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'COBOL Cowboys' Aim To Rescue Sluggish State Unemployment Systems

A coding student takes a course on the computer programming language COBOL in 1997 ahead of the Y2K computer meltdown. The coronavirus pandemic has created a dearth of programmers who know how to operate in the pre-Internet coding language.
A coding student takes a course on the computer programming language COBOL in 1997 ahead of the Y2K computer meltdown. The coronavirus pandemic has created a dearth of programmers who know how to operate in the pre-Internet coding language.

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

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
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.

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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