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IBM Offers COBOL Help for Government to Deal with Crisis

Right now, governments are navigating decades-old systems through an unprecedented crisis of demand. To help, IBM has started a three-pronged project to assist them in keeping COBOL-based systems up to speed.

The COVID-19 outbreak, as well as the societal shutdowns that have followed, have thrust a lot of sudden changes onto state and local government. Many who have never worked remotely are learning how to do so for the first time. Leaders are faced with unusually copious citizen input, questions and scrutiny.

And, in a somewhat ominous trend, they’re dealing with a historic spike in applications for unemployment insurance.

Many of the systems governments rely on for this work — especially older, complicated systems like UI management — rely on the 60-year-old programming language COBOL. And while there are plenty of people in government who know that language, the systems they keep running are under exceptional demand.

So IBM has launched an online initiative in collaboration with the Linux Foundation to try to help augment those government IT workers should they need it. There are three components: a technical assistance forum where people can ask specific questions and receive answers, a library of training materials and a listing of COBOL coders who are either willing to volunteer or want to be hired.

In normal times, it’s not that hard for government agencies to get the COBOL help they need, said Barry Baker, the company’s vice president in charge of the IBM Z software portfolio. But these aren’t normal times, and the COBOL ecosystem is basically facing a stress test.

“COBOL’s not the problem,” Baker said. “[Government agencies] do need to do surging and … increase capacity during this time.”

Many states have plenty of programmers, but Baker said “a small subset” need volunteer programmers or some kind of augmentation to what they’re doing with their staff. For example, a state worker might know basic COBOL but need help using a part of the language they haven’t dealt with in a long time.

“The acute problem we have in these states is basically bringing on staff to make application changes so that the [systems] can make changes to comply with benefit guidelines,” Baker said.

The move, which comes at the same time as U.S. Digital Response and others have spun up similar efforts to augment government staff work, followed closely on the heels of a press conference where the governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, suggested that the state should look for volunteer COBOL programmers. The press conference spawned a wave of media coverage, an agency put up a Web page where people could offer their services, and more than 2,000 people reached out to offer tech work, according to a spokesperson for the New Jersey Office of Information Technology.

Afterward, a spokesperson for the governor’s office pushed back against the gist of the media’s coverage. OIT has plenty of COBOL programmers, according to the source, and Murphy was simply asking state officials to add COBOL to the list of volunteers being sought. An OIT spokesperson said the state will keep volunteers’ information on file for future needs.

Still, New Jersey is hardly alone in running critical systems on the coding language.

“I can tell you almost all of the 50 states are clients of IBM and running IBM Z, which is the modern mainframe, and in most cases running COBOL,” Baker said.

The IBM approach, he said, is meant to let tech workers list their services in general rather than reaching out to one specific state at a time.

“We could have those people raise their hand in a way that they can control. So we said, ‘Let’s let them advertise,’” he said.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.