September 23, 2003

My Y2K Story

Airplanes falling from the sky, microwaves working at half-power, medical machines going haywire, all civilization crumbles. All because of an event given a catchy little name (that’s what we demand in today’s world). “Year Two Thousand” just doesn’t ring in the ears like “Y2K”. A high-tech abbreviation to describe the real-life situation caused by another (necessary) high-tech abbreviation years before.

For the most part, Y2K was a letdown. Unheralded hundreds of thousands of people worked untold millions of hours to make it so. I was one of those folks, but my Y2K wasn’t quite the non-event that most of us had.

I am a mainframe programmer. I started out by punching IBM cards and stacking them together into ‘program decks’. No, I’m not that old, it’s just that the military is always a little behind the times. Proven technology is preferred over cutting-edge stuff that might not work when you most need it. Thinking about it just now, that punch card technology was still heavily used just 20 years ago.

In 1994, I was working as a civilian consultant to the U.S. Government. My partner and I (we were a two person contract) were discussing the upcoming ‘2000 situation’ and what we would need to worry about to prevent problems with our systems. This was even before the phrase “Y2K” was coined.

One day, we mentioned it to our client (the big boss) and she told us not to worry about it, because our systems were going to be replaced long before 2000. Part of what we get paid for is to anticipate problems and devise possible solutions to things that might not even happen. Knowing that replacing computer systems is a complex job, we weren’t nearly as confident as she was that it would happen before 2000, so we quietly did some preliminary analysis and wrote up some specs and notes.

Two years later, I’m sitting in my office and we get the official word that we have to convert our systems to be ‘Y2K compliant’. By now, the other guy has left for another project, and the staff consists of me, myself, and I.

I won’t go into a lot of detail, but I lived and breathed Y2K for the next four and a half years. Our systems contain over 2,000 separate programs and our data files maintain almost 10,000,000 (yep, million) records, and it’s all real-time. We – the government folks I worked with and I – busted our asses and got it done ahead of time and under budget.

So I was feeling pretty good about things.

My wife and I didn’t have any plans for December 31, 1999. We were just going to relax at home and have a quiet evening. Sometime after dinner, I mentioned to my wife that it felt like I’d just had a shot of Novocain and that my jaw felt funny. Within an hour, the numbness spread to the whole right side of my face and, after talking to the HMO duty-nurse, we were on the way to the emergency room.

They did a CAT scan, which told us that I hadn’t had a stroke (and that thought had never crossed my mind before that). In fact, the doctor came into the room and announced that ‘they looked at his entire head and didn’t find anything’, which cracked my wife up.

By now the entire right side of my face was paralyzed; can’t blink, can’t move my lips, nothing. The doctor tells me that I’ve got Bell’s Palsy. It’s an inflamation of the cranio-facial nerve (the third, in my case), and they don’t know what causes it. What happens is that the nerve runs through this little tiny tunnel in your skull, and when it gets inflamed, it pinches itself against the bone and gets damaged. They gave me steroids, which medical logic says will help, but they admitted that they almost never do. The nerve grows back ever so gradually, over the course of months.

Other than that, they just taught me some things I needed to be aware of. For instance, because I couldn’t blink my right eye anymore, I had to tape it shut before I went to bed so that it wouldn’t dry out. I had drops I had to put in my eye to keep it moist during the day. I figured out early on that I wasn’t the world’s best dinner partner, because food kept falling out of that side of my mouth. I drooled too. It was actually kind of funny, but I’d never laugh at anyone else who had it.

Probably the worst part was my sense of taste. It’s rare, but y’all know I’m special, so it was inevitable I guess. I completely lost the taste of sweet. Eating a cookie was like eating cardboard. Ranch dressing tasted like rancid buttermilk (to this day I can’t stand it). Think about your favorite foods, and imagine no sweetness at all in the flavor. Not fun.

My recovery was about 85% complete in the next year. Most people can’t even tell, but I can. I still slur the occasional word, and my right eye droops when I get tired. My sense of taste returned, thank God.

We were checking out of the ER that New Years Eve of Y2K, just about an hour before midnight. It suddenly struck me - I did all that work getting my computer systems ready to go, and it turned out that half my face was non-compliant. I told my wife that and laughed like a madman. She threatened to make me walk home.

Posted by Ted at September 23, 2003 07:32 AM
Category: Boring Stories

I was in charge of Y2K compliance on one big project. Right up to August 1999 I had people submitting code that was transparently, obviously, not compliant.


In the end, everything went smoothly. I don't recall any issues at all.

Then the dot com bubble burst and we got killed by the fallout. Bah.

And I just implemented a new interface with one of our vendors. Guess what? Their design isn't Y2K compliant.

Morons! Morons!

Posted by: Pixy Misa at September 23, 2003 10:49 AM

I remember Y2K vividly. At midnight, we constructed a home-made air raid siren by attaching a party horn to a giant air compressor. When we fired it up we scared the hell out of an entire nieghborhood. People thought the world was ending. I hope to someday reach full maturity, but it is unlikely at this point.

Posted by: Paul at September 23, 2003 12:07 PM

I know what you mean. I was on Y2K projects for most of 1996 and 1997. I thought I was finished with it then but in 1999 I got tagged to lead a team doing Y2k contingency planning for a large Houston based energy company. I spent most of the rest of the year on the road touring gas plants in Texas and the surrounding states.

ps. I was working for a payroll company using punch cards as late as 1986, when I left. We ran payroll on a trio of 360/20's.

Posted by: Starhawk at September 23, 2003 12:35 PM

The early symptoms you described are uncannily like the ones I had about 8 years ago when I'd idiotically eaten some under-cooked pork chops (my oven temp was set 100 degrees too low...what was I, blind?!). Luckily it passed in an hour or so.

Also, when I got out of the Air Force (1985) I applied for a job with a company for a draftsman position. I learned in the interview that they still did everything on paper.
When they explained that I had to have experience with these "punch cards" I knew that this was a company going nowhere fast!

Posted by: Tuning Spork at September 23, 2003 11:20 PM
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