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Y2K Bug hits New York 20 years later

My IT career got going when the Y2K projects were in full swing. Fortunately, I escaped the effort, concentrating on new development projects where we already knew to include a four figure year (YYY). Many of my friends were not so lucky, and got sucked into huge projects for banks and telcos. I am sure many disasters were averted but who could have expected problems arriving 20 years later.

According to the New York Times (link), parking meters have stopped taking credit cards and it seems that a bad Y2K fix was the cause. What seems to have happened was that the 2 digit year (YY) was programmed to assume a 20 prefix from 00 to 19, but other years were assumed to have the prefix 19. Consequently, the meters stopped taking credit cards from 1 January 2020. The consequences of such a failure are relatively minor and more a frustration.

I have heard people say that the Y2K Bug was a hoax and way too much got made of it. This logic is the wrong way around. Because so much got made of Y2K, the problems were relatively few. Nir Oren, of the University of Aberdeen (link) explains why those believing in a hoax are wrong.

Firstly, going back in history, it is understandable why the bug appeared. Computers of the 1970s and early 1980s did not have much RAM and everything was done to conserve memory. In the late 1980s, I worked on an Order Processing system for a textile firm. The software supported about 30 plus users and had 256KB of RAM (yes I mean KB and not MB). Saving 2 digits on every date field save RAM and storage. No-one believed that the same software would be running 20 plus years later.

What would have happened if the world had ignored the problem? Financial software would have been a disaster. Loans would look as though they had expired and interest may have stopped calculating. Good for your home loan but a disaster for the world economy. Navigation software would have calculated positions incorrectly. Power grids, telco networks, financial systems and many other mission critical systems would have failed. The result would have been catastrophic and with many core failures happening at the same time, recovery would have been extremely difficult. This was not a hoax. Instead, it is a positive story that human effort and dedication can prevent disaster.

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