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Information Technology
Pakistan's role in the battle of The Bug

 

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Arifuddin Ahmed
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AMI — Iqra University
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Pakistan's role in the battle of The Bug
Future and infrastructure

From MONTY RODRIGUES
May 29 - June 04, 2000

A tribute to Pakistani scientist

So much has been written about the Year 2000 Bug that writing more about it now feels like strumming an old tune, one that's been over-played all across the globe and has now lost its charm. But I can't help reminiscing about what this event meant to us all. As I try to look forward to the post-Year 2000 era, I can't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the contribution that an unlikely group in our country has made in averting a potential world wide crisis of mammoth proportions. As a body of people, IT professionals all over the world would have played some part, however small it may be, in the war against the Y2K Bug. However, Pakistan's contribution in meeting this challenge also needs to be recognized. Like other countries in the world, Pakistani computer professionals showed equal amount of zeal in battling these looming crises. Our skills and expertise were not only used to fix the bug for local companies, but many a foreign company profited from our experience. Through this article, I would like to record my impressions of what it was like to do battle with the Bug in Pakistan. Many years from today, when our children's children read about this 600 billion dollar war, at least there will be some written word in praise of the Pakistani men and women who worked so hard behind the scenes to contain the effects of the Y2K Bug.

How many of us who have been in the forefront of the war with the Y2K Bug will ever look back at our contributions and remark "My God! We actually took part in a historic event!"? Looking back now at the evolution and resolution of the Year 2000 "problem", I can't help but draw similarities with other global events of equal proportions. In IT history, few phenomena are as powerful as Year 2000 so as to draw a parallel with some of the greatest battlefield conflicts the world has ever seen. In more ways than one we Pakistanis, who took part in the war with the Y2K Bug, are very much like those brave men and women of the two World Wars, on the beaches of Normandy, or the deserts of the Middle East, storming away at the enemy. In many ways, our objective — to save global economies from certain chaos and collapse — was identical to the objectives for which D-Day was fought. Unlike them, however, we fought this war without a single shot being fired or a single bomb exploding. But like them, we too have gone through all the rigors and stress that any battle can throw at you, albeit from behind a desk or a computer terminal and the safety and comfort of our offices. The adrenaline rushes to the head while tracking and defusing the 'bomb', the mad scurry to meet unbeatable deadlines, the pressure to find and train scarce resources within a limited time, and the irrefutable fact that this deadline is non-negotiable, all made for a highly charged battle-field atmosphere.

Like most conflicts, this too started as an assumption that the Y2K Bug was a mere nuisance to most of us systems people. Being members of the elite Systems Brigade, we thought we could sort this rogue Bug with a few cleverly written fixes. Many of us, upon preliminary analysis, felt we could win this war with a few "Scan" and "Replace" commands — replace "99" with "9999" and we're done! But as we got deeper and deeper into the conflict, we realized there was no easy fix. Issues started to surface, and we knew we needed more in our arsenal to fight this foe. What about "Macros" and "Job Control Languages (JCL's)"? What about data files and historic data? How would we deal with protecting vital installations and equipment from the attacks of this Bug — ATM's, process control units, elevators, power-generating equipment? What would we do about our allies — our suppliers, customers and business partners? How would we protect our interests if one of them were attacked? Soon it became amply clear that programmers or systems people were not just the only ones on whom we could rely for victory. Like foot soldiers, although in the forefront of the battle, their contribution alone would not guarantee victory. If this war were to be won, we would need to mobilize resources at every level. Governments, politicians, business leaders and professionals, all had to contribute to the war effort. Precisely like the Great Wars, the Y2K conflict started as a local issue, but soon escalated into regional and global proportions. As realization of the potential havoc that the Bug could wreck dawned, the scope of the war effort widened. No longer did we need to protect our own systems, but we also needed to ensure the safety and well being of systems across borders and even across continents.

Like the great Pattons, Romells, Montgomerys and McArthurs of yesteryears, Pakistani IT gurus too used skill and tactical savvy to study and plan our attack on The Bug. Like them, our war too was based on reconnaissance and intelligence. Assessment Studies, Impact Analysis Reports, Renovation Plans, Conversion Strategies, Year 2000 Contingency Plans and a host of other tools and methodologies were deployed to size the battle ahead of us. Like Generals pouring over rolls of maps and intelligence reports, our desks overflowed with computer-generated reports and miles and miles of programme listings. Discussing strategy and planning tactics late into the night, for many of us 18 or even 24-hour days were the norm. Some of our best work was accomplished during the Holy Month of Ramzan, keeping the fast till sunset and still fighting on. Should we go all out and attack with "Field Expansion", or should we go for a limited "Windowing" attack? Would a "sliding-Window" be a better tactic, or would a combination of both win the day for us? For many in the Western corporate world, the outcome of these plans literally dictated life or death to the company. And like the fatalities of war, some companies had to suffer casualties, in terms of liquidation, as the cost of the war was too great for them to sustain. Like the occupied territories, these companies became the vanquished of this war against the Year 2000 Bug. Their employees, like refugees from the great wars, left without work and not many prospects of finding work easily or quickly. On an individual level, stockpiling of food, water and other essentials of living in anticipation of the impending scarcity of such items, made this event seem even more war-like. In the Western world, entire communities braced themselves for a frontal attack by the Y2K Bug. Bunker communities were built, fully armed to the teeth with weapons for self-defence and stocked with rations to last them through the crises, for example a disruption in the supply chain. And as if that's not enough of a parallel with the Great Conflicts, many a multinational company even organized War Rooms. Much like Churchill's basement bunkers, these rooms were equipped with communication equipment and emergency power generators to track and report "strikes" across the globe, and to plot the progress of our global war efforts.

