Response has been overwhelming to the call by states for COBOL programmers for help keeping unemployment systems functioning since COVID-19 has resulted in an unprecedented surge in people being laid off and having to file for unemployment benefits.

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Nearly 1,300 people have stepped forward to either volunteer or work for hire, according to John Mertic, director of program management at Linux Foundation, which has partnered with IBM on initiatives to teach the 60-year-old COBOL programming language to coders.

The foundation and IBM have rolled out a free training course and a forum where people with knowledge of the language can be matched with organizations that need help maintaining their critical systems.

“What’s interesting is you think of a COBOL programmer as someone 40-some-odd years into their career,” Mertic said. “We’ve had an amazing diversity of individuals coming forward from new students up to veterans” who are gender diverse and come from locations all around the world, he said. “It’s actually blown us away a little.” Mertic added that he’s also had people reach out to him directly to ask how they can help.

“It’s exceeded expectations and tells a different narrative than one thinks of,” he said. In going through the public comments that have been posted in the forum, Mertic said, “You’d think these people are hard to find, and we found 1,300. We had over 100 within an hour of our announcement. They’re there.”

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He said he hopes states have connected with these programmers.

Chances are good that state governments “don’t have the deep bench of professional developers such as a large enterprise would, and as a result, they are typically unable to replace retiring COBOL developers or build skills across less-senior employees,” said Al Gillen, a group vice president at IDC. “There are consulting firms and offshoring services that will do development work in COBOL, but that is not the immediate solution that states probably need this week.”

Not only has there been an impressive response from the COBOL community, but the responders’ passion for the programming language is striking, added Meredith Stowell, vice president of the IBM Z Ecosystem.

“The comments have reflected their love of COBOL and how it’s impacted how they code for the rest of their lives,” Stowell said. “One woman had learned COBOL and ever since then has used this structure as a way of programming in other languages.”
Despite a dwindling number of COBOL programmers, a 2017 report by Reuters found that there are still 220 billion lines of COBOL in use. Forty-three percent of banking systems are built on COBOL, and 95% percent of ATM swipes rely on COBOL code.

IBM mainframes, running COBOL applications, have long been a common platform for governmental solutions supporting common services such as motor vehicle registration, real estate tax, state income tax, and benefits such as unemployment assistance, Gillen said.

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The situation states are facing now is probably not so much that the numbers of people registering for unemployment benefits has gone through the roof and the systems can’t handle the load, he said. “Modern mainframes are highly scalable and getting more throughput is usually just a matter of paying to turn on more CPUs,” or upgrading to a newer system, which Gillen acknowledged is not something that can happen right away.

“Unfortunately, the COBOL developer problem is more likely related to a scenario where states have to make some specific changes to the current applications to accommodate the changes related to the unemployment process driven by the federal government’s response to the crisis and the individuals affected by it,” Gillen said.

The states are facing “unprecedented circumstances,” and these systems require a lot of capacity and changes to code, agreed Stowell. “Many of the challenges we’re seeing are related to code that are unique.”

For example, individuals that weren’t previously eligible for unemployment now are so the code has to be adjusted to reflect that, she said. “When you’re talking about COBOL and COBOL code that’s been written and continues to be written, it includes a significant amount of business logic, so there’s a need to go into some of these apps and modify the code.”

Mertic echoed that, saying the systems have been taxed in a way that no one anticipated, and that it’s “unfair to say the mainframe failed.”

Next month, IBM said it will expand its COBOL training material to include a series of videos on online learning platforms like Coursera. Its Talent Match portal is also being used to match programmers with companies or governmental organizations that need their help.

“This is a community that really thinks about sustainability,” Mertic said. “They deeply want to see and ensure the mainframe as a community is here for another 60 years and they come bat for the community that way.”

The COmmon Business-Oriented Language was invented in 1959, and it has been in use ever since.
Image: National Museum of American History