The Unintended Consequences of Y2K

Not only did the Year 2000 computer bug present few problems around the world, but it also introduced a number of unintended benefits, said John Koskinen, a Duke alumnus and the nation's Y2K czar, during a talk at Baldwin Auditorium last weekend.

Koskinen was on campus to share insights into the implications of his work on behalf of the national and international technological infrastructure, as well as lessons he learned that could influence the direction of information technology.

"The old saying is true," noted Koskinen, a member of the class of 1961. "Today, more than ever before, no man, no company, no country is an island unto itself. Everybody is dependent and reliant on somebody else."

Koskinen was appointed in February 1998 assistant to President Bill Clinton and chair of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion. His assignment was to oversee the federal government's efforts to address the Y2K problem, but he quickly learned that the private sector and most other countries needed assistance as well.

"What we did, in light of the time constraints and the magnitude of the problem, was basically build on existing structures in the government, existing groups in the private sector, and create organizations around the world," Koskinen said.

The first step was to get federal agencies in the United States to reach out to institutions in their respective spheres of public policy interest and to create working groups ‚ such as health care, oil and gas, and telecommunications ‚ to deal with the problem more efficiently.

Next, the President's Council got the working groups to survey their institutions and determine where the problems were. Finally, after Congress passed a law regulating Y2K litigation, the working groups encouraged trade groups and businesses to inform the public as to their state of readiness so people would take problems seriously, but not overreact.

Once companies were convinced they could not be sued for statements made in good faith about their products or services, then "competitors began to more willingly share information not only about their (Y2K) status but also about how they were fixing their systems," Koskinen said.

Consequently, businesses and industries that otherwise viewed each other as competitors began working together. The relationships forged were among the unintended benefits, he said.

For example, the initial meeting of the oil and gas working group was the first of its kind. The industries, although related, had never before worked in unison because each group thought of the other as the competition.

"At one point, one of the executives leading the oil and gas consortium said to me, 'You know, we've discovered in light of working together that the exchange of technical information across all these lines has been very valuable, and there's a lot we can do in light of environmental issues and other kinds of technical issues that aren't competitive matters but are in fact health and safety issues, where we would do a lot better and the public would be better off if we continue to share this information,'" Koskinen said.

Another benefit has been that countless organizations, businesses and government agencies have new computers and software. In many instances, the most appropriate response to the Y2K problem was to upgrade, Koskinen said.

Still another benefit has been that many institutions for the first time have an inventory of the information technology they use. That's a big advantage in terms of efficiency, Koskinen said. Numerous organizations learned of system redundancies because of the inventories.

"It's clear that the world is increasingly reliant on information technology, that organizations are increasingly interconnected and that we are going to continue to have problems of one kind or another," Koskinen said. "Therefore, it's critical to know which systems you're running and to whom you're connected as you move forward."

Written by Noah Bartolucci.