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My Y2K Experience

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Memories are best told after the pain of making them is past...

Twenty years ago last night, I spent New Year’s Eve waiting for someone in the world to call and tell me something in our product line didn’t work. Or that it worked incorrectly.

It was December 31st, 1999 and Y2K misbehavior was clearly at the forefront of many people's minds. Including mine.

In January 1999, I had been re-assigned from Director of World Service to Director of Quality and Regulatory Affairs for a major medical device manufacturer producing ultrasound and nuclear medicine systems. In 1998, my hundred –plus U.S. service engineer repair team had been merged into a new medical device service organization under a different corporate structure and I was failing to acclimate to my new reality. As in all things, you either adapt or fail. I failed and I was replaced. The official word was that an up-and-coming engineering manager needed more experiences to prepare him for a business unit manager role and my skill set could be used in other places. He needed some operational experience, I was told.

I did have some level of management skills and I was re-assigned to become head honcho for Quality and Regulatory Affairs. An area I had no clue how to manage but was assigned to anyway. I was chosen for this role, I believe, because of a four-page document I wrote a few years previously that impressed the US Corporate Quality team. That is a different story for a different time perhaps but because I have your attention, I wish to boast that a corporate Quality and Regulatory VP sat in an executive session and waved my document at a room full of other VPs and Directors and said: "If those other divisions had done this, the FDA would not have closed their doors this past year and they would still be shipping product today." (Boasting is done. Thanks for indulging me.)

Thirty days into my new job, I discovered that one product in our company’s medical equipment portfolio was impacted by the Y2K bug and the proposed solution was unsatisfactory for thousands of ultrasound computers around the world. Lucky me.

If a doctor or a technologist entered a date with the year 2000, the system would not run.

The engineering design team’s “solution” was to enter a date in the year 1999, make a measurement to calculate fetal age, and, while the picture was being displayed, change the date and time on the monitor to the current month-day-year in 2000 and take a picture to create a record.

This solution is unworkable in a practical sense and would have been an embarrassment for any company that touted it as a "solution". I had visions of photos with the year 1999 dates in patient records. How does one explain an in vivo ultrasound picture dated 1999 that was taken in 2001, two years before pregnancy? One can't.

I remind you that it is February 1999, the worldwide medical device manufacturer had a Y2K website set-up that listed all products with the available Y2K solutions, and here I am, thirty days into my job, telling the Director of Engineering that his workaround is not a viable solution. There are only ten months before Armageddon occurs.

And the punchline is that there is no engineering solution for the several thousand devices except replacement. The technology is too old for a re-programming solution and it could not have been delivered and executed in ten months even if there was one.

It took less than thirty days to inform every office and country around the world that the current solution was unworkable. The only solution was a replacement. The marketing and sales teams began to develop strategies to take care of the user base.

As I sat in my new Quality office waiting for the phone to ring on New Year’s Eve 1999, I checked in with the global Y2K team as required. I watched TV and monitored news reports from around the world. At hand were two packages of Harry and David’s fruit and candy. It was my comfort food for Y2K.

There was one Y2K incident that occurred that night across all medical divisions and it was handled immediately by the local country. It was our division’s ultrasound system. We had one issue, yes, but Armageddon was averted.

There was no Y2K drama in our organization on January 1, 2000. All the drama occurred between February and November as our company problem-solved the situation at hand.

In good companies, drama occurs in planning, not in execution. I worked for one of the best companies in the world.

There was plenty of internal drama to correct Y2K issues. From phone systems to storage devices, from suppliers to software shipping systems, our medical company fixed or replaced hundreds of items that would have failed in Y2K. Guess who became responsible for tracking the progress of our company's efforts to deal with Y2K? I wasn't responsible for solutions, only tracking that they were implemented.

Even after the company let me go two years later, I bore them no ill will. The separation was amicable. I had become a better manager as a result of the experience and the training I received.

Last night I slept peacefully; no Harry and David’s, no drama, no watching the ball drop, no news. Life has changed for me.

But there is still plenty of drama in planning and none of it in execution.

I work for another good company.



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