Good news for state: Programmers found for antiquated computers

One of the strangest stories out of Sacramento in recent years has to do with state Controller John Chiang's repeated warnings that it would be difficult to implement furloughs of state workers because of the antiquated computer system used to process the state's payroll. This is from a front-page Sac Bee story in July 2010:

“In a world where newer and faster is touted as better, California state workers' prospects for full pay rest partly on old and outdated technology.

“The state whose Silicon Valley pioneered computer advances finds two of its top elected officials fighting over how quickly the state's Vietnam War-era payroll system could be altered to handle a temporary pay cut.

“Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has ordered the wages of nearly 200,000 state workers chopped to the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour during the budget impasse, after which it would be restored.

“State Controller John Chiang has balked, filing suit to argue that he cannot reasonably comply because of the old payroll system, deficiencies in the wording of the pay order, and an inherent conflict between state and federal law.

“California's payroll computer system is so old that it relies on programming language, Common Business Oriented Language, or COBOL, that was introduced in the late 1950s, popularized in the 1960s and 1970s, and is no longer routinely taught to programmers.

“'When I was studying computer science in India, in 1973, none of us wanted to study because it was considered old-fashioned back then,'” said Prem Devanbu, computer science professor at the University of California, Davis.

In September 2010, Governing magazine noted that it wasn't just California's state payroll that was stuck in ancient computer history:

“Dale Jablonsky, who until August was CIO of the California Employment Development Department (EDD), knows the situation all too well. The EDD runs California's unemployment insurance program, where caseloads skyrocketed during the current recession. As the economic downturn deepened, Congress repeatedly extended the length of time individuals could draw unemployment benefits.

“In all, federal lawmakers approved seven benefit extensions since the recession began — and each was a nightmare for the EDD. Every extension requires changes to several hundred interconnected computer programs in the EDD's eligibility system. Those programs are written in common business oriented language (COBOL), an ancient programming language, and modifications must be hand-performed by increasingly rare — and expensive — COBOL experts.

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“'It typically takes two to three weeks to implement changes, depending on how complex the federal legislation is,' Jablonsky says. 'Sometimes the legislation is so complex it takes five to six weeks to implement.' Indeed, implementing one particularly complex piece of legislation in late 2009 required changes to 650 programs in the EDD system. The resulting delay in mailing unemployment checks made front-page news throughout the state … .”

COBOL whiz kids? Look to the southeast — the far southeast

Since then, the state has been trying to modernize many of its computer systems. But perhaps officials shouldn't worry so much. It turns out that there are still plenty of COBOL programmers. They just speak Portuguese.

“Programming language Cobol still represents an important part of development budgets in Brazilian IT organizations and that will continue to be the case in the coming years, according to research.

“According to a study by software vendor Micro Focus that covered 370 development professionals in Brazil, some 52 percent of those polled say that Cobol is the main mainframe language utilized at their organizations.

“In terms of resourced devoted to development in that programming language, 49 percent of the respondents said they write only Cobol-based code and 43 percent said their employers have teams exclusively dedicated to development in Cobol.

“Looking forward, some 64.8 percent said they intend to write new Cobol-based applications in the next few years.”

So maybe John Chiang can head to Rio with a HR team and do some interviewing.

Or maybe the government of the state that leads the globe in information technology can get its IT act together and finally leave COBOL — invented the same year that Hawaii joined the union — behind.

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