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US CIO/CTO: Idea of Hiring COBOL Coders Laughable 265

Posted by Soulskill
from the lords-of-cobol-hear-my-prayers dept.
theodp writes "If you're a COBOL programmer, you're apparently persona non grata in the eyes of the nation's Chief Information and Chief Technology Officers. Discussing new government technology initiatives at the TechCrunch Disrupt Conference, Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel quipped, 'I'm recruiting COBOL developers, any out there?,' sending Federal CTO Todd Park into fits of laughter (video). Lest anyone think he was serious about hiring the old fogies, VanRoekel added: 'Trust me, we still have it in the Federal government, which is quite, quite scary.' So what are VanRoekel and Park looking for? 'Bad a** innovators — the baddest a** of the bad a**es out there,' Park explained (video), 'to design, create, and kick a** for America.' Within 24 hours of VanRoekel's and Park's announcement, 600 people had applied to be Presidential Innovation Fellows."
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US CIO/CTO: Idea of Hiring COBOL Coders Laughable

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  • Pfffffttttttttt (Score:3, Insightful)

    by dcollins (135727) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @02:29PM (#40122227) Homepage

    Another example in a fine history of mindless government bigger-dick wagging. Pretty close to being up there with: "Mission Accomplished" and "Bring 'Em On".

  • a**? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 26, 2012 @02:31PM (#40122241)
    You mean ass. No need for silly regular expressions.
  • by PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @02:31PM (#40122243)

    I'm recruiting COBOL developers, any out there?

    They are out doing obscenely high-paid consultant and maintenance work for banks, insurance companies, etc.

    I had planned on doing the same thing with C development, but those damn meddling Apple kids have made C popular again.

    • by Paracelcus (151056) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @04:14PM (#40122895) Journal

      Except when some dumbass kid writes that older coders can get "obscenely high-paid" work of any kind! In the tech industry seeing ANYBODY over 50 working (even on a short term contract) is a rarity and probably a fluke! And seeing a 60+ COBOL programmer implies that you are hallucinating!

      • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 26, 2012 @06:02PM (#40123599)

        Where the hell do you work? Wait, I can guess the answer, Sillicon Valley? I'm right, aren't I? So, the point being that just because you don't see any 60+ COBOL guys around, doesn't mean they aren't. You know all those legacy systems... the ones that have more up time than your life span? The ones that were installed before you were walking, and haven't moved since? Because I DO. So does your local government office, and your local bank, and your local CC processor. Did you know that your water company probably still uses and old AS400 for account management? Because I do. Did you know that every street light in the greater Portland (OR) area is tied to a positively ancient server running some obscure COBOL? I do. Do you know the guy that gets paid to keep that server running, despite 3 separate efforts over the years (totaling many millions of dollars) to replace it? I do. Want to know what he gets paid to be the ONLY person in the state with access to that machine? I'll bet you wouldn't believe me.
         
        What you kids in SV think constitutes the computer world... well, lets just say that you are standing in a valley, and you can't see the rest of the world from there.

        • by Raenex (947668)

          Want to know what he gets paid to be the ONLY person in the state with access to that machine?

          Coffee and donuts?

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward
        I just hired two programmers, one is 59 and one is 61. I'm sure it's due to the tech: C++ / VB6 and some .NET, but I needed developers to maintain a system we won a contract to support. Perhaps I'm odd ... but age never factors into my hiring decisions.
        • by St.Creed (853824) on Sunday May 27, 2012 @05:32AM (#40127095)

