Cobol Blue

In July, citing a budget shortfall, the Governor of California ordered the salaries of 170,000 State employees to be cut to the Federal minimum wage.

Not so fast, said the State Controller. Because California’s payroll systems are written in antiquated Cobol code, it would take six months to implement the change and nine months to restore salaries later. That’s if we had the Cobol programmers to do the job, which we don’t, because you fired them last week, Governor. And we can’t hire them back because nobody’s going to take a pay cut from Social Security to program Cobol for minimum wage.

Hmph. Maybe they should have used Algo.

Read the rest of the rant right here.


  1. #1 Tony P
    September 21, 2008

    I’ve had exposure to COBOL and it’s not hard to program. it’s just the division thing that threw me a bit.

    Once you get past that it’s a piece of cake.

    But to do it for minimum wage, hell no.

  2. #2 Monado
    September 21, 2008

    Some Cobol programmers came out of retirement or delayed retirement to work fof $100 an hour reprogramming legacy systems so they wouldn’t blow up in 2000. There was a massive programming effort, which prevented catastrophe, which led to the people who got the effort going being reviled as people who panicked without reason. I don’t understand people.

  3. #3 themadlolscientist, FCD
    September 21, 2008

    Yeah, seriously. I remember hearing an exchange 15 years or so ago between a friend of mine, who’s been a COBOL geek for something like 35 years, and another friend, who likes to think he’s Mr. Bleeding Edge even though he’s a “plain vanilla C” guy IRL. He had asked her why she had no interest in learning Java, which was just hitting the big time. She said, “Why? COBOL is the best kept secret in the world. I’m good at it, I like doing it, and nobody’s learning it any more – which means I have job security for life.”

  4. #4 Naum
    September 22, 2008

    Big part of this story that is missing – while COBOL still is at the core of electric utilities, charge card billing, travel reservation, pharmacy claims adjudication systems, etc.… a great deal of those positions have been farmed out to offshore locales or by offshore vendors who’ve brought foreign programmers to the U.S. via non-immigrant visas.

    Within a short commute of my home, I can tally thousands of COBOL programming jobs that went by the wayside in the past 10+ years… …departments of 200+ programmers (and analysts) replaced by a few SME (subject matter experts) who manage the offshore teams and tick away the days to retirement (or until they get a severance package, and then end up coming back again in the employ of the offshore vendor)…

    These were good jobs that paid extremely well (better than the web developer positions in 2008), and now, instead of young Americans learning programming in action, the opportunity has been displaced to foreigners, who were all too eager to fill the void.

    Lest you think I’m engaging in gross speculation, I write as one displaced on multiple occasions by this current. I adapted, learned web development platforms (as well as some other proprietary software API packages), but many others chose not to… …instead, they adopted different careers, a few opted to hang on until retirement…

  5. #5 Sanity
    September 22, 2008

    Oh, I’ve had the extreme misfortune of working with such systems before. I work at a small company and had the (thankfully well payed) job of getting rid of the antique legacy cobol system and replacing it with C.

    I wouldn’t do it for minimum wage, heck I wouldn’t do it if they payed me double my wage.

  6. #6 Zeno
    September 22, 2008

    You meant to say Algol, right?

    Why not APL, the famous “write-only” language?

  7. #7 Paul Murray
    September 23, 2008

    I did some Cobol during my one year at uni (dropped out to get a C job), and found it … charming. Awful, but charming. Very bare-metal. Working with the declaration blocks you can almost smell the steam and grease, the unmistakable aroma of a hot thermonic valve on a warm circuit board.

    Wouldn’t do it for minimum wage, though. F no!

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    September 23, 2008

    My first language was PL/1. I was only a tot, but I got the hang of it and enjoyed it quite a bit. I loved structures. Still do.