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Ed Yourdon's "Sayonara" Gives Me Pause


by Tom Atlee


Ed Yourdon says he's leaving Y2K work. Yourdon's book TIME BOMB 2000 was my first intro to Y2K scenarios. David Sunfellow of New Heaven New Earth and Wild2K says "I expect there will be some major shock waves generated by this..." I agree. And I think part of the shock will be that many of us involved and active in Y2K work share (perhaps subconsciously) Yourdon's sense that we've just passed a watershed, that we're in new territory now, that "we're not in Kansas any more." This feeling has been building in me for several months and peaked last week, a week that included

* the 60 Minutes program,
* the survey of Y2K community activists,
* the Senate hearings on Y2K Preparedness (with poor press coverage),
* Koskinen's Community Conversations announcement (and community prep folk's dubious response)
* all happening as we're about to enter the sixth month of 1999 (it seems like the 98-99 rollover was just a month or two ago...).

For me, the sense that we're in a new, more intense context also comes from Chernomyrdin's nuclear threat, headlines about "the inevitability" of a NATO ground war in Serbia, and the intensifying war between India and Pakistan (with nuclear China, allied with Russia, in the background). Not only does Y2K seem poised on an edge, but so does the peace of the world.

As we come down the home stretch (down the toboggan slide, nearer the waterfall, into the end game...), perhaps it is once again time for reflection. Part of me wants to suggest we reflect on the meaning of this watershed for remediation, testing, scenario spinning, contingency planning, preparation, education, spreading (and keeping up with) news -- at all those levels and sectors where they're needed: global, international, national, state, regional, county, local, neighborhood, household, individual -- private, public and non-profit -- military and health care, transportation and food, communications and utilities, PCs and firetrucks, and all the rest -- and the implications for nuclear and toxic accidents, for panic and war, for the stock market and the stocks of preparedness supplies, and on and on and on.... I've been in this complex world of all these dimensions for 14 months. And to think that thousands of newcomers every day are just realizing all this, or beginning to...

I was in a meeting of Bay Area Y2K organizers a couple of weeks ago. A new organizer from Richmond (a city north of Berkeley, and poorer) was waxing eloquent about how exciting it was to organize her neighbors and to learn about all the dimensions of Y2K. I suddenly felt old. My struggles and experience and conclusions about all this had encrusted my sense of possibility. I realized that a certain type of newcomer to Y2K will see only how much can be done in seven months. They'll fling themselves at it with fervor, into realms where I have long concluded nothing could be done. And maybe they won't accomplish ALL of it, but they'll make some progress, certainly more and faster than I would have done. And that's important. In something this big, every piece counts. And so I find myself reminded of the archetypal lesson of generations: The old folks have experience. The new folks have energy and untarnished possibility. We need to remember to pass the torch on without blowing it out. Yourdon does this well.

I wanted to write an essay here that organized all the different issues, that invited everyone to an inquiry, as I did in December with "Where's the Juice in Y2K". But something else is coming out. I find myself not so organized. Yet I find myself still wanting to join with you in inquiry: For some the inquiry will have to do with what what we (and others) are doing. For some it will have to do with where we (and others) are. For some it will have to do with who we (and others) are with. For some it will have to do with spirit, with growing, with looking the future in the eye and waking up -- individually and collectively. For all of us, I suspect it will have to do with what's possible -- good and bad, easy and difficult -- again, individually and collectively. And it will have to do with how bright or dim life is, in the face of that. And what it all means. And where, therefore, to focus our attention, our lives. These decisions seem suddenly more important than ever before, more stark and vivid.

Emily Dickenson said "I dwell in possibility." May we all find real paths of positive possibility through these rapids, skimming down the other side of the Great Divide, breathless, afraid, hoping against hope, doing our best in the most challenging times we've ever known.

And may we all know peace -- whatever peace is right for each of us -- when the river levels out, broadens, and makes its inevitable steady course for the sea.