          I've never understood the reasoning behind not wanting to hire old guys. I can understand why you wouldn't want to hire a grumpy, inflexible old veteran who insists on recoding everything into COBOL because he has no other skills. But those are a minority as far as I can tell. I know several older DBA's, system architects, designers with even nation-wide fame: they get hired every day by the *smart* companies that want to ship product.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by wcgOtt (959191)
          Good for you. Unfortunately, this attitude is not pervasive. At 45 I don't consider myself old yet when I see posts from 20somethings stating you don't see anyone older than 50, it's disheartening. I have an engineering background and approach software development as an engineering activity. I would hope companies want to hire disciplined, productive developers but the norm seems to be to hire based on an acronym alphabet soup. During interviews, it's rare to hear questions about your development approach
  • by DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @02:34PM (#40122265)

    I'm sorry to re-post the same comment from another story, but in this case it seems very apropos:

    Agreed. As someone who's worked for the U.S. federal government, the amount of effort required to comply with various directives, even to accomplish the most basic of tasks, is maddening.

    For example, suppose you needed to order some laptops for your developers, and some compilers as well. Private sector: 4 hours to shop around, and you'd have the order fulfilled in about 3 weeks. Most of that delay would be for custom builds of the laptops by Dell, HP, etc.

    In the government: 20 man-hours gathering competitive bids from 3 vendors who agree to work under the pricing schedule your agency requires. 4 man-hours / 2 calendar days ensuring the order complies with Clinger-Cohen and Section 508 regulations. 20 man-hours / 2 calendar weeks getting permission to place the order from one approving authority. Another month going back-and-forth with another approving authority. Then the order gets placed.

    The opportunity costs and labor costs associated with the effort and delays in getting s**t done in the federal government is mind-numbing. When feds get bashed for having, in some cases, more costly compensation packages than the private sector, there's one factor that rarely comes up in conversation: any competent software developer will demand a pay premium in exchange for putting up with this soul-sucking crap on a daily basis.

    • Point being, the Federal government has an unimaginable capacity for shackling very good programmers, and sucking their capacity for excellence. That might explain why the federal government gets such mediocre results (at best), despite making a decent effort to hire from MIT, etc.

    • For example, suppose you needed to order some laptops for your developers, and some compilers as well.

      Shouldn't that be handled by the manager or someone?

      The actual coders should never have to look up the prices on any of their tools. New hardware should just show up as soon as the manager can complete all the paperwork and the political fights.

      • For example, suppose you needed to order some laptops for your developers, and some compilers as well.

        Shouldn't that be handled by the manager or someone?

        The actual coders should never have to look up the prices on any of their tools. New hardware should just show up as soon as the manager can complete all the paperwork and the political fights.

        Good question. The reason is that if someone in an administrative / managerial role orders the hardware, it shows up as an "overhead" cost. Congress has made it clear that overhead costs need to be reduced. However, Congress wasn't willing to lighten the regulations that help drive up these overhead costs. So the only real option left to agency executive who aren't willing to push back on stupid Congressional mandates is to shift administrative work onto the software developers. Sure, it means the work

        • To clarify: it's the labor cost of ordering the laptops / compilers that would show up as "overhead". The cost of the actual hardware / software would show up a project-related costs regardless of who's soul was consumed by making the order happen.

      • by gl4ss (559668)

        ..because a plain manager doesn't know what to order. if he knows, he's a developer.

      • For example, suppose you needed to order some laptops for your developers, and some compilers as well.

        Shouldn't that be handled by the manager or someone?

        The actual coders should never have to look up the prices on any of their tools. New hardware should just show up as soon as the manager can complete all the paperwork and the political fights.

        This is how is done in good places (both public and private.) There are private shops that act as stupidly as bad public shops when it comes to insulating developers from the day-to-day management/inventory minutia.

      • by sjames (1099)

        Irrelevant even then. They still have to wait for over a month for something that should have been there in a week or less.

    • In the government: 20 man-hours gathering competitive bids from 3 vendors who agree to work under the pricing schedule your agency requires. 4 man-hours / 2 calendar days ensuring the order complies with Clinger-Cohen and Section 508 regulations. 20 man-hours / 2 calendar weeks getting permission to place the order from one approving authority. Another month going back-and-forth with another approving authority. Then the order gets placed.

