Corrections or additions?
Author: Melinda Sherwood. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January
5, 2000. All rights reserved.
Y2K: The Post Mortems
Y2K judgment day has come and gone, but no one has
the obvious question: was it all worth it? Worth the Senate hearings,
the millions of dollars in compliance efforts, and the columns and
columns of articles in the media?
Again, no answers. "If you’re asking if there would be some major
breakdown because of something we didn’t do, I don’t know," says
David Feyrer,who led Sarnoff’s Corporation’s Y2K Readiness
But Alan Wallach, a former IBM programmer and author of "The
Year 2000 Hoax," has heard that line too many times. "We did
know," he says. "We just didn’t ask the right people. We asked
economists and people making a fortune on this thing."
Feyrer and Wallach come together to discuss what might have gone wrong
on January 1, what didn’t go wrong, what never was going to go wrong
(Wallach’s stance), and what we can learn when fear and technology
mix, at the Princeton ACM/IEEE meeting on Thursday, January 20, at
8 p.m. at the Sarnoff Corporation. Joining them is consultant Perry
Weaver, who helped in Y2K compliance efforts at a hospital in
Call 609-924-8704. Free.
Ira Fuchs, vice president for computing and information
at Princeton University, discusses the same issues that morning,
January 20, at 10 a.m. at the 55 Plus meeting at the Jewish Center
of Princeton. Call 609-737-2001.
Like many consultants, Feyrer (who is also an ordained Episcopal
reconciles his own job with the apparent no-show of Y2K by invoking
scientific prudence: "Until you go into a specific situation you
don’t really know," he points out. "I get in and get up to
my knees in what’s going on and piece together the information that
What Feyrer found was, out of the nearly 2,000 projects that went
out of Sarnoff in 10 years, only about 50 contained date-time issues
susceptible to glitches. Of those, he adds, fewer than 10 required
substantial amounts of time to remediate.
The fear that embedded chips would bring the world’s infrastructure
tumbling down — that was stuff of science fiction, not science,
says Feyrer. "From a scientific standpoint," says Feyrer,
"the hysteria around Y2K made no sense. The collective
was exacerbated by charlatans, P.T. Barnums who saw profit, and in
fairness, there were people who really believed that the end of the
world was at hand."
Feyrer grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where his father was an
accountant for Bethlehem Steel. He graduated from Muhlenberg, Class
of 1963, and after three years in the army went to Philadelphia
School. He left the clergy in 1979 so he could raise his six children.
For the first part of the 1980s, he worked for a car dealership in
Wilkes-Barre. His son led him to computer programming. "When I
was in the car dealership I was always intrigued with computers but
I was frustrated with them too," he says. "I bought my kid
a computer, and he kept teaching me and I became familiar with a
of database programs. Eventually, I made the computer do what I wanted
it to do."
Now a resident of Westford, Connecticut, he is the state chaplain
for the Connecticut National Guard as well as a consultant. He doesn’t
preach in the workplace — unless it’s about better asset
From the technologists’ standpoint, that was one of the potential
contributors to Y2K error. "One of the problems that many
have is they have poor asset management — they didn’t know what
they bought or what they had," he says. "Many corporations
just had no idea what computers they had. At Sarnoff, we had over
3,000 computers on our books, many of them nonoperational."
By taking inventory and upgrading their clients’ systems, Y2K
if they did nothing else, at least gave corporations a good spring
cleaning, says Feyrer. "If they didn’t do it now they’d have to
do it later," he says.
scientific grounds: "I’ve heard people say `because we’ve upgraded
it’s going to take our economy to new heights,’ but I feel that’s
one of the worst things to do — rewrite programs when you’re
to fix a bug," he says.
A former IBM programmer, Wallach has earned himself a place on the
blacklist of Michael Hyatt ("The Millennium Bug") by
claiming that Y2K was an all-out hoax and has become something of
a thorn in the side of his peers. "I’ve been taken as a nut,"
Wallach readily admits. "I had one guy E-mailing me every time
he read something that was going to happen on January 1, asking me
why I think it’s not true. I told him to try Prozac."
In reality, Wallach is a stoic in a fanatic’s world. He’s been arguing
since 1998 that Y2K is a sociological, rather than technological,
problem, caused by the voluntary surrender of society to mass
Wallach uses the story of Chicken Little, the alarmist fowl who spread
the word that the sky is falling, to illustrate the power of group
psychosis in his book. The crisis mentality in America, however, is
more serious because it is "a movement with an economic structure
of its own," he writes in "The Year 2000 Hoax" (Safe
1998, $9.95). "A meteorologist on TV can’t stand to give just
a `fair and mild’ forecast. They look for something bad to report
even if they have to say it’s a long way off or only a remote
There are many companies making incredible sums of money from the
crisis. There are many with a vested interest in encouraging the
rather than debunking it. I would worry more about the fear of a
than an actual crisis."
Wallach lives in western Massachusetts, where he runs a consulting
company. "In retrospect, what I’ve seen in my travels since I
wrote the book is that I guess the wrong people have been asked what
to do," he says. "A whole bunch of incompetents advising
who knew nothing. Programmers all said the same thing: we don’t know
what the big deal is about. The embedded chips — that was the
biggest joke I ever heard. As an old programmer, I knew that things
don’t happen that way. "
Rather, Y2K was the invention of a few politically and financially
motivated people, says Wallach, including the media, consultants,
and even IS people. "What we have is a situation where the
of the companies saw an opportunity to get a lot of money for a big
project," he says. "If management gives me an opportunity
to have a $15 million budget to rewrite the thing I’m not going to
turn it down, because it makes me politically important."
And after January 1, many businesses would dare not question their
decisions, says Wallach. "I think they’re still sold a bill of
good that they did the right thing," he says. "I think anybody
who spent a couple of million dollars redoing their software, but
if you ask them, they’ll say we had to do it — nobody wants to
There’s a hint of resignation in Feyrer’s summation of the Y2K effort:
"We had to diligently do what we had to do," he says. "If
a corporation didn’t bring on someone to do what I did, then there
could have been legal repercussions."
Like Wallach, though, Feyrer hopes to leave collective paranoia and
professional chicanery behind in the 20th century. "The world
has a lot of people who are out to make a buck," he says.
who is knowledgeable about computers can look at this and say it’s
fine. Somebody who is older and not conversant with computers may
think there’s some kind of magic there. I think people are still
of technology and that’s why they let gurus lead them. What we need
to do is not park our brains at the door and let our emotions run
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.