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

Now please stop showering cash on consultants


Y2K 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 one suggestion for a pseudonym, so "Boris" it will be.

Boris's department "was staffed by a combination of badly paid YOTS (Youth Opportunity Training Scheme), PFYs and some truly amazing engineers who could repair anything and everything IT-related."

The team had spent much of the early part of the Blair years, from 1997, picking through every bit of IT gear, to make sure nothing bad was going to happen when the year ticked over to 2000.

As the dread date neared, "the question that was being constantly raised at every single IT meeting was, 'Are we Y2K compliant?'."

And at every single IT meeting, Boris would produce the dossier that itemised, in tedious detail, all the checks, updates and fixes done to every British government computer everywhere around the world.

But still the bigwig bottoms remained clenched with fear.

Eventually, recalled Boris, the paranoia got to the point "that 'Everything is OK' was not the answer that they wanted to hear."

Thus platoons of "Y2K compliance" consultants from the usual suspects were parachuted in to recheck and triple check that all was good aboard the good ship Blighty. As well charging vast fees, the suits simply repeated what the "hyper-stressed 40-something IT professional" had already told them for the price of a civil servant's salary and a Whitehall sandwich: "i.e. Everything is OK, stop worrying."

But worry they did.

Boris recalled the days leading up to the great day: "27th December looms and the telephone calls start: 'You and your team will be at work won't you?', 'You will run a 24/7 desk now until the New Year?' or 'Can you REALLY, really assure me that my computer will not fail?'

"By the 30th December, even the most placid of us had had enough."

One particular department, then with a staff of almost 20,000 worldwide, bombarded Boris and his team with calls for reassuring noises.

"Some of us (myself included)," said Boris, "had not been home for almost three days and spent our time alternating between answering panicked calls, faxes and even the occasional green phone calls from someone senior."

As Thursday 30 December 1999 threatened to trip into Friday 31st, the survivors of Boris's highly caffeinated team decided that the only recourse was "to actually give the people upstairs something to genuinely complain about on the 'Y2K Retrospective' planned for 08:00 on 1 January.

"Like anyone senior [was] going to be there!" he snorted.

So, at 2am on Friday 31 December 1999, Boris put in a call to an antipodean counterpart to check their preparedness. Demonstrating a diplomacy achieved only through years of loyal government service, Boris told us the response was along the lines of: "We are rather annoyed at being asked this question lots of times, so please try and have intercourse with yourself."

But there was, in actual fact, something wrong on the other side of the world. Something really, really minor. Something that had not been certified "compliant".

Boris realised that he could use it to justify all the panic over prodigious IT spending on infrastructure and concerns over what could go wrong.

The device in question was an elderly portable. Boris remembered it as sporting a dual "pop-up" 3½-inch floppy drive, but it is perhaps more famous for also supporting the 2-inch format beloved by floppy-based digital cameras of decades past.

It "had been certified as not Y2K compliant, probably since nobody had used it since 1991," said Boris.

"At approximately 23:55, someone in the consulate booted the laptop and we all waited in trepidation.

"Along with Champagne they also had a camera to record the screen's message and at midnight they duly recorded a welcome notice with a date of 1 January 1900 00:00, photographed it and emailed me the photo."

Five minutes after midnight, Boris called the bigwigs to let them know: "Yes, there was a problem with one non-essential computer, but we caught it and dealt with it."

"Which," Boris told us, "was exactly what they wanted to hear."

He followed up it with the "evidence" – a photo of the stricken laptop's screen. He went on to attend that vital 8am on 1 January meeting ("note: not attended by anyone senior") before going home to sleep for 24 hours, having entirely missed all those tedious parties.

And the moral of the story? We'll leave that to Boris: "Sometimes you have to tell a tiny lie in order to stop a government department from spending more money trying to find out why something did not happen."

Feeling inspired? Got some Y2K stories you wish you'd got off your chest? You can email us here – our Y2K column is back for a limited time. ®


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