Sayonara, Y2K
By Ed Yourdon

The time has come for me to say goodbye to Y2K.  I'm removing the Y2K
articles, links, and resources from my web site, and dropping off the
Y2K radar screen.   Y2K has been part of my life since early 1995 and
has occupied nearly every waking moment since the summer of 1997 -- and
while it will continue to have a significant impact on my personal and
family life, I no longer plan to play a public role.  I realize that
this may raise some questions, and perhaps cause some commentary and
debate, and I've attempted to answer the more obvious questions below.

Why?  Why Now?

No, I haven't been abducted by aliens.  I haven't been kidnapped by the
CIA or the mysterious people in black helicopters.  I haven't been
threatened by the FBI.  I haven't been bribed by banks or the government
(or anyone else).  There is nothing deep, dark, or mysterious about my

I simply feel that I've done everything I can do to raise the alarm
about Y2K.  I've co-authored two books, written dozens of articles and
essays, spoken at hundreds of seminars, conferences, meetings, and
gatherings.  I could continue doing the same thing, over and over again,
but I would be repeating myself.  More important, I would be preaching
to the choir; those whose opinion and outlook on Y2K are compatible with
mine would nod their head in agreement, and those whose opinion and
outlook are incompatible with mine would shake their head in disbelief,
just as they have for the past four years.

Yes, there are still some people who are undecided, and who continue to
listen to both the optimists and the pessimists before making up their
own mind.  But I think that a more accurate term for "undecided" is
"indifferent" -- i.e., there are many people who still don't care, who
don't think the topic is worthy of serious attention, and who may not
focus on Y2K until this fall -- and quite possibly not even until
midnight on New Year's Eve.  Meanwhile, I sense a hardening of
positions: those who are pessmistic about the outcome are even more
convinced than they were a year ago, and those who are optimistic are
even more convinced, especially because they see a steady stream of
upbeat press releases and government status reports.

More than just hardening of positions, though, I sense an increasing
degree of confrontation and hostility between the two camps.  It's
reflected in flame wars on the Internet discussion groups; emotional
rhetoric in the statements of government officials and media articles
(e.g., warnings against "frivolous stockpiling"); McCarthy-esque threats
by both sides that "we're taking names" in preparation for some kind of
undescribed post-Y2K retribution against those who express an opposing
point of view; and, overall, a sharp decline in civility.  I expect this
to continue for the remainder of the year, and I don't think it's a
productive use of my time (or anyone else's) to continue attempting to
respond to messages and commentary whose purpose often seems to be
"ignore the message, shoot the messenger."  Why isn't it productive? 
Because it doesn't change anyone's mind about the topic.  Perhaps we
could use the services of some of the gifted statesmen who have helped
negotiate peace treaties in northern Ireland, or the middle East; as for
me, I don't have the skill, the patience, or the training in this kind
of diplomacy.

Does This Imply A Change of Opinion About Y2K?

No doubt there will be some who gleefully proclaim, "This just proves
that Ed was wrong about Y2K all along!  He has given up on his 'doomer'
position, but he's too much of a coward to say so!"  Well, time will
tell whether any of us were right or wrong about Y2K -- but for now, my
perspective on Y2K remains essentially unchanged.  I stand by the
comments I've made in all of the articles and essays that I've written;
at a "macro" level, I still have a pessimistic outlook about the outcome
of Y2K.  We can argue indefinitely about whether the large government
agencies and the large companies in England, Canada, Australia, and the
U.S. will manage to muddle through, and whether the failure or
bankruptcy of a few such organizations and/or agencies will have a
dramatic impact.  But even amongst the optimists, there seems to be a
common consensus that small businesses, small towns/counties, and small
(aka Third World) countries are so far behind that they're unlikely to
finish repairing a signficant percentage of their mission-critical
systems.  The "fortress America" attitude amongst the optimists seems to
be, "Well, so what if half of the small businesses don't do anything
about Y2K until they see what breaks?  So what if Eastern Europe,
Africa, South America, the Middle East, and most of Asia don't manage to
repair their systems?  Why should I believe that this will have any
impact on my life?"

