Computer ◆ Conservation ◆ Society

What Really Happened in Y2K

Speaker: Martyn Thomas
Date: Thursday 15th February 2018
Time: 14:30

BCS, 5 Southampton St, London WC2E 7HA


About the seminar

During the 1990s, the newspapers contained a growing number of stories and warnings about the Century Date Problem or “Millennium Bug” that would cause computers to fail at midnight on 1 January 2000. There were fears that there would be a power blackout and failure of the water supply, and that computer records of bank accounts would disappear, simultaneously wiping out both savings and debts. Governments worried about safety and security, auditors questioned whether they could approve company accounts if companies might collapse, airlines and passengers did not know whether planes would fail in flight or whether airports would be able to remain open and radars and air traffic control would continue to function.

Software errors were a familiar experience, of course. What made this one different is that it could potentially cause very many systems to fail at the same time.

Committees were formed and issued reports and advice. Auditors insisted that companies obtained assurances about their essential systems, or replaced them. New consultancy companies were created (and many existing firms created new service lines) to investigate systems and equipment, to advise on Y2K risks, and to manage Y2K projects. Old programmers were brought out of retirement to look again at the systems they and their colleagues had written years or decades before. For a while it seemed that the launch of the European common currency, the Euro, would have to be delayed from the planned date of January 1 1999.

As the new millennium approached there was growing anxiety in boardrooms, among technical staff and across many parts of society in the UK and other advanced economies. Despite the huge expenditure and efforts, it was difficult to be sure that nothing vital had been overlooked.

Then nothing happened, or so it seemed, and the feeling grew that the whole thing had been a myth or a scam invented by rapacious consultants and supported by manufacturers who wanted to compel their customers to throw away perfectly good equipment and buy the latest version.

I led the Y2K services internationally for Deloitte & Touche Consulting Group for several years in the 1990s and later acted as the ultimate auditor of the Y2K programme for the UK National Air Traffic Services, NATS, so I was well placed to see what happened before, during and after the first of January 2000. This lecture explains the nature of the Millennium Bug, describes some of the unprofessional behaviour that made the problems so much worse and some of the heroics that made the consequences so much better than they would otherwise have been. In the final section, I shall show why the risks of catastrophic failure are actually much higher now than they were in 1999 and highlight some of the lessons that have not yet been learnt.

About the speaker

Martyn Thomas has worked in the software industry and with university and government research teams since 1969. In 1983 he founded Praxis and in the 1990s he was a partner in Deloitte Consulting, with worldwide responsibilities for software engineering and Y2K services, leaving in 1996 to return to working for himself as a consultant to NATS, Railtrack, Eurocontrol and as an expert witness in major litigations. In 2007 he was appointed CBE “for services to software engineering”. He has been a director of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and has advised the MoD and other Government Departments on cybersecurity. He is currently on the main Board of the Health and Safety Executive where he leads the Science, Engineering and Evidence Assurance Committee (SEEAC).

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