2020-05-05 HR Examiner article The Curious Persistence of Technology by Michael R Kannisto PhD photo img by Rainer Gerhards Punch card cobol via wikipedia cc by 30 license 544x253px.jpg

HR Scenario Planning expert Michael R. Kannisto, P.h.D looks at how Coronavirus and COBOL collided recently in the New Jersey state unemployment system. Or did they?
Photo: “Punch Card COBOL” by Rainer Gerhards is licensed under CC BY 3.0

When people return to work after this current crisis is over (or any future crisis for that matter) the first order of business will probably be to evaluate their existing technology and replace the outdated elements.

Everyone knows that technology has a shelf life. Early Greeks built primitive steam engines, which were really nothing more than scientific curiosities. In the 17th and 18th centuries, researchers improved upon existing steam engine designs, and paved the way for the modern version of the steam engine that powered civilization’s march into the modern age. But today steam power is used in only very specialized situations. It seems that pretty much everything stops working after a while. Even software.

In early April, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy included an odd plea in his daily Coronavirus update. It seems that his state’s newly unemployed were having difficulty submitting on-line applications for unemployment insurance. The culprit, claimed Murphy, seemed to be the 60-year-old programming language called COBOL, which is used to process the on-line claims. During the press conference he issued a call for volunteers who were still familiar with the language to help fix the problems. The media had a field day.

NJ Governor Requests Expertise of 6 People Who Still Know COBOL
NY Mag Intelligencer, April 6

NJ seeking help from COBOL programmers in coronavirus fight
The Hill, April 7

N.J. unemployment claims are processed by a 40-year-old computer system as demand soars
NJ com, April 8


Michael R. Kannisto, P.h.D, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

COBOL is an incredibly important language in the evolution of computer technology. For one thing, it was a direct descendant of a language called FLOW-MATIC, which was created by Grace Hopper herself. Yes – THAT Grace Hopper. Both of these languages were novel because they used simple English language commands like “move,” “transfer,” “write,” and “read” to accomplish mainly business-related tasks. In fact, COBOL was designed specifically for business, and its syntax made it very easy for programmers to read the source code, figure out exactly what was happening as the program ran, and make changes easily.

FORTRAN, BASIC, and other subsequent programming languages retained this feature whereby someone with limited programming skills could follow the flow of one-to-a-line computations easily. A great many scientists, engineers, and other professionals learned the fundamentals of programming using these languages. COBOL (and its siblings) ushered in a generation of people who themselves were not computer scientists, but understood how computers worked and had created simple programs that could calculate the average of a set of numbers, for example. As students, many of these people spent many an hour going line by line though a simple program to identify the reason it wouldn’t run. It was really the beginning the age in which we all live today – one where a computer of some kind is visible to us 24 hours a day.

But alas, progress marches on. After all, how much use could a 60-year-old program get these days? And in those forgotten corners of municipal basement server rooms where it is still running, its obsolescence is surely costing society billions of dollars.

Or is it?

The surprising truth is that COBOL never went away. In fact, at this very moment, more than 80% of business transactions are processed in COBOL. 95% of ATM swipes use COBOL code. There are literally billions of lines of COBOL code that are active today in systems that process business transactions of all kinds. COBOL doesn’t cost society billions of dollars; it processes billions of dollars.

So what happened in New Jersey?

About two weeks after the story of the “outdated software” hit the headlines others began to dig into the story a bit deeper. Screenshots provided by unemployment applicants showed that users having technical troubles never even got to the COBOL part of the user experience. Many encountered JAVA-related issues, which derailed them early in the process. It’s difficult to tell exactly what the problem is, but it’s likely a combination of old hardware combined with decades of poorly-documented software updates, which were exacerbated by the heavy volume of website visitors. COBOL was innocent of all charges.

Technology is an easy target when things don’t work well. But perhaps the lesson here is to do like so many of those reluctant programmers did as they took that first required course in computer science – take time to pinpoint the real cause of the problem before taking action.

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