Wanted urgently: People who know a half century-old computer language so states can process unemployment claims

On top of ventilators, face masks and health care workers, you can now add COBOL programmers to the list of what several states urgently need as they battle the coronavirus pandemic.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy has put out a call for volunteers who know how to code the decades-old computer programming language called COBOL because many of the state’s systems still run on older mainframes.
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-Mark

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54 Responses to Wanted urgently: People who know a half century-old computer language so states can process unemployment claims

  1. bob sykes says:

    COBOL is still one of the most widely used computer languages in business and finance. A lot of science and engineering is still done in FORTRAN, too.

  2. Asko says:

    So many things wrong with that article. Yeah, it’s not sexy to be a cobol programmer, but there are lots around. The language keeps being updated.
    More like an article about them not doing anything because those systems just keep running. Now that they have lots of changes in a short amount of time, odds are the better programmers got bored over the years and moved on. But the useless ones stay for the job security.

    And yeah, I am a cobol cics mainframe programmer. Though I got bored and do java as well.

  3. Paul J says:

    Learned it 47 yrs ago at NTC San Diego. 18 yr old Pfc in the USMC! A different world now. Couldn’t do it today if you set me on fire. 5081 cards and magnetic tape. Lots of good times. Met a lot of great people.

    • Tennessee Budd says:

      I used to be a maintenance tech on, among other things, the old Miltope magnetic tape units (USN).

    • crazyeighter says:

      As a Pfc, that means you were probably the lowest-paid COBOL Monkey in California.

      • Paul J says:

        Six week school if I remember correctly. 4044 mos. The entire Marine Corps had two Univac systems at the time.
        Nothing for me to do. Spent a month on guard duty in beautiful Beaufort S.C.
        Learned what a hot summer was.

  4. ChuckN says:

    Why do I get the feeling this is a cop-out so that state workers can get paid to sit on their a$$es and not do anything (you know, like normal).

  5. Michael says:

    I wouldn’t waste my piss on tyrant Murphy if he was on fire; same with Don Cuomo. Maybe when they start treating residents of the state like citizens instead of subjects, they’d get a bit more respect. Not that I know COBOL, but I wouldn’t volunteer my services as a physician to the state of NJ.

    • Nemo says:

      What does one expect from a Demonrat. It’s their nature to want absolute power, especially in light of their belief that they’re the smartest people in the room. They just don’t understand that the room they’re standing is in a lunatic asylum.

  6. jayesouthworth says:

    Volunteer? Why should anyone volunteer their time and expertise? Programmers who know Cobol should be paid for their services just like any doctor/nurse does.

  7. kennymac says:

    I know how to process keypunch cards. Can I help?

  8. subvet72 says:

    Well I know RPG but I’m already working a contract assignment at my former employment.

  9. EndOfPatience says:

    “Volunteers”?

    Try $150 an hour, double time for over time, and a one year contract.

    • damon says:

      “… and a one year contract.”

      Paid in full in advance. And in gold. I want real money.

      I just snorted when I read “volunteers.”

  10. HH says:

    I think Illinois will be in the same situation. Nearly twenty years ago I was in college classes with state workers doing COBOL and FORTRAN for the state systems. I seriously doubt the state upgraded their systems due to budget problems.

  11. max says:

    Honestly, I make fairly good money, I own 4 computers that run Win 10, and three more on Win 7, it’s a disgrace that these states haven’t upgraded since (checks watch) 1989!?! Ibet they’ve spent plenty on office redecs, “professional dinners”, and junkets.

    • Howard says:

      One of the stated goals of my project at work is to run for 25 years: that pretty much says don’t base the project on Windows (but make it work on Windows as an after thought). Most of the kids these days have stated that it is impossible because they are used to writing in fads and frameworks that are obsoleted in a couple of years. I don’t use COOL, but replacing a working, debugged, proven system for the fad of the day would be an incredible waste of money.

      As a side note, the kids are all about wasting time on pretty GUIs, I’m about eliminating the user and the time wasted on writing the GUI.

  12. Bill The Bunyip says:

    The machines are running COBOL and FORTRAN because it works. No frills, no emojis, no swipes and all the other crap that is all feel good. Banks and business still use languages like this for that very reason. Gubmints use other things, coz they don’t work

  13. Judy says:

    COBOL, FORTRAN, RPG, mainframe BASIC and for extra credit I learned hexadecimal (Got an ‘A’ too). And no, I haven’t used any of it in years. But the logic of ‘If, Then, Else’ is still part of my think process along with KISS and GIGO.

    • Elmo says:

      Stop it! You’re turning me on!

    • Cederq says:

      Forgive my ignorant, backwoods edumacation Judy, I know what KISS is, what is GIGO?