Yes, the world was in a high state of alert then. No longer was this Bug something for only the programmers to worry about; it could affect ordinary "civilians" too. The Y2K Bug was not being taken lightly anymore. Governments had realized that this was WAR! All essential services were put on alert, leave cancelled and vacation time suspended over the Year 2000 switchover period. Like events of national emergency, special response teams were empowered to deal with extreme circumstances. Police, Riot Squads and Army Reserves were given special powers to quell "Y2K Riots" and other forms of expected vandalism such as looting or mass rampages by crowds. In anticipation of power outages and utility failures, communities had their utility companies simulate mock attacks, while at the same time stocking up on candles and battery operated torches. No chances were being taken. Collaborative arrangements were made with nearby states to come to each other's rescue, in case either of their facilities was hit by a "bomb". Such was the spirit of national service, that like the Civil Defence Corps in the earlier conflicts, groups of volunteers were organized to visit and review contingency plans for small businesses, non-profit organizations and local bodies. There was a great sense of community participation, with everyone offering advice and willing to share knowledge on how to combat the Bug. Of course, as in situations such as this, we had our share of entrepreneurs as well as opportunists mushrooming overnight. Individuals and groups invested heavily, and Year 2000 Bug-fixing became a thriving business. Like the highly successful construction businesses in the earlier conflicts, many of our Bug-Busters made handsome profits on Government contracts and big corporate accounts.

Being in the thick of things myself, I have also seen the human side of this historic conflict. During the last two years of the conflict, almost every company had shifted its emphasis to the War. Companies were hiring and subcontracting solely for their Year 2000 effort. Nothing else mattered. Plans for expansion and diversification were either downscaled, or put on hold all together till after the war. Young Pakistani IT graduates, eager to begin promising careers in Internet programming, Web development or fourth generation applications, suddenly found themselves enlisted into the army of Y2K Bug-busters, their ideals and ambitions shattered by this war on the Bug. And believe me, their plight was no different from the green conscripts of our latter-year conflicts. Put through intensive boot camp training on Y2K tools, these young "foot soldiers", for the most part, had monotonous and unenviable tasks to perform. Many of them worked away like rookies in the trenches without questioning why. They just poured over the endless volley of lines of code that were shot at them, firing away at their trusted keyboards. But for them, at that point in time, there was little other choice in terms of employment opportunities. Again, very much like the wartime economies, new development was not being funded very actively. The best choice was to join the war and hope to get some experience. But the disappointment and depression was very clear on many of the young faces. Many of my colleagues who, like me, were in leadership positions in the Y2K effort, were confronted several times with questions from these rookies: What will happen after Y2K? How many of us will still be retained in the company? Will there be good prospects for our skills and experience after this? What does the future have in store for us? Will we lose touch with what we've learned? So many questions but few answers.

Most of us, who have had occasion to participate in any form in this fight, came out of it like Ghazis emerging from some historic battle. I use the words "most of us" deliberately. I know that for some, the pressures of meeting this seemingly impossible deadline proved just too much to bear. The hectic pace of 24-hour workdays, the sheer massiveness of the amount of code to be fixed, the endless volley of renovation instructions, and the daunting immovable deadline, was enough to bring even the best of us to our knees. In my experience of managing a 250-plus man Y2K Factory, I have had the sad responsibility of sending at least two members of my team on forced medical leave. With less than two hours rest over 72-hour marathon sessions, these men just cracked! Several other factories reported similar casualties. In some instances, the victims were so badly scarred that they were evacuated permanently from the "battle field" and assigned less stressful duties. Victims of battle fatigue, they were yet more casualties of this war. A reminder to us all that even without guns and bombs, explosions did indeed take place. In global crises, Pakistanis have always paid their share of the cost, and the Y2K event was no exception. Let that never be forgotten.

Yes! We have definitely taken part in an historic event of gigantic proportions. In the years to come, these times and the extraordinary effort that we, the Pakistani Y2K veterans, have put in to combat The Bug, will be a subject of historic debate. True, we have not received medals of valour, nor will there be a D-Day commemorated each year in our honour. Nonetheless, let us not belittle what we have achieved here. Where the veterans of yesteryear saved the world from total destruction and annihilation, we have helped prevent global collapse of economies and information systems. This is indeed something that we can all be proud of, and something that we can answer to with great satisfaction when our grand children ask us "What did you do in the war, Grandpa?