Seeking COBOL Cowboys

The scarcity of COBOL programmers has led to increased interest in startups like COBOL Cowboys, made up of older, experienced programmers.

Over the weekend, New Jersey governor, Phil Murphy, made an unusual public plea during his daily coronavirus briefing: The state was seeking volunteer programmers who know COBOL, a 60-year old programming language that the state’s unemployment benefits system is built on. Like every state across the nation, New Jersey was being flooded with unemployment claims in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. And New Jersey’s data processing systems were unprepared.

“We literally have a system that is 40-plus years old,” Murphy said.

To COBOL programmers, it was a familiar ask. In times of bureaucratic crisis over the last 50 years, Americans have been faced time and time again with the dusty, dated systems that undergird much of our government, and economy. In response to Y2K, when it was unclear whether the date of the new millennium might cause cascading errors across the entire world’s computing systems, legions of programmers fluent in largely forgotten languages like COBOL were specifically hired to fix government and enterprise code. As a result, Y2K was largely a nonissue.

Over 20 years later, much of the state, federal, and banking systems still run on these very same programming languages.

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