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 significant COBOL-based 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.
Nearly a quarter century ago, in the mid to late 1990s, as the Y2K bug required updating of antiquated COBOL-based systems, many industry experts sounded the alarm that the supply of qualified COBOL programmers was quickly dwindling; at the time, some COBOL programmers even had to be hired out of retirement in order to carry out Y2K-related repairs. As a result of what was learned dealing with Y2K there was nearly universal industry-wide acceptance of the fact that the many still-remaining COBOL-based systems should be replaced as soon as practical before maintenance became a severe problem.
Since then, many others have voiced concerns – including in a government report entitled “Federal Agencies Need to Address Aging Legacy Systems” that was presented to a US Congressional Committee in 2016.
In the case of New Jersey, I can safely mention at this point, that shortly after I began filing payroll tax forms with the state in 2005, I sent emails to various State offices – and even a physical letter to then governor – that the systems with which I was interfacing appeared to both be using obsolete versions of software and contained configurations that could lead to security vulnerabilities. Some of those problems remained in place over a decade later.
The failure to keep systems current is not a keep-up-with-the-Joneses type issue. Today it is delaying unemployment compensation to large numbers of people who desperately need money for food and other necessities after losing their jobs to government-ordered COVID-19 shutdowns. Outdated software almost always introduces various security risks. And, in a 2018 article entitled Why You Should Not Use Software That Is No Longer Supported, I discussed multiple other serious problems introduced by utilizing outdated software; keep in mind that the focus of that piece was on organizations using the obsolete version of Windows known as Windows XP ; COBOL, which is 32 years older than XP, was obsolete even before XP was released.
New Jersey’s information systems did not become antiquated by magic – the State government failed to properly maintain them. Governor Murphy today promised a postmortem – but we were supposed to have had one 20 years ago after Y2K. This time, let’s get it right.
After the pandemic is over, let’s renew the efforts that were supposed to have been made after Y2K, and, across our country, replace outdated systems; we need technology that can be properly supported and secured. If we wait any longer, we may have another disaster – and that one may come when there are no living people with the relevant expertise to fix the computer problems.