On top of ventilators, face masks and health care workers, you can now add COBOL programmers to the list of what several states urgently need as they battle the coronavirus pandemic.
In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy has put out a call for volunteers who know how to code the decades-old computer programming language called COBOL because many of the state’s systems still run on older mainframes.
In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly said the state’s Departments of Labor was in the process of modernizing from COBOL but then the virus interfered. “So they’re operating on really old stuff,” she said.
Sure, they were almost done taking 40 years to upgrade their technology. So close! What terrible luck for them.
It’s been this way for a while. COBOL programmers are paid quite well because large dinosaur organizations (banks, schools, governments) still use systems that require it, but there aren’t a lot of people left who already know how to do the work. At some point in the past, some vendor convinced these organizations that it was worth the long-term investment to buy these really expensive systems. It turns out that technology evolves pretty quickly (who knew?), so these systems were left in the dust. Now these organizations are trying to build modern systems on top of this creaky technology, and it’s just terrible. This is why government websites are so bad. My state’s unemployment website says it’s unavailable after 10 PM every night. Can you imagine Facebook or Twitter being unavailable, ever? That crap rarely flies when private money is at stake. Rather than admit their mistake and swallow the cost of these bad products, the organizations try to make it work as long as possible, never mind the downsides.
“Literally, we have systems that are 40-plus-years-old,” New Jersey Gov. Murphy said over the weekend. “There’ll be lots of postmortems and one of them on our list will be how did we get here where we literally needed COBOL programmers?”
There won’t be any postmortems. The situation was already well understood, as I laid it out above. It’s purely a political problem. Of course the engineers working with these products have been asking for replacements for decades. Governments could have paid the money to do it, but that would have required raising taxes or finding the money from somewhere, so they didn’t do it. The fault lies squarely at the feet of the legislature: every representative that came and went since those systems exhibited problems. It’s as simple as that.
The reality is that it’s not that hard to learn COBOL and get up to speed on working with it. That’s true for any programming language. I learn new programming stuff almost every week, and I’ve learned many programming languages in my professional work. Just because a programming language is old, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad. Lisp is one of the oldest programming languages around (1958, one year older than COBOL) and it’s still one of the best. The reality is probably that these governments aren’t willing to pay fair market wages and give engineers time to learn and train properly. They want someone who can walk in the door and be productive today, but for a fraction of what they’re worth.
You gotta love those 1950s capitalized names. COBOL!