As millions of American workers have been thrown out of work by the Covid-19 pandemic and filed unemployment claims, many states' computer systems have not been able to keep pace.
In early April, during his daily press conference related to the coronavirus crisis, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy made an appeal for volunteer programmers who know COBOL, the computer language on which the state's unemployment benefits system operates.
"Literally, we have systems that are 40-plus-years-old," Murphy said. "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?"
Other states are experiencing similar issues.
"So many of our Departments of Labor across the country are still on the COBOL system; you know very, very old technology," Kansas Governor Laura Kelly said, adding, "they're operating on really old stuff."
Connecticut has also admitted it is struggling to process the large volume of unemployment claims with its "40-year-old system comprised of a COBOL mainframe and four other separate systems."
California, New York, and Pennsylvania still rely on decades-old mainframe systems based on the COBOL language as well, according to Reuters.
According to cybersecurity expert Joseph Steinberg, COBOL, short for Common Business-Oriented Language, was invented at the end of the 1950s. It became highly popular in the 1960s, 1970s, and even into the 1980s. While there is no such thing as a lingua franca for computer programming, Steinberg points out, COBOL was the most popular language for developing business and financial applications for many years. Over time, COBOL was replaced by newer programming languages such as Java, C, and Python.
Yet COBOL remains crucial to businesses and institutions around the world.
"Today, most of the COBOL programming that goes on is related to legacy systems," Steinberg says. "They have been around for a while, they're primarily mainframes, and they work very well."
The issue with COBOL, he argues, is that it is reliable for doing what is designed to do, which is why its use is still so widespread. It is estimated $3 trillion in daily commerce flows through COBOL systems, while 95% of ATM swipes and 80% of in-person banking transactions rely on COBOL code.
Steinberg maintains that in January, if an old legacy COBOL mainframe system was still in solid working condition, it would be reasonable for people to say to leave it alone; why fix what isn't broken? However, when unemployment claims suddenly spiked due to the pandemic, these archaic systems could not keep up, which means that benefits are not being distributed.
The spike in unemployment claims exposed another new problem: there is no one around to repair these legacy systems.
Many colleges have not taught COBOL in their computer science departments since the 1980s, Steinberg says, which means you have people who are approaching 50 years of age who have never seen a line of COBOL code. Although a few universities still offer COBOL courses, the number of people studying it today is extremely small.
"If you think about who is graduating with computer science degrees today," Steinberg says, "there are very few graduates saying, 'I want to maintain a 40-year-old back-end legacy system, using a language nobody knows, creating something hardly anyone will ever see'."
The aging of the workforce also meant that many programmers with COBOL skills have retired as businesses have transformed digitally. In the age of apps, smartphones, and the cloud, COBOL programming was not in demand, and many companies worked at retiring their mainframe systems.
"There was a movement to retire COBOL mainframes and move to new technologies, for all of the reasons you have ever heard: it's slow, it's obsolete, it's your grandfather's software," says Bill Hinshaw, founder and CEO of COBOL Cowboys.
Headquartered in North Texas, COBOL Cowboys primarily provides professional support for legacy COBOL systems, and connects companies to COBOL programmers like himself. Hinshaw's wife Eileen came up with the name of the company, which was inspired by "Space Cowboys," a 2000 movie in which older, experienced astronauts are recalled to service to trouble-shoot a modern-day problem.
COBOL Cowboys' business model is more akin to the gig economy rather than to that of the companies at which these industry veterans spent their careers. It is staffed with mostly older freelancers, everyone is an independent consultant, and there is no promise of any work. The company's slogan is "not our first rodeo."
As companies were letting their COBOL programmers go, Hinshaw saw value where other companies did not. He viewed COBOL programmers as industry veterans, experienced workers who had been there and done it all. "I wanted to give them the opportunity to get back into the workforce," Hinshaw says. "A lot of us want to spend time with our grandkids, but we also want to keep busy."
Hinshaw was in contact with the state of New Jersey at the beginning of the current crisis, and quickly saw that the unemployment claims issue wasn't a back-end problem. Every claim that was sent to the host (the back-end mainframe) was processed.
"They all have the same problem on the front end," says Hinshaw, adding that these organizations' Web sites were not designed to handle that kind of volume, while the back-end mainframes typically can. Handshaking is required between the front end (new devices, Web applications, etc.) and the back end, which does all of the grunt work, such as high-volume transaction processing.
"If I was designing a front end to handle unemployment claims, I would have used a low-volume application," Hinshaw says, because people are not let go from their jobs that often. A couple of hundred claims a week would be a lot in normal times, he says. When the coronavirus hit, millions of claims suddenly were being filed and hitting the front end, which could not handle the massive increase in volume.
IBM, which sold many of the mainframes on which COBOL systems run, has been scrambling to launch initiatives in order to meet the urgent need for COBOL programmers to address the overloaded unemployment systems. It introduced a "Calling all COBOL Programmers" forum to help new coders connect with experienced COBOL veterans, as well as a new "COBOL Technical Forum" where experienced COBOL engineers are available to provide free advice and expertise. IBM also launched an open source COBOL training course designed to teach COBOL to beginners and to refresh experienced professionals.
According to Derek Britton, product director of mainframe solutions for the U.K.-based Micro Focus infrastructure software company, the task of cross-training those already knowledgeable in Java or C# in older languages like COBOL or PL/I systems is a relatively straightforward and cost-effective solution, compared to recruiting and training mainframe professionals skilled on traditional tooling. If mainframe technology is made available to this new breed of IT professionals in the same way other technology is, then embracing agile development processes also becomes not only possible, but very straightforward.
Britton says the downturn in COBOL expertise worldwide over the years led Micro Focus to collaborate with companies and universities to establish the COBOL Academic Program, which provides free access to the latest teaching tools for COBOL application development.
While these measures should eventually help to alleviate the shortage in COBOL programming expertise, it is clear that the past approach of "if it isn't broken, don't fix it" has contributed to the current problem.
"If the governor of New Jersey has to worry about computer systems during the pandemic, it is indicative of how serious the problem is," says Steinberg. "It is the worst unemployment problem in modern history, and you can't manage something because of a technology issue; that illustrates the severity of the problem."
John Delaney is a freelance writer based in New York City, NY, USA.
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