Dec. 31, 1999, wasn’t just any New Year’s Eve. It was the turn of the millennium. And for some, it represented the end of days. “In 1999, and prior to that, this was the coming of the end of the world as we know it. People really panicked,” recalls Joseph Iannicelli, president and CEO of Standard Life. “I remember a family member stockpiled his basement with tuna, water, dehydrated soups. He was really concerned for himself and his family.”

For Iannicelli, however, the turn of the millennium meant dealing with the Y2K bug, which centred around the notion that computer programs representing the year with two digits would malfunction as the year changed from 99 to 00. Organizations spent millions to fix and upgrade their computer systems. But Iannicelli was calm and cool that evening as he rang in the New Year, because Standard Life began its Y2K upgrade back in 1995.

“It was interesting to see initial meetings we had as we talked about the implications [of Y2K]—the fact that our predecessors in the ’70s didn’t take this into account.” (In 1974, Standard Life purchased its first mainframe computer with 64,000 bytes of memory; by comparison, the average desktop today has two billion bytes. With space at such a premium, Iannicelli says a decision was made to use two-digit years.) “But I remembered all the work we had done, so I was very relaxed on December 31.”

Had Standard Life and other insurers not upgraded their programs, the resulting calculation errors would have had far-reaching consequences. “For example, if a policy-holder was born in 1925, in 1999, they would be 74 years old. In 2000, they would be negative 25,” Iannicelli explains.

He says Standard Life’s IT team was instrumental in making sure the company avoided Y2K-related problems. “In those days, good IT resources were hard to come by because there was such a demand for them. [IT professionals] were at a premium; we had to make sure our remuneration programs were successful, because everybody wanted the good ones.”

Despite the rumours of massive infrastructure disruptions spreading in the months before Y2K, Standard Life and most other global corporations came through relatively unscathed. “Besides spoiled food,” laughs Iannicelli, “there were no horror stories; no compromising of data.”

However, organizations learned an important lesson from Y2K: 30 years is not that far out into the future. “It kind of crept up on us relatively quickly,” Iannicelli says. “You need to make sure that any decisions you make today, strategically, go as far as they can.”

Brooke Smith is managing editor of Benefits Canada. brooke.smith@rci.rogers.com

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Copyright © 2019 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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