mounted on the rear window. Ours was a parasol rack.

So I will never forget that following Monday morning when two taxis, quite possibly the entire fleet of Harrisonburg Yellow Cab, pulled up and dropped off 6 Indian nationals who were to be our Y2K programmers for the next several months.

I am not proud of the way they were treated. They were all shoved into a dirty, crumbling trailer with toxic paneling and discarded office equipment. This work environment, sad to say, was identical to mine. Yet in opposition to the 14 years I spent there, none of the Indians frittered away hours composing letters to the editor and company vice presidents, insisting that we were working in poisonous, sub-human conditions.

Eventually the six of them pitched in and bought two sputtering old cars so they didn’t have to pay the outrageously expensive taxi fare to and from The Burg. They were all more comfortable living in a movie-theater-sized town instead of backwoods Elkton. And even that wasn’t a safe bet, as once an uncooperative Mexican migrant worker was literally shot out of a tree for not obeying law enforcement. Turns out he didn’t speak a word of English and couldn’t understand the commands. And let’s face it: Elkton was far more frightening to an alien. If you weren’t born in Elkton and had generations of inbred families that came before and after you, then you were not to be trusted. If you were brown-skinned and spoke without a twang and were hard to understand, you were one deer-rifle-shot away from the grave.

As one of the alcohol employees, I was in training and technical support, so I didn’t have much to do with the Y2K fixers. My job, by then, was pretty much obsolete. If you didn’t know anything about computers, the company didn’t hire you. Yet, I was still teaching at the Control-Alt-Delete level. Trainees often usurped the class from me and did a better job of teaching than I did.

The Y2k Indian tribe interfaced minimally with our database programmers, and if it wasn’t for the smell of curry wafting from the microwave of our shared break room, we probably wouldn’t have even noticed they were there. They were soft spoken, self-supervised and self-testing. I always suspected that they weren’t Y2K fixers at all, but rather spies from an outsourcing company, EDS, which one year later took over our department and fired everyone who failed to suck up to their corporate executives. And the ones who spent too much time behind locked office doors playing Space Cadet: 3-D Pinball for Windows.

A few months later, the programmer/spies/tribesmen proclaimed our systems to be Y2K compliant, and they drove off in their one remaining rickety car, and we never saw them again.

If you were an IT employee at my company, once every 8 weeks you were tethered 24/7 to a company-supplied pager, shoebox-sized cell phone and 25-pound laptop computer. You took them wherever you went, as if they were the nuclear code briefcase. I would solve all the unimportant requests, like the ones that came from pustules who would call at 3 am because they forgot their Outlook passwords. Most of the other calls were too complicated for me, so I always had to chase down our database administrator and let her take care of the brainy problems. Fortunately, she had the nuke box the week of the Y2K click-over, but I still had to work for 8 hours on Saturday, January 1, 2000, in case an unseen Indian Y2K bug created a production delay. During those eight hours, my phone rang exactly zero times, and I got so bored playing Space Cadet: 3-D Pinball for Windows that I can’t even launch that program today, sounded or silent, without feeling as if I just swallowed a handful of Ambien.

While I was “working” that day, the rest of America was logging on to eBay to sell the emergency supplies they had purchased in order to sustain life after the Y2K Armageddon. When people realized they’d been duped, their generators, battery-operated ovens and icemakers, water purification tablets, Pocket Fishermen, and cases of margarita mix were sold at a fraction of their original purchase price. Elsewhere in the world, proposal writers retired and shopped for real estate in St. Tropez and St. Barts. In India, underpaid former Y2K fixers rang in the new year with double portions of dahl and naan, e.g., beans and bread to all you Elktonians.

So I’m thinking the best way to celebrate the anniversary it to revitalize it. If I could get some major clients on board: IBM, Oracle, and perhaps SAP, and get them to publish white papers warning the world that computers have crashed when post-2010 dates have been entered, we could relive the entire bogus scenario. Once it’s reported on CNN, I’ll download and plagiarize a proposal from the Web, change 2000 to 2010 and e-mail it to all the Fortune 500 companies. One of them, some think-outside-the-box, proactive-instead-of-reactive MBA will have to believe me. And I’ll move into a skuzzy trailer, join a tribe, and pretend to work. A few months later, I’ll be yacht shopping.

But first I’ll need to find a new computer game to keep me looking busy.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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