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Calling all COBOL coders

April 15, 2020.

Bell Labs.

Bell Labs, 1967. © Lawrence ‘Larry’ Luckham.

At a time when an unprecedented number of Americans are losing their jobs, at least 12 American states use elderly COBOL-based systems to manage their unemployment benefits. COBOL is a 6-decade-old language, and the systems that run on it are simply unable to handle the influx of claims. The main problem is that COBOL developers that could upgrade the systems are going the way of the dodo: the ancient COBOL language is no longer taught in schools, and even if it were, there would be no uptake. In an effort to alleviate the problem, IBM, in collaboration with Open Mainframe Project, has just released an on-line COBOL programming course, supporting it with a peer help forum monitored by COBOL experts. However, COBOL is completely different from contemporary languages and is tricky to learn, which could discourage potential programmers willing to lend a helping hand. How did the states find themselves in this pickle? Thanks to decades-long budget cutbacks, of course. Lesson learnt?

Which gives us an excuse to trot out the old chestnut that keeps on giving: a COBOL programmer made so much money off the Y2K bug that he was able to pay for high-end cryopreservation. When he eventually is unfrozen, he asks what prompted his reanimation. The answer: “We are now in the year 9999, and you know COBOL.”

And since we’re on the subject of antiques, have a look at our article, “The cost of legacy systems.”

The Verge, Makena Kelly, “Unemployment checks are being held up by a coding language almost nobody knows.”