The Costs of Y2K

By Chris Farrell

Host: Y2K was shorthand for the potentially disastrous failure of computer systems at the turn of the millennium. The problem: Many old software systems might read "00" as 1900 - not 2000 - a glitch that could lead to a cascade of errors and malfunctions.

Year two thousand came, and nothing happened - well, not much anyway. A credit card mistake here. A satellite blackout there. But no lives lost. No global economic catastrophe. Monday, January 3 was just another workday.

Yet with the benefit of hindsight the economic impact of Y2K on America was far greater than the $100 billion-plus government and business spent on fixing the computer glitch.

Chris Farrell reports.


Chris Farrell: Remember the dot-com boom of the 1990s? It seemed as if every entrepreneur with a good idea and a PC could challenge established companies for customers. Brick-and-mortar companies jumped on the e-commerce bandwagon. The demand for digital workers soared. Long-time computer professionals hopped from job to job, pulling down more money with every employer. Newly minted college graduates juggled multiple job offers. But when the Y2K problem emerged in the latter part of the '90s business and government quickly realized there still weren't enough IT workers on hand to find and repair the computer glitch. The quick fix? Hire computer professionals overseas. And that temporary solution permanently changed the global economy.

Paul Saffo: Y2K was huge in getting the ball rolling on offshoring.

Farrell: Paul Saffo is director of the Institute for the Future, a high-tech think tank in Silicon Valley.

Saffo: But once they went overseas, they discovered it's not just a matter of cost. These programmers overseas are often better than the best you can get in the United States.

Farrell: Ireland, the Philippines, and Israel were among the more popular destinations for offshoring Y2K programming fixes. But India became the offshore capital. It had plenty of high-tech companies staffed with well-educated English speaking digital workers. Thanks to India's steep import barriers in the 1980s, no one could afford new computer systems. So Indian tech workers were the world's leading experts in the older software languages that needed upgrading. Suhas Patil is chairman emeritus of semiconductor maker Cirrus Logic.

Suhas Patil: And they were listening to their customers and what their needs were, and as the recognition came that systems had to be upgraded to not have the problem based on the Y2K issues, that's how they got their break.

Farrell: And made the most of the opportunity. AnnaLee Saxenian is Dean of the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California, Berkeley.

AnnaLee Saxenian: I think the importance of Y2K was overwhelmingly about establishing Indian companies' reputation among US customers and helping begin a set of customer supplier relationships that have simply taken off in the last four years.

Farrell: Of course, Y2K contracts ended in 2000. Yet many Indian companies took advantage of their now sterling programming reputations to negotiate for more sophisticated work. Research. Software development. Accounting services. Long-distance medical advice. Rafiq Dossani is a senior research scholar at Stanford University.

Rafiq Dossani: India is now growing at 70-80 per cent a year in offshored services ... services which are maintaining an accounting system, maintaining an HR system, doing claims processing, that's growing easily at 70 per cent, maybe even higher.

Farrell: Offshore also came onshore during Y2K. The town of Mountain View lies at the heart of California's Silicon Valley. Housed in one of the many nondescript low-rise office buildings that crowd the region's business avenues is the Indus Entrepreneur, or TIE. It is a networking base for the Indian high-tech Diaspora.

Shankar Muniyappa: Y2K was a big opening as early as 98.

Farrell: Shankar Muniyappa is director of information systems for TIE. He came to America for Y2K-and stayed.

Muniyappa: Myself and many of us believe still believe this is the place where you need to be if you want to be middle of innovation.

Farrell: Some 30,000 Indian IT professionals now live and work in the Valley. Rafiq Dossani of Stanford University:

Dossani: At least 25 per cent of the start ups have Indian employees at fairly senior levels working for them. And ... there's a whole infrastructure therefore being built around them because it's a substantial number now, so you see shopping malls you see business services and so on catering to this particular immigrant community.

Farrell: That community is adding vitality to the American economy. Still, many American high-tech workers are threatened by the offshoring of white collar jobs. The numbers are murky, but according to Mark Zandi of 370,000 non-manufacturing jobs moved overseas over the past fours years-with most of the information technology jobs going to India. Salaries are down too. Still, the big factor behind the loss of 1.5 million jobs lost since Y2K is improved business efficiency or productivity - not offshoring. And Y2K also played an important role in boosting business efficiency.

Economists initially looked at Y2K as a productivity killer.

[Sound of a roaring river]

Imagine a town threatened by a rising river. Every able-bodied person in town is put to work stacking sandbags. It's necessary work to save the town - but it's unproductive work. Nothing gets built. No food gets grown.

[roaring river]

With the Y2K bug, programmers, chief information officers, project managers, and other digital workers were getting paid to do unproductive work - stacking sandbags of silicon. No innovative investments. No new productivity enhancing software.

But economists were wrong. Y2K wasn't a flood.

[Sound of a chain saw]

Instead, think of it as clearing a path choked with underbrush.

[chain saw]

Once the trail is open, it is much easier to zip from point A to point B. Y2K gave companies an excuse to clean up their software and hardware underbrush - a critical factor in today's improved business productivity. Paul Saffo:

Saffo: A lot of companies said well, gosh, if we're going to have to spend all this money to fix our software let's also see what else we can do at the same time, so it was an invitation to replace a whole bunch of stuff. ... So it forced people to ask hard questions about how they were using things and in the best instances people really did become more efficient.

Farrell: The result? Companies used the new systems they installed to cut costs and work smarter - and hire fewer workers.

[Voice of Leonard Nimoy: "Do you have hard copies of all your important documents ... such as bank statements."]

That's Leonard Nimoy, Mr. Spock from Star Trek. He's narrating the Y2K Family Survival Guide video - one of thousands of products peddled by prophets of doom. Y2K did bring home how reliant we all are on computers. Many of us still don't back up critical data at home. The same isn't true for business and government. Many learned from Y2K just how vulnerable information systems are to a malicious attack or unforeseen disaster. Case in point: Y2K actually helped some businesses survive 9/11.

[News broadcast of President George W. Bush: "I've directed the full resources of intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and bring them to justice."]

The attack on the World Trade Center stopped trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Against the odds, that citadel of capitalism opened six days later.

John Koskinen: The reason the markets, securities markets, were able to open the Monday after the Tuesday of 9-11 was they still had the test scripts that had been developed in 1998 and 99.

Farrell: John Koskinen credits preparations for Y2K. He was President Clinton's Y2K czar.

Koskinen: ... they were able to in effect take all of those Y2K scripts and make sure that all the transactions with all of the major players would close. Without that they never would have been able to do it in the time frame with the confidence they had.

Farrell: A record 2.4 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange the day it reopened.

Y2K was a unique economic event. Earlier jolts to the economy, like the 1973 oil price hike and the 2001 attack of 9/11, were shocks. But the Year 2000 arrived right on schedule. The surprise was how little immediate impact the much-feared transition had on the economy. Yet we're still living and working with the economic impact of Y2K five years later.

For Marketplace and American RadioWorks, I'm Chris Farrell.

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