Can COBOL save us from COVID-19?

It’s rare you hear a call-out for technology skills in a crisis, especially in such a severe crisis, so it was interesting to hear New Jersey governor Phil Murphy call out for COBOL skills to help with the state’s ailing legacy systems.

Unfortunately, I can’t volunteer my assistance as I don’t have COBOL skills. The imaginatively named “programming language one” was my first professional language (ironically PL/I was my third language following my teenage meddling with BASIC and assembly).

Reminiscing aside, the governor has the sense to wonder how many industries managed to have 40-year-old systems in critical positions in their infrastructures, a familiar question in the corridors of insurance companies. Insurance companies also have some very old systems on which companies depend for core operations, systems which few people understand any more, or at least, few claim to.

Everyone is aware of the difficulty of legacy systems; the dependency on paper-based processes, the hard to find technical skills, the poor staff and customer experiences. However, what makes legacy systems hard to replace is how good they are at some things: they’re functionally rich, they’re reliable, they’re pretty secure and they’re great workhorses. Ultimately, legacy systems are the product of decades of investment which makes them hard to replace in a typical business case timeframe.

We often focus on cost savings on which to build our business cases. We also include customer satisfaction with digital service and the top line growth it can support. We should also include competitiveness in the fight for young talent who are naturally disinterested in learning old systems.

One thing COVID-19 may teach is the need to focus more on operational risk in those business cases. Planning for existential risk can seem like a pointless exercise, but I think we’ve all learned that the pace of change is increasing, and our way of life can be altered at a speed that only the most agile businesses can respond to.

To answer my own question, unfortunately COBOL can’t save us from the legacy core systems and make us ready for emergencies like COVID-19. The gains left in patching and wrapping legacy systems have run out. The only way forward is to act strategically and replace the legacy systems that support insurers today with modern cloud technology that can protect our businesses from the changes yet to come.

Stay safe and code from home! Now where is that PL/I compiler?

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