Similarly, we can argue indefinitely about whether the governmental
authorities and the private-sector organizations (e.g., the banks, the
utilities, the telephone companies, etc.) are doing a good job or a bad
job in terms of reporting their status and progress to the public.  But
there is a widespread theme that they're in control of the situation,
and that (notwithstanding the possibility of a few "glitches") there's
really nothing serious to worry about.  Yet the federal government has
acknowledged that it doesn't have the resources to provide emergency
relief to all of the local towns and communities across the country;
local communities are being told that they're on their own, and that
they should make their own contingency plans.  But the federal
government can't force them to do so, nor can it force small businesses
to make Y2K a top priority, nor can it issue ultimatums to foreign
governments to do anything about Y2K.  I don't even think it has control
over the outcome of Y2K repairs within its own agencies, for
non-compliant code doesn't listen to the rhetoric of politicians -- it
either works, or it doesn't work.  Ultimately, there is only a limited
amount of control that corporations and government agencies have over
the technological outcome of Y2K; yet the prevailing attitude seems to
be that government and industry are in control, as long as they can
"manage" the perceptions of the public.  I have believed, all along,
that Y2K is too big, too complex, and too systemic in nature to be
"controlled" from a technological perspective; and I believe that the
public's perception of Y2K will ultimately be shaped by tangible events
that impact their lives, much more than it's shaped by the "spin
control" efforts of government and industry.  For the past few months,
the PR spin control has been quite effective, and I fully expect that it
will continue throughout the summer as government and industry seek to
"reassure" the public.  And since the public would generally prefer to
be reassured that the government is taking care of any problems looming
on the horizon, rather than face the possibility of serious disruptions,
the spin control efforts may continue succeeding even into the fall of

Those who want me to continue participating in the public debate
sometimes ask me, "But isn't it possible that things will change in the
final months of Y2K?"  And the optimists ask a roughly similar question:
"Yes, I agree that things look bad in small companies, small towns, and
small countries -- and maybe even in some of the big companies and big
agencies.  But don't you agree that with a lot of hard work, we can
redouble our efforts,  achieve a quantum leap in productivity, and make
enough progress in these last few months to avert disaster?"  To which
my answer is, quite simply, "No."  If you believe in the Tooth Fairy, or
in the kind of implausible miracles favored by Hollywood script-writers,
then perhaps you can sustain your belief that everything will somehow
work out in the end.  If you're looking at an individual company, or an
individual government agency, perhaps you can make a plausible case --
yes, sometimes we get lucky, sometimes the combination of inspiration
and perspiration are sufficient to overcome enormous odds.  But at the
macro level, I don't think it makes sense.  We have 30 years of data in
the software field that tells what to expect in the "average" case --
i.e., 25% of all projects are cancelled, 15% are delivered behind
schedule, and the resulting systems have an average of one defect for
every thousand lines of code.

If a miracle were to occur, it would have occurred two, or three, or
four years ago.  If President Clinton had addressed a joint session of
Congress in 1996 and declared a state of emergency until Y2K had been
completely conquered, perhaps we could look forward to a successful
outcome at the end of this year.  I'm not talking about the martial-law,
conspiracy-theory form of "state of emergency," but rather a "fireside
chat," followed by a series of actions that would make Y2K the
highest-priority activity in the land.  It didn't happen then, and it
isn't happening now.  I'm fairly convinced that it won't happen during
the remaining seven months of 1999 -- and even if it did, it's now too
late.  If a high-level executive issues a thundering edict to the Y2K
programming staff, "Redouble your efforts!  Work harder!", the response
from the programmers is likely to be, "Boss, we're thinking as hard as
we can!"  Software is an intellectual activity, rather than something
requiring brawn and muscle-power; you simply can't order people to think

I believe that we are entering the "end game" of Y2K, and that the
outcome isn't likely to be changed significantly because of last-minute
strategies, edicts, proclamations, or demands for deathmarch-style
overtime on the part of programmers.  About the only thing that's still
an option, both for organizations and for individuals, is contingency
planning and preparations for some degree of disruptions.  But again,
this involves preaching to the choir: those who believe it makes sense
to develop and implement contingency plans, are already doing so --
indeed, some 90% of private-sector organizations are planning "war
rooms" or "control centers" to cope with whatever problems arise. 
Meanwhile, those who think it's unnecessary will continue to do
nothing.  Yes, it's possible that there will be a last-minute surge in
preparedness activities, especially at the personal level; but it
probably won't happen until this fall, at which point it will lead to
the very phenomenon of shortages and panics that government spokesmen
have been warning about.  Meanwhile, it's going to be a long, hot, quiet
summer of Y2K-denial, unless some significant, undeniable, tangible
event occurs.

