Programmer's Y2K alert finally gets heard : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

Link dated today <:)=

Michigan computer programmer Bill Schoen tried to warn the world about the Y2K bug in 1984, but he was ridiculed and ignored. Now, as corporations brace for chaos, he wonders why the problem wasn't fixed.


Sixteen years ago, Bill Schoen made a daring decision to become the Paul Revere of the Y2K crisis.

He risked his reputation, his career and his family's savings in trying to awaken the computer industry to the looming disaster.

Schoen did make a splash on the national scene. But before he could wake up anyone with real authority to kill the Y2K bug, this Paul Revere was shot off his horse by his own countrymen.

Some people called him a man ahead of his time. Most people treated him like a nut.

Now, on the eve of the year 2000, Schoen and many others in the computer industry are stunned by the billions of dollars corporations are spending to head off a catastrophe.

Not a day goes by that Schoen isn't haunted by the question: Why didn't anyone listen to him early enough to avoid wasting all of this money on repairs?

As he and his wife, Maureen, think about their ordeal in the early 1980s, they're convinced that it's a moral lesson for today.

Bill Schoen wasn't any different than millions of other men and women working deep inside major corporations who, one day, might spot something that's seriously wrong. And, like Schoen, they might dare to speak out about it -- only to find themselves ignored or even worse: punished like a character in a Dilbert comic strip.

"Someone in these big corporations should learn to stop and listen," says Schoen one evening as he cracks open a can of beer and settles into a comfortable chair in his tree-shaded Independence Township home.

Maureen is nearby, helping their 6-year-old son, Billy, mix the batter for a chocolate cake. For years she has pondered what went wrong in the early '80s, when their family was nearly bankrupted by her husband's attempts to speak out about the Y2K bug.

"I don't regret what happened to Bill. If we went back in time, I would want him to do it all again," she says. "He was just trying to tell people to get prepared."

She pauses in thought -- and Billy takes the opportunity to sneak his fingers into the batter and steal a taste.

Then Maureen, a devout Catholic, says, "You know, I think this whole thing is almost like the Christian idea of salvation. If we don't properly prepare our lives, then we have to pay the piper in the end."

Even internationally known computer experts, contemplating the magnitude of the Y2K problem, find themselves falling back on spiritual analogies.

Peter deJager, the Canadian computer guru who now circles the globe talking about the Y2K bug, puts it this way: "Why didn't people listen earlier? It was human nature. We don't like to worry about problems that won't become serious for a long time. That's why people continue to smoke, why some drink to excess and why some fool around on their wives. There's a tendency to carry forward the sins of the fathers."

Punched out

This particular sin started decades ago when computer programs were recorded as holes punched into decks of cards.

"Back in 1974, when I started programming, personal computers and mice didn't exist," Schoen recalls. "We wrote computer code on preprinted sheets and then keypunchers would punch that code onto cards. Back in those days, programmers would fight tooth and nail to save every single character in the code. One obvious way to save space was to write the years as two digits."

That wouldn't be a problem until the year 2000, when computers would not be able to tell whether 00 meant 2000 or 1900.

The irony is that this bug was an in-house joke among programmers for many years. "Even as a rookie in the 1970s, everyone would laugh about it," Schoen says. "They'd say, 'Hell, everybody in our business will retire before 1999! Someone else will have to deal with it!' "

And, at first, Schoen would shrug and let it ride. He was just a new guy, not long out of Princeton with his engineering degree. Who was he to say anything?

A bad habit

By the early 1980s, punch cards were fading into history -- but the system of two-digit dates had become an almost universal custom among the programmers writing the software that would run the world's governments, banks, utilities and major corporations.

Schoen had moved up the programming ranks and, in 1983, was a supervising designer for a huge software project: a complex inventory system that would help manage the flow of parts at a General Motors plant.

One day, he was sitting at his desk, designing a key component involving dates. Like every other programmer, he had used the two-digit dating system countless times in the past. But that day his conscience started to ache. It began to seem just plain wrong that he was knowingly inserting a bug deep inside software that would run a giant factory.

