The governor of New Jersey made a seemingly odd call for help last night: The state desperately needs COBOL programmers to revamp the 50-year-old software powering the 40-year-old mainframes behind the state's unemployment system. That may seem surprising on the surface because COBOL debuted back in 1960 and mainframes ceded the leadership position to general-purpose x86 servers decades ago. However, these (sometimes) archaic systems still power much of the infrastructure behind governmental agencies, banks, and airlines.
The need comes as New Jersey struggles to process a staggering 1,600% increase in unemployment claims as the wave of coronavirus-spurred business closures comes crashing to shore. 1980's-era mainframes power new Jersey's unemployment system, so scaling operations up to handle the increased load requires programmers that mostly no longer exist. That presents a unique challenge as the state looks to pay out more than 362,000 unemployment claims filed over the last two weeks, half of which are unpaid, not to mention the continuing onslaught of new applications.
The state will have competition, though; Connecticut is already leading a joint project with three other states to recruit COBOL coders to overhaul its own aging mainframe infrastructure. None of these efforts will find easy success: COBOL is a dead language that hasn't been taught in most universities for decades, and the rare COBOL coders command anywhere from $55 to $85 an hour. As such, New Jersey is looking for volunteers, likely of the retired sort, to help solve its problems.
For many, the mention of a mainframe system conjures up mental images that hearken back to the old full-room systems of a bygone computing era. In reality, mainframes continue to be deployed around the world and process billions of transactions per day. IBM's z Systems revenue, for example, actually grew by 62% percent last year, but those systems are decidedly more modernized than the relics running New Jersey's unemployment system.
Today's mainframes are sophisticated affairs that share little with their predecessors beyond the architectural vision, and they support the major Linux distributions, runtimes, development languages, and management tools, meaning you can use decidedly more modern code.
Why stick with Mainframes? The systems are basically unhackable (there simply aren't many COBOL hackers out there) and they also offer the ultimate in reliability, as evidenced by their 40-year run in New Jersey. They offer up to 99.999 percent availability and intense scalability on one of the world's most open platforms, but price has traditionally been a sticking point. However, IBM claims that today's new systems are decidedly less expensive than renting instances on the public cloud.
New Jersey, along with many other state agencies that have had infrastructure weaknesses exposed amid the massive shift spurred by COVID-19, are mainly in damage control at the moment. We can expect these difficulties to spur a wave of sorely needed upgrades across government agencies soon, leading to decisions on whether to adopt modernized mainframes or merely go with x86 servers or the public cloud.
Editor’s Note: This article was first published listing the mainframes as 50 years old, but they have been in service for 40 years. The software was written in the 1970s, which puts it at the 50-year-old mark. The text has been amended.
"Those systems will never need changes, and nobody wants to pay for public infrastructure and support because OMG GOVERNMENT EVIL and OMG MY TAXES and OMG GOVERNMENT WORKERS ARE ROBBING ME" etc etc.
It's like a LOT of infrastructure today - sacrificed on the altar of tax cuts and giveaways for the 1%. Funny how everyone else is supposed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, take out loans, etc., yet the upper echelons aren't held to that same requirement.
The rules are always different for the rich.
Actually, COBOL programmers are in high demand, and have been for some time. Rare skillset.
It has nothing to do with that. First of all, this is a State level system, and thus NJ was responsible for this. That aside, they get TONS of money... NJ taxes are not exactly low, nor is it a bastion of libertarianism. The money just doesn't go to such boring things until they actually BREAK. The politicians in charge of these states spend it on things that benefit them.
I'm sure they've been told for years that these systems were woefully overdue for an expensive overhaul. Politicians aren't particularly motivated to spend money on such POINTLESS things until they actually come apart. After all it doesn't buy them votes, nor does it enrichen them and their friends.
Hmm, I might be prejudging based on a previous employer. Older guy, did Java, but also did COBOL. Some of the company's code was still in COBOL.
They let him go (and, honestly, half of the relatively small IT department) even though he was close to retirement. Older, higher pay, and, well, the new director of IT knew how to game the system: if you cut costs in the department (salaries = cost), your raise and bonus would be more impressive.
They of course did have to hire outside contractors, more expensive, to take up the slack. But contractors came out of a different budget than the salaries for IT staff. That didn't count - on paper, it looked like a huge savings in the IT budget. This was a private company, no less.
Still, the mentality in the US about government employees and government infrastructure has been steadily pounded in to a selfish chunk of the electorate of "these lazy, government workers feeding at the trough are sucking off at the teat of YOUR tax dollars."
Born and raised in NJ, and approaching the half-century mark. There's rather horrifyingly large percentage of the populace that thinks having the best public schools, social services that only MODERATELY struggle rather than falling apart, and so on, are the worst enemies of the good, honest taxpayers, and the cause of all financial woes. This narrative keeps getting sold.
Keeping infrastructure going doesn't buy votes because a lot of people here (not to say at all that NJ is the only one, we're actually pretty good, in spite of the army of the selfish) simply think that anything that doesn't help them directly or fall into the dogma of "what's good for the (not really) job-creators is good for me."
Sorry for the rant - I've just seen too much of the mentality here, given that it's overall a relatively liberal state. But I'm in agreement - if infrastructure doesn't buy them votes, someone will get voted in who will ignore infrastructure and enrich themselves and friends, while giving a few token pennies to everyone else. And half of everyone else will sing the praises of that candidate for the extra pennies.
It's even worse on a national level. For example the 1400 page stimulus bill (which had lots of meat for both parties) benefited the wealthy more than the poor, and money was indirectly funneled into purely political causes as well. That's why people complain that they're taking too much, because if there wasn't so much fraud and waste, they wouldn't need to beat as much out of us.
Side note: People would complain a lot more if you received 100% of your gross income, and they showed up at your house to physically demand what they are owed. Really visualize that scenario for a minute, the full paycheck in your bank, the knock at the door - the man in the suit has a card scanner in one hand and the other in a pocket.
Maybe not quite "retired", but up there as far as pay requirements.
And current "grads" would have to learn a whole different way of doing things.