Cobol Is My Hero — A Reverse Luddism
The Sacramento Bee reported that some people in California are wearing T-shirts bearing the cryptic words, “Cobol Is My Hero.”
People outside of California might not be aware that our governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, attempted to have state workers paid the minimum wage until the Legislature presents him with acceptable budget. Since the budget cannot be passed without a two thirds majority and the Republicans, who are unanimously committed to holding firm on their pledge to not raise taxes, have enough votes to veto any budget that does not suit them.
Already, in previous years, the Democrats have capitulated and agreed to horrendous cuts to education and, even worse, any program that threatened to give any help whatsoever to the poor. The Democrats went one step further, agreeing to additional tax cuts, which can only make the budget worse.
The state comptroller, John Chiang, refused to comply with the governor’s demands, explaining that revamping the state computer system to change the wage structure in a short period of time would be impossible. To do so would be especially difficult because the system is programmed in an obsolete language, Cobol.
Cobol was last in the news in the run-up to the Y2K panic. Companies need to upgrade their computer systems, but lacked people trained in obsolete computer languages. In desperation, they turned to Indian companies, which was instrumental in accelerating the growth of outsourcing computer work to India.
Shortly before this rush to reprogram computers in anticipation of the Y2K disaster, Paul Strassmann, former CIO at General Foods and Kraft, wrote a book, which took the position that the churning of computer systems by means of excessively frequent upgrades cost a great deal more than any potential savings. The manpower required to reprogram everything, along with the inevitable glitches were not worth as much as the cost of upgrades.
Strassmann, Paul A. 1997. The Squandered Computer: Evaluating the Business Alignment of Information Technologies (Information Economics Press).
Strassmann’s position was not particularly popular for obvious reasons. I have not followed the literature enough to know if he was proven correct or not, but workers in California have reason to applaud the obsolescence of Cobol — a kind of reverse Luddism.