Business Essentials for Professionals


As IT 'Cowboys' Ride Into Sunset, Banks Scramble To Fix Old Systems

As IT 'Cowboys' Ride Into Sunset, Banks Scramble To Fix Old Systems
75 year old Bill Hinshaw is a member of a dwindling community of IT veterans who specialize in a vintage programming language called COBOL and he first got into computer programming in the 1960s when computers took up entire rooms and programmers used punch cards.
Newer, more versatile languages such as Java, C and Python have replaced the Common Business-Oriented Language which was developed nearly 60 years ago. The language remains crucial to businesses and institutions around the world although few universities still offer COBOL courses.
And since COBOL underpins powerful systems that were built in the 70s or 80s and never fully replaced, the financial sector, major corporations and parts of the federal government still largely rely on it in the United States.
But the problem is that few people know how to fix it if something goes wrong.
In the financial industry, an estimated $3 trillion in daily commerce flows through COBOL systems and hence the stakes are especially high for that industry. card networks, ATMs, mortgage servicing, deposit accounts, check-clearing services, loan ledgers and other services are underpinned by the language.
Solving the COBOL dilemma is therefore more important due to the industry's aggressive push into digital banking. Mobile apps and other new tools need to work seamlessly with old underlying systems even though they are written in modern languages.
That is where Hinshaw and fellow COBOL specialists come in.
Connecting companies to programmers like himself, Hinshaw launched a new company COBOL Cowboys in 2013. Hinshaw said that though there are some "youngsters," of the 20 "Cowboys" that work as part-time consultants many have reached retirement age.
"Well, I call them youngsters, but they're in their 40s, early 50s."
When they get called in to patch up glitches, rewrite coding manuals or make new systems work with old, experienced COBOL programmers can earn more than $100 an hour.
Not to mention the risks involved, in comparison with what it would cost to replace the old systems altogether, such expenses pale for their customers.
The problems banks face when looking to replace their old technology goes beyond a shrinking pool of experts, especially for big financial institutions – many of them created through multiple mergers over decades, said Antony Jenkins, the former chief executive of Barclays PLC.
"It is immensely complex," said Jenkins, who now heads startup 10x Future Technologies, which sells new IT infrastructure to banks. "Legacy systems from different generations are layered and often heavily intertwined."
If a switch-over fails and account data for millions of customers vanishes it would be a nightmare scenario, say some bank executives.
However, the fact that reliance on a generation of specialists who inevitably will be gone is not possible for the industry.
Andrew Starrs, group technology officer at consulting firm Accenture PLC, said that the risk is "not so much that an individual may have retired."  "He may have expired, so there is no option to get him or her to come back."
The future is not so bleak, argues International Business Machines Corp, which sells the mainframe computers that run on COBOL. "Just because a language is 50 years old, doesn't mean that it isn't good," said Donna Dillenberger, an IBM Fellow.
But it takes more than just knowing the language itself, COBOL veterans say. Trouble-shooting is made difficult for others as original programmers rarely wrote handbooks and COBOL-based systems vary widely.
"Some of the software I wrote for banks in the 1970s is still being used," said Hinshaw.
That is why calls from stressed executives keep coming.
"You better believe they are nice since they have a problem only you can fix," he said. Hinshaw said the callers seem willing to pay almost any price and some even offer full-time jobs.

Christopher J. Mitchell

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