Few occurrences in recent memory drew the attention of the global media quite like Y2K. It was a story all reported, yet few understood.
In the general public there were doomsayers and naysayers, profiteers and auctioneers. Almost everyone had an opinion, and for the media almost anyone’s opinion was valid. Towards the end of 1999 stories abounded of survivalists, with the IT knowledge of a gnat, who were planning for Armageddon. The mainstream media was proving its ignorance by giving air time to veritable nut jobs because it was marginally entertaining, and the true Y2K story was proving to be a bit of a bore.
For Peter de Jager, one of the media’s lightning rods for the story, the seven-year ride spanning the publication of his original Y2K articles in 1993 to the final countdown, was at times a turbulent one. He lost respect through the media’s desire to blow the story out of proportion, but gained satisfaction from the work and co-operation that existed between those who had been traditional business adversaries.
He did not intend to be the Y2K poster boy. But then the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
“My intention was to raise awareness of this so that [the Y2K issue] would be solved, when no one else was doing this. I wrote couple of articles,” he said. “I was not the only one, I was not the first one, but I was certainly the loudest.”
His first article in March of 1993 got little attention. Then in September of that year “Doomsday 2000” was published in Computerworld (U.S).
“It certainly got people’s attention.
“The title of that one sort of stuck with me throughout the entire thing, I was a doomsayer,” he explained – although the headline was not his doing.
But the problem was that de Jager was never a doomsayer – far from it.
“There is this myth that it was a negative article, [but] very few people have read it,” he said. “If you actually read it, it is a rather boring article.”
It basically described a problem to be fixed. It did not focus on the consequences, nor was their any talk of businesses failing.
But it did unintentionally bring up the issue of IT stupidity. Though memory was in short supply in the early days of computing, there was no need for dates to be two digits for the past several decades. In essence Y2K was a colossal example of IT short-sightedness.
“There was a tremendous amount of resistance to the idea that we had a problem, compounded by corporate denial [because] they didn’t want to admit that a company was stupid enough to get themselves in the [situation] in the first place.”
Let’s face it, he added, “Y2K is embarrassing.”
fourth estate strikes out
For the most part the media pretty much ignored the Y2K issue until the late ’90s and then totally blew it out of proportion, de Jager claims. To give him his due, there were far too many instances of the media, especially television, taking statements far out of context to pump up a story.
“I do not know a single consultant who ever used the phrase ‘planes falling out of the sky’…yet we heard it all the time,” he said. “I never said planes would fall out of the sky, but that is what the media printed,” he added.
“[But] all of those have a germ of truth behind them. If you had asked me in 1995, ‘Peter are you going to fly that night?,’ my answer was no,” he continued.
His reason had nothing to do with planes crashing. Potential glitches in ground support, fuel supply systems, inventory control systems, etc. weren’t going to make for a pleasant night of flying, he explained. There was the threat of delays, but by 1999 he realized most problems were fixed and did in fact fly that night.
Experts also said some elevators were hooked into security and fire control systems and if they were to malfunction, and that was a big if, the fail-safe default was to assume there was a fire and take the elevator to the ground floor, de Jager explained.
“They don’t fall, they don’t plummet, they don’t plunge, but those are the words used by the media,” he said with a thinly-veiled note of contempt.
His experience in 1999 at London’s Heathrow airport was the pinnacle of his suspicion that the media was not doing the story justice. BBC wanted to interview him and would send out a crew to do the story since he only had a few hours in transit. But there was a caveat.
“If you are going to tell us everything is fine, we are not going to send a crew out there, but if you are going to tell us that things are wrong we’ll send a crew out,” they told him.
damned if you do or don’t
As Y2K approached there were few doomsayers left. The IT industry had done its work and everything was under control. When it was over there were few reported glitches, but for de Jager and the IT industry in general there little acknowledgement of a job well done.
“[IT professionals] worked hard and they never got thanked, not in a significant way,” he said.
But de Jager doesn’t hide his praise. “We did brilliantly.”
Considering the IT industry has a well-earned reputation of not working well together and delivering product late, the results were great, he said.
And people’s reaction to de Jager himself are also interesting.
“‘Oh, you’re the guy who was part of that hoax…you were part of that con job, you sure fooled us,'” he said, repeating what has been said to him. “It is frustrating more than anything else.
“Obviously if I am trying to do business with somebody who thinks that I am part of a hoax, of course it effects my business,” he continued. “But to what degree? Are there enough other people to fill the blanks? Sure there are. The IT industry and the people who worked on Y2K know what I did.”
The Y2K issue is well behind de Jager, save for a little nagging disrespect for the mainstream media’s sensationalist attitude. Today he is back doing what he has done for years: helping organizations manage and understand what new technology is all about, how it effects their business and how the business will respond to that impact.
Companies have to look at the benefits, the disadvantages and the reality of technology, he said.
“Despite everything you read about the Internet, it only does one thing, it speeds up access to information.”
De Jager is primarily a speaker and a writer, though he does some consulting and has a monthly newsletter about managing change in technology.
In a nutshell, today’s problem is that organizations do not handle change well and often technology gets blamed, he said. “It is always easier to blame technology than to blame your own lack of management skills,” he added.
Many companies view technology as a panacea and when there is a problem, they throw technology at it. This is a big problem when technology is neither the problem nor the solution.
“Boys and their toys. We are like Tim the Toolman Taylor: give me more power, it is what we believe, it is what we do, but it is not the answer to most of our problems.”
Companies have to find the business problem first before they look for a technological solution. “We have become seduced by technology, we believe it is the only answer. I like technology but I am not in love with it. Technology is a tool,” he explained. It is all about what he calls “technology in context.
“Computers are tools, they are there to perform a function and unless you keep that objective in mind you are missing the point,” he said.
For him WAP is a good example of technology gone awry. “Is this going to serve you stock quotes? If you are watching it every minute of the day, get a life,” he bellowed.
And Y2K, now that it’s behind him? “I would do it over again because it needed doing and there isn’t anything I would do differently,” he said.
“It was a 10 year project and it is done now.”