    • waitingForTheStorm says:

      My first professional job was on Univacs programming in a variant of Fortran that used a six bit encoding. No lower case characters. Everything was represented in octal and the machine’s native word size was 36 bits which were accessible in sixth words, quarter words, third words, and half words, depending on the context. Debugging was digging through 15 inch stacks of green bar, 66 lines to the page, octal words, demand paged memory under the management of our own code. Those were the days.

      Programmers today are pussies.

      We hired a “computer scientist” that, literally, did not understand the concept that a printed character was a specific interpretation if an octet, sextet, or nintet. I laughed that idiot out of my office when he failed to understand what I was talking about.

  14. MrGalt says:

    FORTRAN is still used in some scientific and engineering applications (surprisingly you need a gfortran compiler to build NumPy and SciPy which are Python modules), but anyone still using COBOL or RPG should be flogged with an old-school SCSI cable.

  15. Tsquared says:

    I know COBOL. I was taught it in the USAF. Latter, when I was getting my IT degree I kept putting off taking the class trying to take something else that would help me. The dean said no and I had to take COBOL. The first Friday of class I asked for all of the assignments so that I could do them over the weekend. The professor laughed but gave them to me (I had more time writing COBOL than she had as a college student and professor). I turned the program in with a index menu to access each individual program and I had a loop question to return to the main menu. When she selected the exit option there was a question asking if I could take all of the tests the following week as I was taking an overload in classes and there was nothing she could teach me about COBOL, It looped back to the menu if she selected no.

    I will work for them. $160,000 sign on bonus tax free to make up for what I have lost in my 401K, then $250 an hour, and a $160,000 exit bonus because I hate programming COBOL.

    • Paul B says:

      I would second this one. Although I want 250k signing and 300 an hour since it is for the state that it is.

      I am close to retiring and this would make a nice nest egg.

      I
      Enjoy
      Data
      Processing.

      that and where to put the periods.

    • capt fast says:

      yep. tquared, learned it on burroughs machines. also ADA. what fun that was.

  16. Heathen says:

    Why do I suspect this is a ploy to “import” programmers from India ?

  17. Henk says:

    I haven’t touched COBOL since about 1972,and I wouldn’t care to get back into that world.
    That said, any 21st century software engineer worth his or her paycheck should be able to do COBOL within a week.

    Unless of course they have to learn to use the good old three-hole mechanical card punch, which I am sure after all this time I myself would not have any problem with.

  18. CC says:

    Shades of Y2K – old-school programmers didn’t ‘volunteer’ for that, either.
    We were paid pretty well for that, too.
    I recall a lot of people saying everything would be migrated out of old C, cobol, fortran, RPG, imbedded SQl, etc; a lot of those old programs are still part of those old mainframes, but entire systems are cross-platform now, so if it works, it’s best not to screw with it.

    • kidme37 says:

      I was part of the army that defeated the Y2K software problem.

    • unclezip says:

      We also heard “Java will save the world”.

    • strnj1 says:

      You should have seen us trying to explain to the building owners from NYC that the elevator control system was almost entirely analogue. The only numbers that the digital part tracked were the day of the week, 1 through 7. We STILL had to have it Y2K certified.

      • Henk says:

        In the early nineties I wrote some y2k compliant software consisting of about 100 source files.
        I moved on to bigger and better things and got a good laugh when I saw years later that each individual source file had been checked out and checked back into source control adding one comment line: “*y2k compliant”.
        In other words: busy-work.

  19. kidme37 says:

    Hard to beat Oracle PL/SQL.

  20. Bert says:

    Oh, where to begin. It is like being in an endless DO loop. Maybe if the brainiacs running state governments would spend less on feel good programs (free this, free that, don’t bother enforcing the Law) and instead keep their systems up to date with adequate resources, then they would not be in a pinch. There is no reason not to keep using COBOL if it makes sense given the situation. But you gotta use your head-it’s sorta like going back to the horse and buggy for transportation-it’ll get you there in decent time but you’ve got to have the damn buggy whip to make it work.

    There probably are hundreds of old white guys over 70 years of age who could help out. But, finding a few who had not been screwed over by things like the outsourcing of their jobs (and careers) might be a challenge. The honchos in the top pay grades ought to be able to figure it all out, especially since they told many a competent programmer that his skills were outdated and he no longer had a job.

  21. SgtBob says:

    States having trouble using COBOL could always go pre-computer. Pencils, paper, and etc.

  22. Miles Long says:

    I do… but it’s Joisey. Too bad so sad.

  23. unclezip says:

    Ok. *whips out the Cobol bible*. Let’s do this.

  24. BadFrog says:

    COBOL – the 1911 of programming languages. Now are they talking 68, 74 or 85?

