An Op-Ed piece I wrote for the Florida Times-Union (the local Jacksonville newspaper). It elicited some acerbic responses from programmers, most of whom blamed their college professors for teaching them that Cobol and Fortran programming languages would be obsolete in 10 years. Since I was identified as "Associate Professor" on my letter, perhaps they were trying to shift the blame back to me. I don't teach programming, though, and I think it's a pretty weak response, anyway. It's just a little hard for me to imagine a computer professor saying anything like "None of what we do will be around when the year 2000 hits, so just go ahead and use two digit dates--It won't make any difference." My argument is that the Y2K headache was COMPLETELY PREVENTABLE, and programmers had it in their hands to prevent there ever being a problem with a four digit date rollover. We spend enough money correcting problems we can't prevent (hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.)--We just can't afford to create expensive problems for ourselves, too.

My letter to the Times-Union:

In a January 10th letter, McClellan complains that "lowly programmers" deserve thanks for their hard work and dedication which, allegedly, averted a cataclysmic event on January 1st. I am sympathetic. Credit is much too often misplaced. But I would also point out that it was programmers, somehow collectively overlooking the inevitability of a four digit date change, who created the problem in the first place. I am not persuaded by the lame "memory-saving expedient" excuse that has been foisted upon the unsuspecting public to explain why a $300 billion remediation effort was necessary. The vast majority of applications and hardware that caused Y2K concerns were created within the past ten years, when memory was cheap. Dirt cheap. At best, programmers were just plain stupid in not anticipating the Y2K rollover. At worst, the Y2K glitch was a clever time bomb planted to ensure that a sizable chunk of the $300 billion would fall into the hands of the only folks who knew how to fix it. It is hard to find any moral high ground between those two extremes.

Roger Bertholf
Associate Professor