COBOL: A Forgotten Technology at the Heart of COVID Stimulus Payments

As the US Treasury pumps more money into the much-needed stimulus package, the technology running the mainframes is on life support—and it can’t afford to get sick.

Mainframes running COBOL, a programming language conceived long before JIRA boards and javascript roamed the earth, make up a good portion of the country’s critical systems. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these are the systems we’re relying on to ensure that vital stimulus payments make it to people and businesses in need. Yet, there’s a shortage of programmers who know how to code in COBOL.

Why Is COBOL Still Around?

Over the last 50 years, COBOL programmers have been pulled out of retirement during times of crisis to ensure that essential computer systems don’t shut down when the country needs them most. Hordes of COBOL coders returned to the workforce during Y2K to ensure that the country’s dated systems wouldn’t rupture as their internal clocks switched over to the new millennium.

As it turns out, most core banking systems still run a programming language invented before the personal computer. According to Reuters, 95% of all ATM swipes still rely on COBOL. At least 12 states use it to process unemployment—sobering news at a time when the labor department reported 16.8 million new unemployment claims filed between March 15th and April 4th.

While a new breed of engineers lament legacy infrastructure, these systems quietly hum along, just like they have for over 60 years.

How is it that a language that’s consistently delivered for six decades can just go out of style?

The Talent Shortage

In 2017, Reuters reported on a company run by Bill Hinshaw, 75 years old at the time, called COBOL Cowboys, a network of veteran COBOL programmers for hire. His team, mostly people reaching retirement and a few people in their 40s and 50s—lovingly called the “youngsters”—are the few remaining people with industry experience.

Everyone else—trained to build from the ground up, carefully documenting their architecture—seems to be waiting for some savior solution to save us from a legacy language.

The Problem Isn’t COBOL—It’s Overloaded Servers

The truth is: there is nothing intrinsically flawed with COBOL. Yes, some systems are built upon code that someone wrote decades ago, without the testing or documentation tools we have now. Their workarounds and patches seem confusing today, and they’re no longer around to explain things to us. 

Today, those aging systems are taking 50x the traffic they were when they were built, and the real problem is finding someone willing to learn COBOL to make critical updates

Learning to Coexist

At Kunai, we take a pragmatic approach to technology decisions. Our clients’ business problems come before our desire to embrace new technology. There is simply no way to build the future of finance without understanding the technologies of the past. This is why our team has a deep understanding of both legacy systems and modern programming tools. 

So whether it’s integrating legacy systems, deploying to the cloud, or both, we’ll figure out a solution that best suits you—and the crazy times we’re living in.

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Sandeep: Tell me a bit about the early part of your career.

Tom: I spent a decade helping to build start-ups focused on application and database software. This was where I learned how to sell and do business development. I was fortunate to be part of one company going public and another being sold to IBM.

Sandeep: What is something you learned during this time that helped you with consulting?

Tom: I began to appreciate how different customers achieved varying levels of success with the same foundational technology. This made me understand just how critical getting your team and process right can be.

Sandeep: This is something I only came to appreciate years into consulting, especially after the sale of my first consultancy to Capital One.I saw teams in different parts of the company trying to solve challenges like real-time messaging. Same corporate culture, same technology, same internal support mechanisms. Night and day outcomes.

Tom: We saw a lot of the same thing after selling our practice to EMC (sold to Dell in 2015). This is probably the thing I'm most proud of when it comes to the teams I've helped to build: the ability to perform well in a variety of contexts, sometimes in ways that inspires the client team to up their game as well.

Sandeep: Yes. It's particularly cool to see your team succeed in individual ways after an skills definitely translate into the corporate environment.

Tom: Totally. We have people who've stayed on at Dell and risen up the ranks, while others took the opportunity to become successful executives at other Fortune 100 companies....or to start their own agencies and startups.

Sandeep: We've both been around a while. My first consulting project was a Y2K thing for Cisco back in 1998. You've been around a little longer than that :). How do you think consulting has changed most during the past five years?

Tom: I think because there is so much infrastructure available now, consulting has become more delivery and outcome-oriented. A better blend of strategic and tactical. Public Cloud has also enabled velocity to increase at a pace unfathomable 5 years ago.

Sandeep: What has stayed the same?

Tom: It's still mostly about people. People who thrive on change and are focused on their personal and professional development. I love that this has not and will not's what I love about consulting.

Sandeep: I know you're adjusting your work style to COVID. You're still a dude who clearly prefers to drive an hour for a socially-distanced hike or outdoor meeting over Zoom any day of the week :) But personal styles aside, what is specifically compelling about a remote agency during the era of COVID?

Tom: Kunai has been remote for years, which gives them an inherent advantage. There is something about the communication and management styles that just works in a way that other organizations are still figuring out.

Sandeep: Yeah, I think what a lot of people fail to realize is that remote work isn't just office work over Zoom. it's an entirely new paradigm. There needs to be an understanding for asynchronous efficiency...and this just takes time and effort to develop. How do you approach remote work and family? What are you learning about separating work and personal time?

Tom: No matter what the form of interaction, Focus. Be present. Quality over quantity. The best weeks are the weeks where I proactively schedule work and personal time. Neil (Kunai's Head of Delivery) shared a great quote with me "With discipline comes freedom." When I am proactively addressing the majority of my professional and personal commitments, I find I earn a little flexibility. A little freedom.

Sandeep: Tell us about a business hero of yours that I may not have heard of before.

Tom: Paul O'Neill is someone you may not know. His work in both the public and the private sector created a profound impact

Sandeep: We are both over forty years old :). How have you learned how to work smarter during the past decade or so? What do you wish you knew about consulting when you were 25 that you know now?

Tom: Consultants want to make lasting change. Lasting change is often not the act of a single person. Today I work much harder bringing others along on the journey.

Sandeep: Last question. What are you doing here? :) Why join a small consulting company this late in your career when you could have a cushy job somewhere else?

Tom: I love a good challenge personally and professionally. When I turned 40, I decided I would run a 10K every Thanksgiving weekend and try to have my finishing time be less than my age. With the exception of one year where I did not run due to a health issue, I have met the goal. I also recently completed the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike race. So, I guess I'm here because I'm a glutton for punishment :) Jokes aside, our customers have a job to do and I intend to put Kunai in a position to execute flawlessly on their behalf. I love committing jointly to audacious goals for our customers and our business.

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