      Your problem there is that you're thinking too small, just trying to buy one laptop.

      If instead you go ahead and outsource to a private vendor all of the logistics and supplies to run an entire war, then that can be quickly and easily arranged with a no-bid contract.

    • by Sir_Sri (199544) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @02:55PM (#40122419)

      Because governments care about accountability, and businesses care about efficiency.

      That's always the way in reasonably democratic governments. When you're spending the publics money they have a right to know how it is being spent, and to know it's not being wasted. The problem is that every time there's a fuckup a new layer of oversight gets added, to the point that you spend as much on accounting for spending as you do on spending.

      And because as we just saw with the 38 studios closing yesterday. People get really pissed when the government wastes their money.

      • by swalve (1980968)
        That, combined with an inefficient purchasing system. They should be able to call the GPO and say "I need four notebooks with these specifications" and the GPO sends them off and bills the agency appropriately.
      • by DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @03:26PM (#40122617)

        Because governments care about accountability, and businesses care about efficiency.

        Agreed, but one of the things the government is supposed to be accountable for is efficiency.

        As you correctly pointed out, red tape incurs a real cost. So beyond a certain point, red tape meant to prevent excessive spending is self-defeating.

      • by brennz (715237)

        s/accountability/appearance of accountability/1

        Fixed!

        • by Sir_Sri (199544)

          No, governments care about accountability. When they get only the appearance of accountability they add another layer of accounting.

          • by hsmith (818216)
            Government managers care about accountability, you are right. They care about not being the one being held accountable, that is about it - from my experience.

            They will approve anything, as long as they can point the finger at someone else when shit goes wrong.
            • Government managers care about accountability, you are right. They care about not being the one being held accountable, that is about it - from my experience.

              They will approve anything, as long as they can point the finger at someone else when shit goes wrong.

              Apparently I've been more fortunate than you. My experiences with low-level managers has been much more positive.

    • by Austerity Empowers (669817) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @03:05PM (#40122495)

      Having worked at several large corporations, this doesn't really sound that alien. The government is really not much more than a really, really large corporation that can't fail. But large corporations are just as bad. This is how my favorite bureacratic mess worked:

      You can't just buy a laptop, first you have to get approval from IT that your laptop is due for refresh, then you have to get permission from finance that your laptop has been fully depreciated. Then, most times, you just have to accept whatever IT is peddling as the laptop for your job description (even if your actual job has nothing to do with your job description). On some occasions you may get an exemption, and be given a budget to procure a machine. Then you must deal with procurement, a group of vogons whose job it is to drive profit margin out of suppliers, joy out of life, and requirements out of your request. Deviation from this practice will be made to sound like corruption, as if Steve Jobs is giving you a piece of the action under the table. Then after your requirements have been rightsized, and your purchase request has been shopped around and value enhanced, an order will be placed for the laptop you probably didn't really want, but which you caused to be ordered.

      Up to this point, you have been maximizing shareholder potential and optimizing profits. This saved a lot of money didn't it? Next you will do a bit more of that, but mostly and indirectly comply (or at least so the corporate mouthpieces will tell you) with various federal regulations for taxes and record retention.

      It doesn't end there, the new laptop isn't yours, it belongs to the company. It will eventually find itself in the hands of your on-site IT guy, whose first job will be to install the corporate crapware-ridden image on your laptop. The image usually will be targeted towards your job description (again, your job description usually won't match your job, it was designed to keep US citizens from being hired in favor of H1-B's in most cases). It will have a virus scanner, but utility ends there. It will usually have some form of network backup that no matter what happens, you will never be able to use, some network stuff that will make it boot slow and give you access to machines you will never use, software push...etc. Then you must submit your old, depreciated laptop in to be destroyed. Granted you could probably use that machine as a spare webserver or a toy for your kid, it's probably broken in some way by now but can be made to work. But no, it must be destroyed. Not because of sensitive data of course, but because the tax code (apparently) says so. Upon having proof that your laptop was submitted for destruction, you will receive your new laptop. At that point you will of course immediately delete the corporate image, reimage with the corporate image required for your job description (or if you are lucky and don't need to interface with hardware tools much, you can install a clean image with a corporate VM), request to have your machine added to the correct domain, and set up network drives etc. for your actual job function. At that point you'll find that maybe your monitor is VGA and new laptop is DVI or HDMI only, or that the docking station they wouldn't let you order is incompatible with the new laptop, etc. This causes you to create new procurement steps, thus ensuring that group looks especially overwhelmed with work.

