Conversation: Prepared for Y2K
September 1999

“Conversation: Prepared for Y2K,” Ensign, Sept. 1999, 78–79

Conversation: Prepared for Y2K

Much attention has been paid recently to anticipated problems with the world’s computers when the calendar changes from 1999 to 2000. To conserve space in the early days of computers, when each byte of memory was precious, programmers established the habit of coding years using only the last two digits rather than all four digits. Unless corrected, a variety of computer programs affecting aspects of modern life could malfunction if programs interpret “00” to mean 1900 rather than 2000. To find out what the Church has been doing to become Y2K compatible, as well as to discuss appropriate attitudes for individual members to take regarding Y2K, the Ensign spoke with Bishop H. David Burton, Presiding Bishop of the Church.

Bishop H. David Burton

Bishop H. David Burton

Question: What has the Y2K problem meant for the Church?

Response: Like nearly all modern-day organizations of any size, the Church relies on numerous computers and specialized software programs for its day-to-day administration. As ward or branch clerks know, nearly all the Church’s considerable processing of data is automated with computers, from membership records to financial transactions. Computers are in wide use in nearly every department at Church headquarters in Salt Lake City; even the heavy printing equipment is operated by computer. In some of the Church’s larger buildings, simple functions such as the adjustment of thermostats, the setting of clocks, and the locking of doors are handled by computers. It is difficult to think of any temporal function of the Church that is not assisted directly or indirectly by computers.

So the Y2K problem has been a top priority. A special Y2K-compliance project has been going forward throughout the Church since 1995. Literally millions and millions of lines of computer code have been reviewed and corrected if necessary, which has been a difficult, expensive, time-consuming task not only for the Church but for companies and organizations of all kinds. It is anticipated that all Church computer systems will be in full compliance by September 1999 and that testing will be completed before the end of the year. Most Church computer processes will be briefly closed down as 1999 ends and then restarted after the year 2000 has begun, with technicians standing by to fix any glitches that might arise.

Another complex aspect of this Y2K problem has involved closely monitoring the Y2K preparations of various outside industries upon which the Church is somewhat reliant. Generally the banks and financial institutions have done a terrific job getting ready. Smaller corporations and manufacturing concerns and some governmental units—particularly at the local level—may be lagging behind a little bit. But no major disruptions or problems are anticipated beyond the possibility of some minor errors and delays.

Q: What about the Church’s international offices, commercial businesses, schools, and family history services?

R: The Y2K problem knows no national boundaries. Worldwide, the Church’s area offices, regional offices, and service centers have been going through Y2K-preparation processes. Besides ensuring that computer hardware and software are updated or replaced, the area offices have drawn up contingency plans for possible public infrastructure problems related to power, water, telephone, and transportation, particularly in less-developed nations.

The Church’s educational institutions, such as Brigham Young University and Ricks College, have also put considerable resources into Y2K preparation. We feel assured that the Church is well prepared to make the changeover.

As far as family history, which has become a particularly computer-intensive area, the systems and software provided by the Church have all been updated for the Y2K changeover. Whether an individual member working on his or her own home computer will be able to run family history software depends on how old the computer hardware and software are. Most of the computer manufacturers have ensured over the last three or four years that their products are Y2K compliant. Some of the older machines, however, might have some struggles.

Q: How are Y2K preparations going in local meetinghouses?

R: The computer hardware used by clerks in meetinghouses is usually replaced every three to five years, so meetinghouse computers have been made Y2K compliant in the course of normal replacement. Much of the Church’s software, including that used for finances and membership, was originally coded with the problematic two-digit year, but the Church began its Y2K project early enough that all software has been corrected in the course of normal upgrades. For the most part, this process has not been visible to local leaders and clerks; if a hundred ward and branch clerks were asked what the Church has done to prepare for Y2K, nearly all would probably say they didn’t know. But in fact much has been done behind the scenes so that local leaders and clerks can continue their computer-related tasks without interruption or concern.

Q: Does the Church have any words of counsel and advice for individual members regarding the Y2K situation?

R: In a recent general conference talk, President James E. Faust, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, said: “Today many people are obsessed with the Y2K problem and worry about the date coming up right because of the way computers measure time. … We have come to rely on electronics for much of our daily work, and we are naturally concerned about the need to reprogram computers to move into the next century. While some glitches may occur, I am optimistic that no great catastrophic computer breakdown will disrupt society as we move into the next century. I have a far greater fear of the disruption of the traditional values of society” (“This Is Our Day,” Ensign, May 1999, 17–18).

Church teachings regarding personal and family preparedness do not stem from any specific event, including Y2K concerns. Predictions of disaster, famine, flood, and earthquake have come and gone and will continue to do so, but the commonsense admonitions of Church leaders to prepare for times of adversity and to be self-reliant remain unchanged. The words of President Brigham Young, “Learn to sustain yourselves; lay up grain and flour, and save it against a day of scarcity” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young [1997], 231), are as applicable today as they were more than 130 years ago.

In every generation, Church leaders have encouraged members “to store sufficient food, clothing, and where possible fuel for at least one year” (First Presidency letter, 24 June 1988). In October 1998, President Gordon B. Hinckley referred to the biblical story of Joseph, who advised Pharaoh to store food in times of plenty. “I want to make it very clear that I am not prophesying,” he said. “I am not predicting years of famine in the future. But I am suggesting that the time has come to get our houses in order.” He continued, “If you have paid your debts, if you have a reserve, even though it be small, then should storms howl about your head, you will have shelter for your wives and children and peace in your hearts” (“To the Boys and to the Men,” Ensign, Nov. 1998, 53–54).

While it is sincerely hoped that members do not get caught up in any hysteria or obsessive preparations for possible disasters, the Church continues its long-standing practice of encouraging members to be self-reliant and reasonably prepared.

Society’s interest in being prepared comes and goes, but prophetic admonitions to learn self-reliance—how to garden, for example—remain constant.

Ward clerks, such as this brother in Taiwan, are equipped with Y2K-compliant computers and software. (Photo by Christopher K. Bigelow.)