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Communications of the ACM

Are We Ready?: Risk, Reality, and Readiness

After five long years of dealing with and studying the Y2K computer problem in hundreds of public and private enterprises and scores of countries, does it just come down to one question? What are you going to do on New Year's Eve?

The question itself indicates a common naivete about the Y2K computer problem—the illusion that the problem is only about what happens when the century digits change from 19 to 20.

I know firsthand just how sick most of us are of hearing whytookay. But I wonder how many people have really learned the lessons of system development and management the Y2K dilemma has taught? Lessons such as the importance of standards, inventories, quality practices, simplicity, testing, version control, project management, and a long-term view of the life cycle of system costs.

Those who have learned will move on, continuously improving their systems and enabling their enterprises to become the nimble, flexible, fast, and secure ones that will thrive in this e-world we're creating. Careers will thrive from the value they create. Hopefully the rest will find something other than computer systems to botch and move on to some other profession to degrade.

As for personal preparedness, it's important to remember that each person's situation is unique and depends both on local conditions and personal risk propensity. Each of us deal with risk and uncertainty in our own ways. Managing life's risks is something we do on a daily basis. We look both ways, diversify our investments, and buy insurance. We also try to avoid inconveniences.

I am somewhat risk-averse, and my behavior, investments, and preparedness reflect this. Since I live in a rural all-electric house and depend on my own well and water treatment system, my normal year-round preparedness includes keeping a couple weeks of nonperishable food, a few hundred dollars cash, a cord of firewood, and emergency electric power. I usually store 15 gallons of gasoline for my little boat along with a three-day supply of drinking water (in case the pump fails).

My Y2K-specific additions include stocking the refrigerator full of fresh produce, maybe doubling my cash and water reserves, and topping off my car's gas tank. I always keep copies of financial records, flashlights, and extra batteries. I'll be sure to copy my fourth-quarter credit and social security reports.

I also plan to keep my expectations realistic. In 2000, I predict lots of little bookkeeping, billing, and supply-shortage problems. With this in mind, I plan to smile and use this time as an opportunity for learning and spiritual growth.

As for what you should do to prepare for the risks and uncertainties the Y2K computer dilemma may bring? Start by getting information about the risks in your locality. Pay particular attention to your community's potential consequences, such as chemical processing and nuclear power, water and sewage systems, transportation systems, and the global supply chains of critical industries upon which the economy of your community may depend.

You might also want to check the recommendations of the Consumer's Union (, the Red Cross (, and the Better Business Bureau (

And finally, one other very popular question: Will you fly on December 31? Fact is, despite logging over 50,000 air miles annually, I've never been fond of flying on any day. But whether one airplane of dignitaries can fly on New Year's Eve is not a particularly meaningful question. In fact, such a flight is mostly just a publicity stunt that perpetuates the short-term view that got us into this year-end mess in the first place. Business as usual will bring us more of the same.

Whether one airplane of dignitaries can fly on New Year's Eve is not a particularly meaningful question.

The more important question is, at what level of capacity will air transportation be in the first quarter of 2000? Closer to home, what about the capacity of the particular global air transportation system upon which your business or community might depend? What is the technology architecture upon which we should be building our global transportation system in order to maximize efficiency and safety? For the long term?

Among the many silver linings the Y2K computer problem has created, it has revealed our interdependencies upon each other as well as our dependencies on all technologies. The Y2K computer dilemma also reveals just how fragile these technologies can be, and how expensive it is to fix a simple error, even when we repeat it many times. Let's not let this happen again. Let's learn the lessons of the Y2K computer problem and not waste precious resources on short-sighted blunders.

As for what I plan to do on New Year's Eve? I'll be at home with my wife. What are your plans?

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Leon A. Kappelman ( is associate director of the Center for Quality and Productivity at the University of North Texas and co-chair of the Society for Information Management's Y2K Working Group.

©1999 ACM  0002-0782/99/1200  $5.00

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 1999 ACM, Inc.


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