What About All The People Who Don't Know About Y2K?

When I decided to move from New York City to New Mexico last year, some
of the Y2K activists criticized me severely for "abandoning" New York. 
"You've doomed eight million innocent citizens to their fate!" I was
told.  "It's your responsibility to stay in New York, and warn all those
people -- so they'll be ready for Y2K!"  What a mind-boggling concept! 
If 8 million oblivious residents of New York City are entirely dependent
on me, or any other individual, to learn what Y2K is all about, then
we're all in a lot more trouble than we ever imagined.

There is no shortage of information about Y2K.  If the 8 million New
Yorkers, or the 250 million Americans, or the 5 billion citizens of the
world, want to know all about Y2K, there are dozens of books, thousands
of articles, and tens of thousands of references on the Internet. 
Ignorance was a plausible excuse in 1995 and 1996, perhaps even in 1997
-- but not now.  If someone doesn't know about Y2K, it's because they've
chosen to ignore it, and/or because they believe the assurances of
government and industry spokesmen who tell them there is nothing to
worry about.

In terms of personal responsibility, I am my brother's keeper. 
Actually, I don't have a brother, but I do have five sisters for whom I
feel a sense of responsibility, along with my children, my wife, and my
parents.  I also feel some degree of responsibility for my neighbors and
my community -- partly because I have a personal relationship with many
of them, and also because it will do little good for for my family to be
personally prepared if my neighbors are not.  Beyond that -- i.e., at
the state, national, or global level -- I've been happy to spend a
considerable amount of my time and effort helping those who are helping
themselves.  And because I've enjoyed a good living in the computer
field that was at least partially responsible for having created and
perpetuated the Y2K problem, I've felt a professional responsibility to
ensure that people understand what the problem is all about, and why it
has been so difficult to solve.  But there comes a time when it seems
appropriate to say, "Okay, I've done my best to tell you what's going
on.  Now it's up to you to decide what (if anything) you're going to do
about it."  For me, that time has come.


I suspect that there are also a number of Y2K activists who will be
frustrated that they can no longer send me email messages, asking me to
provide an interpretation or analysis of the day-to-day Y2K
announcements from the media and the corporate PR departments.  To which
I offer two responses: (1) you're intelligent adults, and you can use
your own common sense to decide how to interpret the news; and (2) the
debate between the optimists and pessimists will continue, with ever
more emotion and rhetoric, right up to Jan 1, 2000 and beyond.  If
you're waiting for someone to produce an absolute, guaranteed,
indisputable "answer" to the Y2K debate, you've already waited too
long.  It's not going to happen.  As I suggested in one of my earlier
essays, everyone will have to decide for themselves when the "moment of
truth" has arrived, when they will make a decision about their own
personal Y2K plans, in the presence of incomplete, fuzzy information.

I also suspect that there are a number of Y2K activists who will
continue doing everything in their power to raise the alarm, alert the
government, and encourage their neighbors and fellow citizens to
stockpile and prepare -- right up to the last moment.  They have my
respect, my admiration, and my best wishes. As for me, it's time to get
back to providing for my family.

If there are any major developments this summer or fall, where I think
my background and experience in software engineering might provide a
useful perspective, I'll dust off my soap-box and offer an appropriate
commentary.  And when the dust settles, in the days and weeks after Jan
1, 2000, I'll reappear to offer an appropriate mea culpa if my Y2K
outlook proved wrong.

Meanwhile, my best wishes for everyone as we move into the Y2K end
game.  It's time for me to say, "Sayonara, Y2K."  I'll see you on the
other side.