  25. Crustyrusty says:

    High school in the late 70s involved BASIC, Fortran, COBOL, and an ill-advised attempt to learn APL which involved much wailing and gnashing of teeth…

    • waitingForTheStorm says:

      I started on APL. It was fun. There was a guy in class with whom I competed to make the most convoluted (obfuscated, in today’s terms) programs we possibly could. The teacher told me that she lost the ability to understand what I was doing after the first 10 weeks of class. I went to a small community college for a while; I ended up dating the hottest girl on campus for a while because I wrote a function to help her with her remedial math exercises.

      I ended up being a programmer professionally. I wrote code right up until the day that I retired (actually, quit in a huff). The best jobs were contract gigs because of the decreased management bullshit. I cannot count the number of programming languages I have used over the years.

  26. Andy_TLC says:

    Okay, I’m no programmer – I never got much beyond BASIC and I was lousy at that so I’ve go a few questions for all you experts. While COBAL typically runs on a mainframe – is there an underlying operating system or can COBAL stand alone? It would seem to be this would be a critical consideration when it comes to upgrading.

    My eldest son works for a military contractor. Their systems are mostly UNIX and LINUX. Sure UNIX is an ancient OS in modern terms but there are reasons it is still around – reasons like stability and utility. Speaking of utility…

    I have a friend who still used Commodore 64’s in some of his manufacturing processes. This was years ago but at the time the 64 was still long obsolete. He said the computers did the task at hand efficiently and cheaply. He told me he would continue to use them for as long as he could as there was no reason to upgrade.

    If you don’t get this, lemme ask you… do you pound a nail with a hammer or have you invested in the latest, greatest digitally controlled autodriver? Yeah. I thought so.

    My point is we get so wrapped up in “upgrading” crap we forget the axiom “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. If the equipment they are using does the job, upgrading to something “new” would be a foolish expense. It would take new computers, new programs and programming, complete retraining of personnel – not to mention the disruption that is sure to follow.

    As for Comrade Murphy, it serves him right to get a lesson in free markets, though I can’t see why he’d object to paying programmers what they are worth. After all, it’s not like he’s spending his own money.

    • Peter Sanders says:

      Mainframes have an operating system. Depends on the hardware and manufacturer what the OS is.

      My familiarity is with IBM, specifically mid-range (iSeries aka AS/400) — and in IBM’s modern hardware the same hardware supports the current versions of the S/360/370 OSs – MVS.
      Change the microcode and the same hardware runs iOS (formerly OS/400), AiX (IBM’s unix version) or Linux.

      All of these ‘old’ languages – COBOL, FORTRAN, RPG, C, C++, etc are compiled – the program instructions are written in a file and then run through a program that translates (‘compiles’) it into a file of machine instructions. This file is then run by the operating system. (Yes, I glossed over a bunch of steps here… )

      • Andy_TLC says:

        Thanks for your reply Peter. If I understand correctly then, COBAL generally runs on Unix-based OS, so chances are this is what NJ is running. Even if they were running COBAL on an obsolete OS, I’d probably opt to keep COBAL and go with Unix or Linux. As far as dumping COBAL for something more “modern”, I see no advantage.

  27. strnj1 says:

    Reminds me of the National Guard using Punch Card readers in the ’90s. They wanted to throw it away when they got a newer system.

    To quote the IT Director, “We have to put it on a inter-agency bulletin board first. If no one claims it in 30 days, THEN we can throw it away. Who shows up drooling over it ?? The IRS. Be afraid, be very afraid…”

  28. strnj1 says:

    My Company bought a Building Automation System back in ’84. The software was a variation of MS BASIC. It didn’t work properly. I made the give me the tech manual for the system.

    The first thing that I noticed was that the formula that was supposed to be calculated showing the time in minutes that it would take to raise or lower the inside air temperature 1° with a ten degree difference between inside and outside temperature had not been calculated. They used the numbers from the hypothetical example in the book.

    By the time that I had totally rewritten the software, there were enough “if, then, else, go to, statements” to drive any modern “modular” programmer totally nuts.

    When they let me go because the new owners weren’t going to pay “that much” for a “maintenance man,” no one else could figure it out.

    First they tried to hire me back as a consultant. My new job forbid it.

    Then they ended up paying enough to have kept me on a couple more years to buy a new system.

  29. fjord says:

    So is this all that’s keeping the wheels from falling off the already overloaded wagon that’s being pulled by less and less people?

  30. fjord says:

    I saw a good comment somewhere.

    Businesses need income.
    Not more debt.

  31. WDS says:

    Illegal aliens residing in the Garden State costs them in excess of 2 billion dollars per year. What nice upgrades you could’ve had……

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