Defusing tech bombs is his business

It was the waning hours of 1999, and millions around the globe feared that a massive computer glitch, decades in the making, could bring modern society to its knees, causing widespread power outages, medical-equipment failures or even a nuclear meltdown. Robert Cresanti had been anticipating this moment for three years. As staff director of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, he had considered a thousand doomsday scenarios.
It was the waning hours of 1999, and millions around the globe feared that a massive computer glitch, decades in the making, could bring modern society to its knees, causing widespread power outages, medical-equipment failures or even a nuclear meltdown.

Robert Cresanti had been anticipating this moment for three years. As staff director of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, he had considered a thousand doomsday scenarios.
John Shinkle
As staff director of the Senate committee monitoring the Y2K problem, Cresanti said, he felt “relief, elation” when not much happened.


But as the new year swept through East Asia, Cresanti, sitting in a command center in downtown Washington, felt more than butterflies in his stomach.

“When the dateline hit New Zealand, that’s when I started to feel sick,” Cresanti recalls. When he emerged from his Crystal City home many hours later, the climax had passed.

“I was supposed to be there when it hit the U.S.,” he said. “I have no idea what I ate.”

As it turned out, Cresanti, now a software lobbyist, did not miss much. The lights stayed on. The phones still worked. Y2K ended up being not much more than a pothole on the digital highway.

Was he, then, just a little bit disappointed that nothing more had happened?

“No, we felt relief, elation, happiness that nothing cataclysmic had happened. It was like the successful launch of a rocket ship.”

Five years later, Cresanti, 40, is once again at the nexus of technology and public policy. As chief lobbyist for the Business Software Alliance (BSA), a trade group for the software industry, he plays a leading role in the debates over online file-sharing and standards of privacy for digitized personal data, among other issues.

“We’re not in a stale space. Court decisions come in all the time. We’re on the cutting edge as far as policy goes,” he said.

The software industry occupies an unusual middle ground in debates over intellectual-property rights. While it shares the movie and film industries’ concerns about online piracy, it also agrees with the hardware industry that machines should not be designed a certain way to prevent piracy.

“My old boss used to say the only thing you find in the middle of the road is a dead armadillo,” Cresanti jokes.

Cresanti knows something about bridging the middle ground. As a youngster, he grew up in West Germany, the only child of an American father and a German mother. His father worked as a civilian for the U.S. Air Force. When it came time to go to college, he picked Austin College in Texas, a major change in culture from the suburb of Wiesbaden where he had grown up.

“I remember my mother being offended when Southern women called her ‘honey,’” he said.

Despite being more familiar with team handball and fencing than football and basketball, Cresanti fit in quickly and was elected president of his fraternity. There he got his first taste for business software. He wrote a program to sell tickets for local appearances of self-help guru Zig Ziglar. In return, his frat got a slice of Ziglar’s product sales receipts.

In 1987, fresh out of college and now firmly rooted to the United States, Cresanti scored a job offer from the Washington office of a Texas congressman, then-Rep. Dick Armey (R), who would later become House majority leader. It was one of those chance moments that gives birth to a long and successful Washington career — being in the right place at the right time and being capable. Opportunity was knocking.

Cresanti, however, was not answering. “I wanted to be a trial lawyer,” confesses the stalwart Republican. He turned Armey down and instead took a job working on a computerized fax system while applying to law school. He attended Baylor University’s law school but soon abandoned his trial-bar ambitions to focus instead on technology and banking law.

“You really have to love the rough-and-tumble nature of it,” he says of the trial bar.

His attraction to technology stemmed from a natural handiness with it. He loved dissecting malfunctioning household appliances. When a reporter’s tape recorder jammed, he eagerly grabbed it, poking it and mumbling things about the “gear shift” and “spring release.”

As graduation approached, he began to reconsider his earlier encounter with opportunity.

“I wanted to take the road I hadn’t taken the last time,” he said.

He called Armey’s office and spoke with the chief of staff, Ed Gillespie, later chairman of the Republican National Committee. The office did not have any paid jobs at that time, but he could come “hang out here,” Gillespie offered.

So Cresanti moved to Washington and worked for Armey free for a few months before landing a low-paying job. He left Armey after less than a year, doing short stints in other Republican offices before becoming a legislative assistant in the office of Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah).

“I didn’t think I had a chance of getting it,” he remembers about the position. “The office was all Mormon, and I knew there was already a qualified Mormon candidate.” But Bennett had admired a section of a report Cresanti had written. He got the job.

Cresanti would spend the next seven years working for Bennett in different capacities, including his work on the Y2K committee.

“I hit upon the Y2K problem in late 1996, and it scared the holy bejesus out of me. Senator Bennett got in [then-Senate Majority Leader Trent] Lott’s [R-Miss.] ear. He said this is a real, real problem,” Cresanti said. The Senate created the Y2K committee, which held hearings on potential vulnerabilities.

After the 2000 switchover, some observers questioned whether the committee’s work had been much ado about nothing.

“No, there were no blow-ups, but [the committee] really, really made a difference. No one was more automated than we were. Everything that terrorists might intentionally try to do these days could have happened by accident with Y2K,” he said. “Who I feel bad for is Senator Bennett — kind, gentle, decent — he shouldn’t be embarrassed by it.”

After the Y2K committee, Cresanti was briefly advanced as a candidate for the Securities and Exchange Commission before leaving the Hill to work for the Information Technology Association of America. He joined BSA in 2001.

His wife, Colleen, was an aide to Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) when a friend introduced them. They have two young daughters.