Job alert: This state really needs some experts in arcane coding

New Jersey’s rickety unemployment system relies on COBOL, whose heyday was decades ago. It’s so critical that the state is pleading for help.


April 7, 2020

New Jersey is throwing up the bat signal for the 60+ programmer crowd.

Mammoth job losses have short-circuited unemployment systems across the country. In New Jersey, dealing with the influx of filings is a major pain because of one culprit — a prehistoric programming language called COBOL.

You might know COBOL from its greatest hits: powering payroll for government agencies in the 1960s. And becoming the most widely used computer language in the world in… 1970.

For some reason, it still forms the basis for New Jersey’s rickety unemployment system. It’s so critical that the state is pleading: If you’re a member of the COBOL cabal, please, please help us.

It’s the zombie language that just won’t go away

When you run a search for COBOL, Google serves up a delightful FAQ: “Will Cobol ever die?” (The answer, per Quora: “Cobol will die, but not in the very near future.”) Few coding courses still teach it, but it hangs around anyway.

To this day, it powers some banking systems, a few corners of the federal government, and a whole lot of ATM swipes.

COBOL is hard to quit. When an Australian bank recently tried to replace its COBOL code, the transition took 5 years.

The long-lingering system has even jump-started a mini economy of programmers-for-hire who were active in the bad old days of early IBM. Because COBOL’s heyday was so long ago, many experts are seniors.

Governments and financial institutions now call up people like 75-year-old Bill Hinshaw, founder of a company called COBOL Cowboys, to supply the cavalry in an emergency.

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