Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Calling for COBOL Programmers

Kif Leswing (tweet, Hacker News):

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy says that the state is looking for volunteers with skills that can be used to help in the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, and one of those skills is knowing your way around a 61-year-old programming language used on big, old, mainframe computers.


New Jersey needs COBOL programmers because many of the state’s systems use older mainframes, and those systems are now seeing record demand for services as the coronavirus outbreak disrupts the economy.

For example, an unprecedented 362,000 people have applied for unemployment in New Jersey as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, and the state’s IT department is working to have the 40-year-old mainframes that power that service up and running, New Jersey’s commissioner of labor Rob Asaro-Angelo said on Saturday.

Brian Roemmele:

Folks laughed when I said there is more 200 times of COBOL transactions each day then Google searches.


I used to work on mainframe COBOL during the Y2K times. While the language is easy to pick up and the OS specific things are not too hard, the style of programming can lead to issues. Typically, shared data structures are often stored in separate files called copybooks and they can be hard to track down. Most of the code is not in any source control repositories which means no one knows which is the actual deployed version. It was all fun times then..

Update (2020-04-17): Dave Gershgorn (via John Feminella):

“I show COBOL programs written in 1960 that you can still compile and run today,” says J. Ray Scott, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and one of the few professors who still teaches COBOL.


“There was a period of 20 years where people were sure COBOL was dead, so there was nobody teaching it, nobody learning it,” he said. “COBOL started before there were disc drives, let alone the internet.”

A sliver of hope, Scott says, is that COBOL isn’t a particularly complex language to learn. When he was starting his career programming for steel mills in Pittsburgh, he says companies would perform aptitude tests for workers on the floors of the mills. If they passed, they were sent to a two-week COBOL class at IBM and then put onto the job in the IT department.

Zed Shaw:

The east coast governments are riddled with ancient VAX and OpenVMS COBOL systems because there are employees tied to these systems.


A main source of failure in many rewrite projects is the former programmers know that if their code is gone they can be fired, so they try to sabotage it. I’ve seen it over and over, and they’re slick about it. Just little failures all over.

See also: Dilbert.

Input (via Hacker News):

IBM is releasing a free training course next week to teach the 60-year-old programming language COBOL to coders. It is also launching a forum where those with knowledge of the language can be matched with companies in need of help maintaining their critical systems.

Michelle V. Rafter (via Hacker News):

Connecticut’s labor department is bringing back retirees and using IT staff from other departments to upgrade its 40-year-old system, which runs on a Cobol mainframe and connected components. The system is not fully automated, and requires manual actions at multiple points in the process, according to Nancy Steffens, the department’s head of communications. “I don’t have any info to provide to you other than some of the retirees returning to work are programmers knowledgeable in Cobol,” Steffens said.

kristopolous (via Dan Luu):

I asked a few friends about the New Jersey call. They (2 of them, both retired and over 70) claimed there’s no work to be done and it’s actually an incompetently administered administration with human problems who are scapegoating the technology. Also supposedly the New Jersey govt sacked their team and then was trying to contract out the work at $50/hr. Now they are offering $0/hr. And the solution isn’t in software, or so they claimed. This assessment was after both signed up to volunteer to do the work and saw it was a human process failing and not a software issue.

Glenn Fleishman:

There have been efforts in the past to build a full replacement for MOCAS, and they’ve sputtered due to cost, complexity, and transition planning. Because the system handles so much that’s in progress and critical to the DoD, any new system has to overlap and perfectly hand off everything underway. The government is asking vendors once again to submit bids to shed this highly functional vestige of the past.

Dr. Drang:

I wonder what kind of stories we’ll see when word gets out that weather predictions are made using Fortran?

Makena Kelly:

A survey by The Verge found that at least 12 states still use COBOL in some capacity in their unemployment systems. Alaska, Connecticut, California, Iowa, Kansas, and Rhode Island all run on the aging language. According to a spokesperson from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the state was actually only a month or two away from “migrating into a new environment and away from COBOL,” before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.


For the last 25 years, Congress has steadily made cuts to the states’ funding for modernization projects. According to Williams, many government budgets only include enough money for “keeping the lights on.”

John Gruber:

As a sidenote, I’m fascinated at how code has, seemingly all of a sudden, eclipsed program in common usage. Until recently, a programmer was one who programmed using a programming language. Now, you typically hear that a coder is one who codes using a coding language.


2 Comments RSS · Twitter

Dennis Walsh

I am retired and 73 years old. I was a fluent COBOL programmer. I programmed in ABAP from 1986 on.

Who knew COBOL would be the eternal programming language. I did read, maybe even five years back, COBOL expertise was still in demand. Crazy.

ABAP is another blast from the past, but I suppose it makes sense if it's still part of SAP. Perpetual demand for expertise. Neat.

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