"All of us in programming were setting up computer systems in a way that would lead to a big screw-up. I could see that. And the code for these big systems was so complex that I knew it would be very hard to fix it later. What we were doing was wrong. Just because everybody was doing it, didn't make it right," Schoen says.

So he turned to a few coworkers and tried to explain his concern. He told them that he wanted to get serious about eliminating the Y2K problem. It was true that no one else in the programming world was trying to tackle it, he admitted, but he told his friends that he was determined to change that.

"I thought they would understand this right away, but we had this little joke around our office called 'Mad Dog of the Day.' It was an award that went to anyone who was acting weird. They slapped the Mad Dog award on my desk that day," he says.

Search for solutions

Schoen didn't give up. He quietly spent many hours of his own time analyzing the problem and considering possible solutions. Then he went to his bosses at the factory to explain the bug.

"Basically, in 1983 or 1984, we could have solved the entire problem at almost no cost through a long-term prevention program," he says. "If programmers had agreed to start writing only year-2000 compliant software at that point, we would only have minor problems today."

Instead, GM treated him like a loose cannon. A corporate lawyer showed up and demanded to know just what Schoen thought he was doing with all this nonsense.

Then, he was fired.

Even that didn't stop Schoen, who began to see this as a personal crusade. Without a job to support his family, he worked on his own, designing software that could help companies start fixing the bug. Then he wrote to Fortune 500 companies, offering to sell his services and help them resolve what he described as a major computer problem. Only a handful of companies responded.

"I got less respect than Rodney Dangerfield's dog," he says. "I remember one company in Ohio. I drove down there and met the head guy -- this hard-bitten Humphrey Bogart type with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. We met with some of his people.

"At first, they didn't realize this was about the year 2000 problem. As soon as I started explaining it, this head guy turned to the man next to him and started talking about golf. Then they stood up and walked out of the room, leaving me standing there all alone. I drove back home with tears streaming down my face.

"No one wanted to buy my software. I didn't have a nickle left."

Too little, too late

Schoen's one moment in the national spotlight was a story about him in February 1984 in Computerworld magazine, at that time the most influential source of news for programmers around the world. It was the first time the year 2000 problem was discussed in a major publication.

"When that article appeared, I thought: Now they'll have to listen," Schoen recalls and pauses before adding, "But everyone just ignored it. That's what broke my spirit. And I quit trying to get people to listen."

Now, Maryfran Johnson, Computerworld editor in chief, describes Schoen as a man ahead of his time. "This was bad news in the computer industry that nobody wanted to deliver and nobody wanted to hear. He got up on a soap box and yelled about it and he was punished for it."

Computerworld wasn't eager to trumpet the issue, either, and wrote virtually nothing about it for almost 10 years. Then, in September 1993, the magazine published "Doomsday 2000," the landmark article by Peter deJager that finally caught programmers' attention.

DeJager says he received a lot of criticism, too. "Even in 1993, I was damned for suggesting that this problem might cost $50 billion. Nobody understood how huge a task this would be. Even I couldn't see how big the problem was. Now we think it could cost $1 trillion."

Just in case

At this point, the Schoens aren't worried. After Bill's disastrous experiences in 1983 and 1984, he found programming jobs for a series of major corporations. He's currently under contract at DaimlerChrysler.

Around their home, Bill and Maureen are all set for the worst the Y2K bug could do. They've got a gasoline-powered generator and a stack of firewood longer than their house. In the basement, there's a month's supply of food.

"We'll be fine. And I'm not bitter about what happened to me," Schoen said. "I just think that one of the primary lessons people should learn from all this is: If someone is trying to warn you about a problem, don't dismiss them just because you don't think the person is an expert or because you don't know their name or you don't think they've got impressive credentials.

"I wasn't anybody special in 1983. But I saw something important and I tried to tell people about it at a time when it could have made a big difference."

-- Sysman (, October 18, 1999


Thanks Sysman. I remember reading about Schoen in mid 1998 and it's amazing to me that this story is starting to make the rounds again.

