Remember COBOL? No? Well, NJ really needs programmers who do
With unemployment claims surging during the COVID-19 pandemic, New Jersey is in dire need of computer programmers who know COBOL.
The decades-old programming language, created the same year as the Barbie doll, still runs the state's unemployment insurance system, along with a hefty chunk of similar transactions around the country.
State Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development Rob Asaro-Angelo politely called it "legacy technology" at an April 4 state briefing.
He also noted the first week of the coronavirus public health crisis in NJ saw a "1,600% increase in volume in unemployment claims."
COBOL (which stands for “Common Business-Oriented Language”) was developed in 1959.
Even though it's decades old, “$3 trillion of commercial transactions are processed by COBOL applications each day. COBOL is what business runs on,” according to a blog report by IBM Systems in October 2019.
The same report noted the issue of a limited workforce, as professionals who were taught COBOL are of prime retirement age, while newer members of the information technology workforce are rarely learning it.
A lot of systems for insurance and medical claims are based on code infrastructure built decades ago, according to Kurt Rohloff, associate professor of computer science at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT).
He said New Jersey and other state governments often follow the adage “if it isn’t broke don’t fix it,” in the interest of being efficient with taxpayer money.
Rohloff also co-founded a startup company (Duality Technologies) and said they’ve found “New Jersey is actually one of the hidden tech hubs in the U.S., “ with a surprisingly healthy ecosystem of experienced technologists.
He said for example, former Bell Labs engineers are senior, experienced professionals in NJ of the generation who attended school in the '80s who could potentially assist in the COBOL upkeep.
Gov. Phil Murphy and state Chief Innovation Officer Beth Noveck said Monday that they have heard from technologists already and are using a lot of volunteer help, since the initial request Saturday.
Noveck said she expects a portion of the state's website to go live this week, to allow for volunteers of a wide variety to step up and respond to the "all hands on deck" situation.
This is another indication of how pervasive technology is in modern life, Rohloff said.
He continued “People often think about tech as being cutting edge, things developed in the past couple years, apps on the iPhone and things like that — but what we’re seeing is another reminder that software is often 'legacy,' meaning it’s around for decades to come."