'COBOL Cowboys' Aim To Rescue Sluggish State Unemployment Systems

Apr 22, 2020
Originally published on April 27, 2020 9:29 am

Bill Hinshaw's phone has been ringing off the hook lately.

From his home in Gainesville, Texas, which Hinshaw describes as "horse country," he runs a group called the COBOL Cowboys. It's an association of programmers who specialize in the Eisenhower-era computer language. Now their skills are in demand, thanks to the record number of people applying for unemployment benefits.

Many state unemployment systems run on COBOL, but lack the programmers needed to deal with the swell of applications. Like Hinshaw, 78, many COBOL programmers are older. In fact, there are more COBOL programmers in retirement than there are in IT departments right now.

Hinshaw, who keeps a roster of 350 IT veterans at the ready in case organizations have COBOL crises, said he's ready to deploy his Cowboys to help states now hunting for programmers who can speed up the processing of unemployment claims.

"Basically when COBOL Cowboys gets most of its calls it's on an urgent SOS," Hinshaw said.

Such a distress signal was sent by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy at a press conference earlier this month.

"Not only do we need healthcare workers. But given the legacy systems, we should add a page for [COBOL] computer skills. Because that's what we're dealing with," Murphy said.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy holds a news conference regarding the COVID-19 cases earlier this month.
Chris Pedota / AP

Beyond New Jersey, Connecticut and Kansas have also been trying to recruit old-school coders as a shortage of COBOL programmers bedevils state officials.

A survey by technology news site The Verge found that at least a dozen states are still using COBOL in some capacity, including California, Rhode Island and Iowa.

The predicament rings familiar to John Thomas Flynn, who ran California's IT department in the late-1990s, when programmers everywhere feared a Y2K meltdown.

Even after that, COBOL was not replaced. Cash-strapped governments, he said, do not make it a priority. Just thinking about replacing sprawling IT systems provokes anxiety, he said.

"You know, these systems are $300-$400 million applications to modernize," Thomas Flynn said. "Some people just feel that, well, maybe we should just put it off and let the next administration do it."

Acknowledging that states are in need of COBOL programmers, IBM recently announced free training seminars to encourage younger coders to learn the pre-Internet programming language.

Hinshaw says it isn't hard to learn — if willing to time travel.

"It's like hopping off a bicycle in 1960. And climbing onto a Harley Davidson in 2020," Hinshaw said.

It's not just governments that continue to rely on COBOL. Nearly half of U.S. banking systems do too, as well as 95% of ATM swipes, according to Reuters and the International Cobol Survey Report.

"I mean, it's running the world," Hinshaw said. "Some people like to say that COBOL is going away soon. But it's not going anywhere."

Bill Hinshaw of COBOL Cowboys helps links governments and companies in need of IT veterans with coders fluent in the 61-year-old coding language, COBOL.
COBOL Cowboys

Some COBOL experts bristle at state leaders' blaming current backlogs of unemployment claims on a lack of coders.

The explanation, they say, is that governments have not updated the bulky and sluggish computers that run on COBOL, according to Derek Britton, product director at England-based Micro Focus, which helps clients navigate such updates.

"COBOL is not the issue," Britton said. "COBOL is famously highly portable, which means most of the application code can move platform without issue."

Hinshaw says if ageing computers were replaced, COBOL would continue to be fast and dependable.

"We get concerned when there's an issue and the first thing out of people's mouth is 'COBOL. It's a COBOL problem,'" he said. "Well, is it really a COBOL problem? Most times it's not."

As other states continue to hunt for COBOL programmers, New Jersey's search has concluded.

States officials confirm to NPR that 3,000 people have filled out applications to help with the historic influx of unemployment claims.

The state, officials say, is now "sufficiently staffed on COBOL needs."

As far as the group's name, Hinshaw says they do not have any real cowboys as consultants. Rather, it comes from the 2000 Clint Eastwood film Space Cowboys in which elderly aspiring astronauts are pulled out of retirement to rescue a failing satellite.

"I have to blame that one on my wife, Eileen," Hinshaw said. "We sorta laughed, but that name stuck with us."

The Hinshaws play up the theme in their email signature, which signs off: "Not our first rodeo."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A 60-year-old programming language is at the heart of delays for millions of people applying for unemployment. The language is called COBOL. Lots of state unemployment systems run on it. And now those states are hunting for veteran coders who know their way around it. NPR's Bobby Allyn reports.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Situated in North Texas in what he calls up here in horse country, Bill Hinshaw's phone has been ringing nonstop.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

BILL HINSHAW: Cobol Cowboys, this is Bill.

ALLYN: Cobol Cowboys - that's the name of the group that 78-year-old Hinshaw runs. It has a list of some 350 IT veterans around the country who know how to use this 1960s computer language. So states are turning to Hinshaw.

HINSHAW: Basically, when Cobol Cowboys gets most of its calls, it's on an urgent SOS.

ALLYN: Such a distress signal was sent by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy at a press conference earlier this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PHIL MURPHY: Not only do we need health care workers, but given the legacy systems, we should add a page for cobalt computer skills because that's what we're dealing with.

ALLYN: He meant to say COBOL - C-O-B-O-L - but it's from the Eisenhower era, so cut the governor some slack. The dusty software language has recently prompted not just New Jersey, but also Connecticut and Kansas to search for COBOL coders. IBM announced free COBOL training seminars to bring young computer whizzes up to speed. Hinshaw says it isn't hard to learn if you're willing to time travel.

HINSHAW: It's like hopping off of a bicycle in 1960 and climbing onto a Harley Davidson in 2020.

ALLYN: At the same time, countless state governments still use COBOL for unemployment systems and a lot more. Nearly half of U.S. banking systems rely on it.

HINSHAW: I mean, it's running the world. Ninety-five percent of all card swipes, including the ATMs, touch COBOL at some point.

ALLYN: All of this leads to a very natural question - why haven't any of these systems been updated?

JOHN THOMAS FLYNN: These systems are 3-, 400 million-dollar applications to modernize.

ALLYN: That's John Thomas Flynn. He faced a similar shortage of COBOL coders when he led California's IT department in the late 1990s right before the Y2K meltdown. Even after that, COBOL wasn't replaced. He says governments don't want to make it a priority, and they get really nervous just thinking about replacing systems.

FLYNN: Some people just feel that, well, maybe we should just put it off and let the next administration do it.

ALLYN: State officials in New Jersey say 3,000 people have now filled out applications to assist with COBOL coding, so that should fix their problem. Meanwhile, in North Texas, Hinshaw says he's always happy to connect government agencies with coders like himself.

HINSHAW: I will write my last line of COBOL the day before I die.

ALLYN: Because somewhere, a mainframe is failing, and Hinshaw wants you to know he knows a COBOL cowboy who can help.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.