The Millenium Bug

In 2000, a computer bug almost burst the US economy into flames.

The Y2K bug was caused when computer programmers took a shortcut by coding the date with only two digits. Instead of denoting 1997, for example, the date was stored as 97 (with the first two digits assumed to be 19).

When 2000 rolled around, the older programs affected by the bug would think the year was 1900, which could cause computer crashes or inaccurate data.

So the late 1990s saw a frenzied effort from the part of thousands of companies to make sure they were prepared for the bug. And the bug affected all parts of the economy: doctor’s offices, utilities, telephone systems, transportation, and banks were all going to be impacted.

Whilst most organizations viewed the Y2K bug as merely a problem that needed to be solved, some saw it as an opportunity to overdeliver for their customers.

The companies that thrived during this time were the ones that realized that Y2K wasn’t just a technology problem, but also a business problem.

One of these companies was IBM.


IBM’s core value is a dedication to every client’s success. Straight from their playbook:

“IBMers are focused on outcomes. We sell products, services and solutions, but all with the goal of helping our clients succeed, however they measure success.”

IBM did a few things in the 1990s to make sure they were Y2K ready.

In 1995, they created a free Year 2000 planning and implementation resource guide. And just a year later, they also established four Y2K Technical Support Centers around the world.

IBM left nothing to chance. At their Burlington site, employees walked every single square foot ensuring all equipment and machines were Y2K ready. They put color coded stickers on every piece of metal.

y2k bug stickets

If their customer got a flat, IBM put themselves in a position in which they had a spare tire in the trunk. They even took it one step further. If their customer got two flats, they were still ready to drive them to the terminal for them to make their flight.

During the crossover period at midnight on December 31 1999, some 50,000 IBM employees were on the job or standing by on call.

Profit Center

The Y2K bug made executives realize that IT wasn’t just a cost center - it was a profit center, one that could significantly shape business strategy.

Engineers might have initially viewed Y2K preparation as a chore. It diverted attention away from more interesting and challenging technical problems.

But at a company like IBM, Y2K preparation was paramount to helping customers succeed. And engineers were paramount to Y2K preparation.

The thousands of lines of code audited or stickers stuck on metal were all mapping to client outcomes. This was in fact even the case before Y2K came into the picture.

Everyone at the company works for the customer. The Y2K bug just amplified this.

I’m reminded of something Patrick McKenzie once said:

“Producing beautiful software is not a goal. Solving complex technical problems is not a goal. Writing bug-free code is not a goal. Using sexy programming languages is not a goal. Add revenue. Reduce costs. Those are your only goals.”


Thanks for reading. Found this vintage video of IBM meeting the Y2K challenge if you want to find out more.

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