- 1999, an Odd Odyssey

The Year 2000 Bug

It was just ten short years ago that many of us were preparing to celebrate New Year’s Eve – by working all night!

Anyone over 30 probably still remembers all the information technology work that went into preparing for Year 2000.

I’m going to dredge (!?) up some of my memories in the next few paragraphs, but if you have memories or stories of that frightening December 31, 1999, evening, I invite you to leave them as a comment to this blog entry.

For many of us in Seattle, 1999 was not a good year.

First of all, we had madly been reviewing and fixing our information technology applications and programs and systems for Y2K bugs.

But no one really knew what would happen.  Would buses and trains stop dead due to bugs in their microchips?  Would the electrical grid fail?  Would 911 stop working?

The City of Seattle, like any organization using IT, had very real problems – we knew the accounting/financial database – called SFMS for Seattle Financial Management System – was not ready for Y2K, so we replaced it with an entirely new system.  We also patched up the water utility’s and electrical utility’s billing systems, since another project to replace them was in progress. (That system, now called CCSS for the Consolidated Customer Service System, was implemented in 2001, a year late and $14 million over budget, which is a different story).

The City’s Chief Technology Officer was Lynn Jacobs, and in 1998 she had spread the alarm about Y2K, galvanizing the Mayor, City Council and most departments into action looking for their Y2K bugs.  But by October, 1999, Jacobs had largely checked out due to personal issues, rarely coming to work and exerting virtually no leadership.  So Mayor Schell replaced her with Marty Chakoian, who was, not coincidently, leading the City’s Y2K efforts. There was plenty of consternation among the IT leadership in the City government.

But the outside world was in chaos in 1999 too.

The Seattle Times ran a whole series of articles about the electrical grid and 911 systems and other critical functions, and how we were preparing them for Y2K. Gee, they even talked about potential water systems’ issues with Y2K, even though Seattle’s water reservoirs are high up in the mountains and the basic rule of water and wastewater is “s___ flows downhill” (The s___ stands for “stuff”, of course).

And we had the WTO riots in Seattle in November; Seattle sure appeared to be the anarchy capital of North America, if not the world.

Then on Dec. 14, 1999, a 32-year-old Algerian named Ahmed Ressam was arrested in Port Angeles, Washington, coming across the border from Canada with 100 pounds of powerful explosives in the trunk of his car.  Was he headed to Seattle to detonate the explosives at the base of the Space Needle on New Year’s Eve?  We couldn’t take a chance, so Mayor Paul Schell cancelled the grand New Year’s celebration planned there.

For most of us tech types, and a lot of other folks, it didn’t make any difference, anyway.  We had already planned to be at work instead of celebrating on December 31st.

The City’s Emergency Operations Center was open.  At that time, the EOC was in a crowded basement of Fire Station #2 in the Denny Regrade (it has since been replaced with a $30 million modern facility).  Nevertheless, senior officials from every department hunkered down to see in the millennium in that basement.

My own Department of Information Technology was all of 5 months old – we were created as a separate department on August 1, 1999. Our operations center was in an old stock brokerage (Foster and Marshall) building at 2nd and Columbia, which is now home to the United Way of Seattle. That building was home to the telecommunications division, including the service desk – the rest of the department was in the Dexter Horton building next door. [The Dexter Horton building turned out to be much worse off in the earthquake of 2001, when virtually everyone working there was forced to leave it for a couple weeks due to building damage, but again that’s another story.]

City of Seattle IT Staff celebrate Year 2000

On December 31, 1999, we had a whole team of folks who celebrated the beginning of the third millennium* together, watching a quiet, uneventful Seattle 20th Century night turn into a quiet, uneventful and sleepy 21st century* morning.

Was it uneventful due to all our diligency and preparations, or was there never really any problem in the first place?  I don’t know, but I do know I’ll celebrate the end of the decade of the naughts tonight with a bit more enjoyment and a lot less trepidation.


*Note: Yes, yes, I do understand the real beginning of the 3rd millennium and the 21st century is January 1,2001. See article here. But, gee, popular culture doesn’t count the years that way, so I took a little tech-journalism-geek liberties with dates in writing this article.

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