The Millennium Bug
Addressing fears that systems might not cope with year 2000
A key focus in the late 1990s, requiring a lot of management time and a sizeable investment, was 'The Millennium Bug'. It was widely believed that many computer systems and devices that relied on microchip technology like lifts, burglar alarms and mechanical handling equipment would fail at midnight on 31 December 1999, because the clocks would think that the date was 1900! The subject was hyped in the media and many IT 'experts' appeared on television and in the press predicting doom and gloom.
As a result investors and regulators required every large company to prepare for the millennium and to double-check everything to ensure that it would survive the date-change. Increased demand for IT people and mechanical engineers saw pay rates rise, as companies scrambled to get the best talent on board to ensure survival. With a strong team, Kingfisher and Woolworths were able to appoint existing managers to new 'Y2K' projects.
Many staff were sceptical about the likely impacts of Y2K and couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. Some even took it upon themselves to set the date forward on their PCs to see what happened. The Y2K team needed a hard-hitter to sponsor their work and to explain why such behaviours put the Group at risk. The Kingfisher CEO Geoff (Sir Geoffrey) Mulcahy agreed to add weight to a company-wide leaflet that tried to explain the problem. It set out what each Operating Company would be doing to minimise the riskt, and the possible consequences if people decided to test their own kit.
A key challenge for the graphic artists behind a spate of such brochures across British industry was to try to illustrate what the 'bug' (actually a badly written computer algorithm) would look like. Some firms attempted to set PCs on fire and photograph the results, others took a sledge hammer to one of their older CGA monitors to illustrate the devastating effect, while Kingfisher went the whole nine yards and commissioned an artist to draw a bug in various poses, munching its way through the Group's IT systems.
For those studying the subject, you can download a copy of the Sir Geoff's pamphlet in PDF format here.
A backhanded compliment for the quality of Woolworths' preparations came when the original Project Manager, Doug Crowe, was head-hunted by Manchester Airport, where the consequences of any computer failure could have been far more disastrous.
In response Woolworths brought out its big guns. Buyer and Commercial Manager Ian Chaplin took responsibility for the trading teams and supply chain. He oversaw the checking of more than 10,000 spreadsheets and calculation models. A long-serving and well-respected IT Project Manager, Byron Sargeant, planned checks across the 10 Terrabytes of Data Storage, 5.400 tills and 3,000 lifts, machines and burglar alarms. Every single system and machine was checked, certified and signed off.
It is a sign of how much investment Kingfisher and Woolworths made in systems and infrastructure during the 1990s, that virtually no system was found to be defective during the course of the large and costly assessment programme. For the most part systems and mechanisms made after 1992 took account of the millennium in their calculations, allowing both for the quadruple digit change of year and the fact that, exceptionally, the year 2000 was not a leap year.
The Woolworths Museum author, Paul Seaton, then a Systems Manager at the retailer, was surprised when his picture was used in the Kingfisher Group's leaflet about the Millennium, between IT Project Manager Reg Hull and Woolworths Direct Range Co-Ordinator Jackie Stephens. The full irony was revealed when it transpired that a system that he had written was one of only two that were not year 2000 compliant! It seemed that his quality control system at the company's Distribution Centres, which had been implemented in the 1980s, had proved so reliable no-one had ever thought to replace it. It had been built using Borland's Paradox for DOS, which could not cope with the millennium.
Although few defects were found with the central systems, the checking afforded the opportunity to enhance a number of systems while the bonnet was up.
To this day no-one knows if the hype about Y2K was just the nation's army of IT Professionals and Consultants flexing their muscles and boosting their earning power. One thing is certain, planes didn't fall out of the sky (well done Doug), and Woolworths' tills didn't stop jangling (well done Ian and Byron), and nobody's bank balances mysteriously disappeared, at least until the credit crunch of 2008. At the time checks in the banking sector also revealed nothing - perhaps they should have been looking for 'Fred the Shred'!
This page is dedicated to the memory of Byron Sargeant, a loyal, hard-working, highly professional and well-loved colleague of 22 years, who sadly died on 10th March 2007, leaving a wife and two daughters.
Before going into hospital for a life-saving operation, Byron, who had suffered health problems throughout his life without ever giving in or wanting to be the centre of attention, had to stop off to decorate the children's ward at his local hospital. He was a strong supporter of the Virtual Museum, helping to get it published in 2004. He was an inspiration to us all.
Rest in Peace.
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