Especially with the headline, "Programmer's Y2K alert finally gets heard"



-- Michael Taylor (, October 18, 1999.

If we survive the Y2K consequences, this fellow should have a statue in a nice park somewhere and maybe a high school named after him for what it took to do what he did and when he tried it. It takes guts to think outside the box, and in the mid 1980s to start alerting people to a problem looming fifteen or so years down the road in an industry that at the time would castrate the loud shouters just to shut them up, the 'nads had to have been massive. [lol]

-- OddOne (, October 18, 1999.

Is this the guy that was on 60 minutes' first special on Y2K in November. He was talking about trying to wake up programmers & businesses in the 1980's and said now that if anyone needs an expert witness to the preventability of Y2K, then "I'm your man." Also wrote a song about Y2K - "The Millennium Bug is Dead" or something like that.

-- Jim (x@x.x), October 18, 1999.

In 1985 I started my career as a Programmer/Analyst with General Motors. My first assignment as a rookie out of college was to begin preparing for Y2K. I had to assess the current computer programs and systems for 2 digit dates, and implement the solutions to allow for 4 digit conversions (ie. if date < 60, make it a 2000 date...if the date > 60, make it a 1900 date). How can you honestly say that no one listened to this man?? How can you honestly say that no corporations were preparing for Y2K prior to 1999?? I've been listening and preparing since 1985.

-- D Basile (, October 18, 1999.

Thanks for posting Sysman.

It's all about the cost, or not... of our myriad choices.

That... or becoming too comfortable with wearing blinders!

After Y2K... the planet-wide environment we're ruining for future generations. Next growth industry: sustainable business?

Lessons... lessons.


-- Diane J. Squire (, October 18, 1999.

At least the people at Apple listened. Apples and Macs have been compliant from the start.

-- Evelyn (, October 18, 1999.

Macs yes, Apples NO! The Lisa was not Y2K compliant as I remember. Guess it doesn't matter - doubt any are in use anymore. Apple doesn't make systems that last that long.

-- Arko (, October 18, 1999.

Great post Sysman, I put this one in my "Y2K Facts" folder. I haven't seen this before, and am interested in the details of the history of the early warnings of the y2K problem. This helps.

You know, there is one thing that I do not disagree many of you here on - fixing Y2K should have started a heck of a lot earlier than it did. I have never had a problem with those who warn about the very real problems of Y2K in software AND in embedded systems. And those who claim the CEOs and managers just let it ride too long have a good point. I just like the claims of Y2K problems to be factual, and not fantasy. After all, reality is problem enough when it comes to Y2K...


-- FactFinder (, October 18, 1999.

Great post Sysman, I put this one in my "Y2K Facts" folder. I haven't seen this before, and am interested in the details of the history of the early warnings of the y2K problem. This helps.

You know, there is one thing that I do not disagree many of you here on - fixing Y2K should have started a heck of a lot earlier than it did. I have never had a problem with those who warn about the very real problems of Y2K in software AND in embedded systems. And those who claim the CEOs and managers and programmers and engineers who just let it ride too long have a good point. I just like the claims of Y2K problems to be factual, and not fantasy. After all, reality is problem enough when it comes to Y2K...


-- FactFinder (, October 18, 1999.

Hi FactFinder,

Another early alarm guy was Robert X. Cringely. He still writes a "back page" column for InfoWorld, and hosted the PBS mini series, Triumph of the Nerds. Do a dogpile web search on him (I would, but I'm in a hurry tonight). He wrote a few early Y2K articles, in the early-mid '80s I believe. He still mentions Y2K once in a while. The last comment that I remember, maybe a month ago, was questioning all of the "required on-duty" going on at rollover. I think he's gone almost polly... <:)=

-- Sysman (, October 19, 1999.


Here's an old page (8/97) on Gary North about Cringely. Gary cites his book in 1992, but Cringely says 1991 in the article:

Cringely Returns! And He Doesn't Trust Microsoft

He wasn't a polly back then!

Tick... Tock... <:00=

-- Sysman (, October 19, 1999.

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