      Don't get me started if you need to get a machine in your datacenter with (*shudder* enterprise storage), you'd get more joy out of your year by crushing your balls under a hammer every day for a year. "Bugzilla? Does Oracle make that?". No. No Oracle does not, and if they did I wouldn't want it because it would work poorly.

      • by Zenin (266666)

        More then anything else, it's this all-too-common story that's driving me to strongly advocate cloud computing. Massive cost savings is just as nice side effect and an easy way to sell it to the suits.

        Hardware needs, network ACLs, software dependencies, licenses, all get defined in a pretty little xml file that just magically happens.

        No meetings upon meetings, endless reviews and approvals, no dumbed down versions for finance to wrap their tiny little brains around, no fat fingered sysadmins who can't ever

      • by volkerdi (9854)

        Don't get me started if you need to get a machine in your datacenter with (*shudder* enterprise storage), you'd get more joy out of your year by crushing your balls under a hammer every day for a year.

        Especially if you're the sort of person who likes that kind of thing.

    • The opportunity costs and labor costs associated with the effort and delays in getting s**t done in the federal government is mind-numbing. When feds get bashed for having, in some cases, more costly compensation packages than the private sector, there's one factor that rarely comes up in conversation: any competent software developer will demand a pay premium in exchange for putting up with this soul-sucking crap on a daily basis.

      Oh BOO HOOOOO, life is tough for the software developer on a government contract. /eyeroll

      Here's a thought, if it is hard to spend money, maybe they will be encouraged to stretch out what they have. As little businesses become big businesses, the same thing happens.

      But really, laptop upgrades... you know how many people in the public and private sectors reading this are screaming how unlikely it is for shiny new laptops to show up in three weeks? You sound like you're in IT, did you bake validating the s

    • by Ambassador Kosh (18352) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @03:23PM (#40122599)

      This does not actually sound much different then what it is like working with larger private sector companies. Where they do a focus group and take months to make simple decisions. From working with both government and large corporations I have not noticed any real difference in the time it takes to get things done or how much money is wasted they just do it in different areas. Small business though are a different matter, they are usually far far faster at making decisions and doing things.

      • I wonder if this is avoidable, or if all large organizations are doomed to have this quality.

      • Small businesses are often quite good at making really bad decisions quickly, and taking forever over important things. Just like big businesses.

        I once worked in a small business that was the exception. Every issue that came up was quickly dealt with with a director level meeting. We took decisions and followed them through. Unfortunately we grew so fast I ended up with a bad case of burnout, but having downsized to a lower intensity career I've often seen the effects of decision incapability in suppliers,

      • You can be effective even when the culture makes it hard. My strategy: full speed ahead, torpedo's be dammed; I do this as in my institution asking for forgiveness takes less time than asking for permission. That worked as I got promoted to a point where's my only way to move up is to wait that those above me retires or dies. But in a big organization like mine, mavens like me represent about .5% of the workforce, in a start-up that ratio could be as high as 1.

    • by digitig (1056110) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @03:54PM (#40122797)
      And the trouble is, they're doing all that because it's necessary ass-covering. The public would scream about corruption and rival suppliers would sue the pants off them if they couldn't prove that the process was unbiased. I've worked in UK government procurement and recognise what you describe, but I remember that it didn't used to be that way, and it wasn't internal bureaucracy that pushed for all those hurdles, it was public and vendor pressure.
      • I've give a lot to be able to show the public the costs, financial and otherwise, of having the various mandates in place.

