“Can you imagine what it would have been like to work in the technical space in Y2K time?” — actual quote from a coworker about 4 months ago at a lunch. I casually knew that I was “older” than a hefty chunk of my coworkers; if you’re in the software space the sheer volume of intake from colleges and study programs are such that you get a large incoming batch of folks as their first (or second) job in tech, and then as folks get on a bit in their careers they move elsewhere — sometimes to other parts of the company, sometimes to other companies. Life choices are made differently in your early 20’s than in your early 30’s.
I don’t think I look my age; maybe that’s just a healthy narcissism or maybe I’m delusional. I looked across the table to him and said, “Yes. I can. I was there.”
I entered the corporate world while still in college, at a pharmaceuticals company, in the early-mid 90’s. My title was “Computer Operator” and that was a legit title then – I “operated” the computer. In this case, the “computer” was a set of terminals in which orders were processed and verified, backed up by a mainframe at the top floor. One of my jobs was to administrate the backups of said mainframe (had to be done at 11pm-2am each night, so as not to interfere with work). Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I was, at this time, blissfully unaware of the Y2K problem.
Fast forward to the late 90’s, and four job hops. (Mine was, I think, the first generation to change jobs and change companies multiple times in a short period — our parents’ generation was aghast because for them, you went to a company and stayed loyal to the company. For us, we were chasing money.) I was working for a government contractor and the Y2K buzz was firmly in place. Was “this” software we were reliant on ready? What about “that” software? What about our OS? What about our vendors? And so forth. Which is entirely different from the larger, “OMG everything is going to stop working on January 1, 2000, and we are going to be back in the dark ages” conversation. If you look at the media hype machine today and how it can leverage extremes for clicks, do not think that just because there was a more nascent internet that hadn’t yet fully been squeezed for every last eyeball “dime”, we didn’t have fearmongering and panic. Y2K was a constant conversation; subject to the same conspiracy theories we see peppering today’s news — that it was overblown, that it was fake (and a distraction created to take attention away from the President/current government), etc. It was, of course, real but it was, of course, not as bad as advertised. To be absolutely fair: it was “not as bad as advertised” because a ton of people put a ton of work in, based on a ton of companies putting a ton of cash in, to fix it. The Great Refactoring took something on the order of 2-3 years (depending on when you got your stuff together).
Sometime in the afternoon of December 31, 1999 (I don’t remember the exact time) I was getting gas at the local gas station, near my apartment. It had become “the latest thing” to have streaming video (!) at the pump, so you could watch TV (usually news). As with typical 31’sts of December the “New Years’ around the world” coverage was in session, showing the fireworks and crowds celebrating a new millennium. The video was showing New Year in Moscow, where the power was on, the fireworks were firing; it looked sane and normal and like any other New Years’ celebration. The USSR had fallen less than a decade previous and, at least as far as the “western” world was told, and Russia had been spending the interim period getting economically stable and finding its new path forward; they had had bigger things to worry about and less resourcing to prepare. “If they could manage to have power and water and fireworks and such on Y2K”, I thought to myself, “we’ll be fine”. And for the most part, we were.
We sit here on our 3rd year of a global pandemic, vaccine distribution and access globally are inequitable, our medical professionals are exhausted, disinformation and fearmongering are at levels commensurate with dystopian novels. The great reckoning of racial prejudice and injustice that was supposed to be had did not happen: we “touched” on it, and I suppose we’re going to “circle back”, are we? Gender equity is in the toilet (thanks to pandemic response: no, you don’t get childcare and no you don’t have the wherewithal to work from home, so I guess you lose), and the failure to respond to climate change is so ingrained that we have a sarcastic parody of said failure. We elect a stream of pale septuagenarians who gladly make promises they cannot keep and then wonder why we don’t get what we want and why they don’t understand what we need.
I yearn for the days when I could get reassurance from a 2-minute TV reel at the gas pump. Here’s to a hopefully better 2022.