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COBOL is not the problem

In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, there’s a lot of buzz on social media about a sudden need for COBOL programmers to help US State government agencies cope with the problem. IBM is even offering free COBOL training courses through a partner that specializes in mainframe-focused technical training.

But what’s the problem, really?

Domino #1: Coronavirus, knocks down domino #2: Constrained mobility, which knocks down domino #3: Reduced demand for workers, which knocks down domino #4: Increased unemployment rate, which knocks down domino #5: Increased demand for State services, which bangs its head against wall #1: Inadequate computing capacity to handle the increased workload.

Many of the State government computer systems are written in COBOL. Therefore (the reasoning goes), there’s a desperate need for more COBOL programmers.

Let’s pause for a moment and take a deep breath (through our masks, of course).

The immediate problem is a sharp increase in the number of applications for unemployment benefits.

Now, put on your software developer hat for a moment, and explain to me how modifying COBOL source code will double the capacity of the computing environment to process applications for unemployment benefits. It’s a capacity problem, not an application code problem. It would be the same whether the applications were written in COBOL or any other language.

Let’s pretend for a moment that “fixing” the COBOL code would do any good. Explain to me how an army of freshly-minted programmers armed with ink-still-wet certification credentials earned in a self-directed online course will be able to do much of anything at all with a mountain of legacy COBOL code. By the time some of them learn enough to work effectively on the code, the Coronavirus situation will have passed and demand for unemployment benefits will have settled back down to a level the current systems can handle. If any of them are hired in the first place, they’ll be laid off within a few months.

Now explain to me the definition of the word “desperate.” Are States really desperate to hire COBOL programmers? I followed up on a couple of the social media rumors and checked the job sites of a couple of US States. I found one opening for a COBOL programmer, offering a rate of $40 an hour. They require relocation to a State that’s in the middle of the hottest Coronavirus hot spot in the world, where they will work on site in person. That’s all that was posted as of the time I checked.

Boys and girls, that is not the definition of “desperate.” Desperate would mean “We’ll take as many qualified programmers as we can get on a temporary basis, for $250 an hour, and you can work remotely from anywhere.” There’s no huge spike in demand for this skillset. And guess what “qualified” doesn’t mean, in this context. Those who are rushing to take the free COBOL training will not find jobs waiting for them when they have completed the course. And although I happen to like the zOS system very much, and COBOL was very very good to me back in the day, I can’t tell a young person that this would be a future-facing career move.

Now consider the fundamental reason State government computing systems are underpowered and outdated. It’s money. We taxpayers are loathe to hand over any more of our hard-earned money to the bureaucrats than absolutely necessary. We are the reason our States can’t afford up-to-date or high-capacity computing systems. Do you honestly expect us to vote for higher taxes, just in case another once-in-a-century pandemic occurs during our lifetimes? Is that what you’re planning to do?

So, what we’re looking at is a short-term capacity problem, and not an issue with the quality of COBOL application code. How do you address this type of problem? You throw hardware at it.

The quick solution? Sign up for zCloud to handle your additional capacity requirements until the crisis has passed. When all is said and done, you might find you actually like the managed environment better than you like running your own IT shop. Your taxpayers might like it better, too.

So, there’s $25,000 worth of consulting for you, for free. You’re welcome.