Running Dated Technology?
As U.S. unemployment rates continue to skyrocket in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, government agencies grapple with a new, unexpected issue. Unemployment claim systems facing unprecedented activity are failing and the technology used to write many of the programs is an old, little-used computer language — COBOL.
What Is COBOL?
Common Business Oriented Language was the first high-level computer programming language, developed in the 1950s by the U.S. Department of Defense. While it has been eclipsed by other, more complex languages, it remains in use today. It is a business-focused language but does not include many common features of today’s counterparts, such as accessing low-level operating system features or hardware architecture.
What it can do, though, is manage business-related, transactional data. As noted in a recent Forbes article, its use today is expansive. Consider that COBOL:
- Is used in 80 percent of financial services in-person transactions and 95 percent of ATM card swipes
- Processes $3 trillion daily in commerce transactions
- Has more than 220 billion lines of code, with 1.5 billion added annually
It’s intended to be a user-friendly language that can handle large data sets and generate ample reports. It played a major role in the 1990s as potential Y2K data issues forced companies and organizations to scramble.
Why Are COBOL Programmers in Demand?
That scramble ha returned. Along with unemployment agencies, healthcare and banking companies have needed to scale up quickly due to the pandemic. There isn’t time to change applications, so it’s become necessary to adjust by focusing on the underlying code. For many, that means COBOL.
“Like everything the government does, once something’s in place and working they just don’t muck with it … just leave it alone and so these mainframes are out there,” noted Luis Alvarez, CEO of the Alvarez Technology Group, in a recent interview.
In the short term, the desire is to stop systems built 40 or 50 years ago from crashing, freezing out thousands of users trying to file unemployment claims. That means an increasing demand for programmers with COBOL skills. The challenge is that COBOL is not taught in most computer programming classes today. And those computer engineers who know the technology best are Baby Boomers who have retired or are close to it.
“States are out there beating the bushes looking for COBOL programmers they can hire to help modify the applications so that they can handle larger volume,” Alvarez said.
He explained that companies like Google, HP and IBM are developing accelerated training programs to provide their engineers with COBOL skills to address the problem.
What Does the COBOL Shortage Mean For My Company?.
For many companies, the COBOL issue is a reminder of the need for a long-term technology strategy and the dangers of using outdated systems.
“I think that this is a wake-up call in a number of areas, not the least of which is how this deferred maintenance and reliance on technology that really is obsolete for decades is causing problems,” Alvarez noted. “On the other side of this, hopefully (companies) will invest the necessary resources to upgrade those systems and move them into modern technology that’s more adaptable and more nimble.”
Alvarez Technology Group provides comprehensive technology assessments and managed IT services. To learn more, contact us today.