I can’t remember the last time I heard “COBOL” (Common Business Oriented Language”) but “COVID-19 Response: New Jersey Urgently Needs COBOL Programmers (Yes, You Read That Correctly).”
New Jersey desperately needs COBOL Programmers.
That’s what the State’s Governor, Phil Murphy, apparently meant today, when he said at a press conference that the State needed volunteers who with “Cobalt” computer skills to help fix 40-year-old-plus unemployment insurance systems that are currently overwhelmed as a result of COVID-19-related job losses.
COBOL, for those who are unfamiliar, is a computer language that is over 60 years old, and was once the staple of software development across industry and government. By the late 1980s, however, it had become sufficiently obsolete that many universities did not even include it in their computer science curricula. In fact, while there are certainly are COBOL systems still in use today, relatively few software developers under the age of 50 have ever seen, never mind written, even one line of COBOL. It is not surprising that even New Jersey’s 62-year old governor, who was an executive at Goldman Sachs for decades, had apparently not heard its name recently enough to remember it correctly.
COBOL’s heyday in the 1970s means that the majority of COBOL experts in America are likely well over 60 years old – making them significantly at risk for death or danger by COVID-19 – and probably a bit rusty at their former craft; many of them have likely not developed in COBOL since long before many of the readers of this article were born.
The danger of relying on COBOL despite its obsolescence is not a new issue.
No, it isn’t a new issue. Effectively, it is a problem with entities (private or public) that have fallen into the Build/Buy/Maintain budget paradigm: do we build a new system, do we buy a new system, or spend all that money on an archaic system that won’t be able to do what we want anyway?
There are no shortages of old systems around and I’d bet a hefty percentage of them are still running this second-generation programming language (assembler variants being the first IF you look past that “programming on the metal” could really be called the first).
In its day (the 60s, 70s, and even 80s), it was THE language of the day for business (FORTRAN being the scientific equivalent). Now, it’s not even taught anywhere that I know.
NJ really is in a pickle of its own making because it ignored a real big problem – making sure that it has a problem on its hand just as bad as not having kept its pandemic stockpile fully stocked. So here is a case of Government having caused an economic disaster from shutting down “non-essential” businesses and activities, causing owners to lose their businesses and employees their jobs.
And now we have another financial disaster – the safety net that Government promised has cracked as people can’t get paid. All the promises in the world can’t change that.
I’ve programmed in COBOL but not for well over 20 years – an interim bit of work as I was helping to do the due diligence of first choosing a replacement system (the Buy, above) and then install/configure (a process which often costs more than the software itself). There’s no way that I’d even consider a shot at this – too long since touching the system and there’s no way I’d want to deal with Government on this as THEIR people are most likely all in MAJOR cover-my-a$$ mode and be willing to blame ANYONE coming in from the outside for any problems during the process (e.g., “he’s non-essential to MY job – throw’em overboard”).
What NJ Phil Murphy (D, who also wanted gun shops shut down) doesn’t understand is that “volunteers” aren’t going to fix this problem the day after coming in. Govt is slow – security checks have to be done, system permissions have to be set up, and since this is a custom system, it can take a couple of weeks (for super-nerds) to up to six months (for we mere mortals) to “learn” the underlying code and system. God help those that modify the system and then have it tube itself and take everyone offline. COBOL is not a “short” language – it’s not all that compact in readable form so LOTS and LOTS of pages to read and figure out. And then hesitantly try one small mod (modification) at a time.
And if they are still on COBOL, how old is the hardware that’s running it? If it is as old as I think it might be (an ancient IBM AS400 variant), where are they going to dig up old-time SysAdmins? And the Comms folks as well?
Yeah, their “surge” isn’t going to be anytime soon and I figure that the folks they have now aren’t going to be able to down multiple Mtn Dew six-packs (Red Bull and other energy drinks are a younger set of “caffeine of choice delivery liquids of choice”) without going into either shock or arrest.
COBOL – nice for its time but what the heck were the NJ IT and budget people thinking for the last 30-40 years???
(H/T: Joseph Steinberg)