  • In related news... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Haedrian (1676506) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @02:36PM (#40122283)

    Park seems to like a**es

  • by Karmashock (2415832) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @02:37PM (#40122297)

    Seriously... if there were a new world and you can get on a ship and go.... and never come back... how many would just do it.

    that's an extreme reaction but it's just one stupid thing after another... I just want to go...

    • Clearly you're from some bizarre bygone era where words like "maintenance" and "responsibility" were not yet considered dirty language. Why stop at disposable culture when you can have disposable infrastructure?
    • I would leave in a heartbeat. If aliens landed in front of me I would already have run up the ramp by the time they asked for people to come with them and waiting inside.

      I hope that as our technology keeps improving that it will be viable to build a ship and leave this planet. Sure a new colony might be worse .... but that would be hard to do.

      • Quite a lot of the inhabitants of the Caribbean were very friendly towards Columbus and his successors, and you know how that turned out. Anybody capable of building an interstellar space ship is likely to regard you as farm animal, not equal. Unlike dogs, we are not particularly cute.
      • by Mateorabi (108522)
        Don't run, all that exercise makes you taste gamey.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    But I'd hate to be the poor souls stuck with porting (and, god help them ,refactoring) forty+ years of working COBOL code . Talk about a thankless task - if you get it right, noone will know anything happened, and if you get it wrong, you'll never hear the end of it.

    • by Mabhatter (126906) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @03:00PM (#40122463)

      COBOL is still around because the systems that use it only get rebooted every 10 years or so. People don't realize how much business and legal knowledge is locked up in these programs. In many cases it's more efficient to "screen scrape" than even attempt to get 15 years of collected business intelligence and regulation compliance exactly correct... And all that stuff is MOVING pieces that have to be adjusted every year because laws change.

      This is why company ERP conversions fail so spectacularly. Many company systems have a great deal of "tribal" knowledge from long-retired employees hard-coded by long-retired programmers.

    • by swalve (1980968)
      The only thing worse that maintaining an old infrastructure is trying to change to a new one. And frankly, I'm a little annoyed that the government's CIO is one of those "it's old, how passe', not my project" kinds of guys.
  • Bad dudes (Score:4, Funny)

    by Ironchew (1069966) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @02:40PM (#40122331)

    Are you a bad enough dude to innovate the President?

  • by david.emery (127135) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @02:45PM (#40122363)

    Actually, I learned a lot from doing COBOL work. But it's clear that experience doesn't count. Instead employers do buzzword search on resumes for the latest hip technology or alphabet soup "certifications".

    It wouldn't be quite so bad if the industry didn't choose to adopt one labor-intensive technology after another. Most of the current programming fads don't scale up for large projects (>100k SLOC) any better than a lot of the stuff we used 20-30 years ago. Too much training and education, and then too many tools, focus on the individual, rather than on the team of developers/maintainers for long-lived applications. But I suspect a lot of senior managers think that large systems are irrelevant; everything will be a 1000 line "app".

    This is a problem that is -independent- of the inefficiencies implicit in working for the government (as either an employee or a contractor.)

    For what it's worth, I have always insisted that any programmer/developer that I had any influence over hiring must have demonstrated competence in more than 1 programming language/development approach. And "C/C++" didn't count as 2 languages (both because so much of C++ is bad C with an OOP veneer, and because a lot of core concepts, including bad habits, are shared between the two languages.)

    Hey Karmashock, when does that ship sail?

    • by swalve (1980968)
      Another trick is to look for people with different certifications. Looking for a Cisco guy? Find one who knows languages too. Need a COBOL developer? Pick the one who has worked with Java.
  • by shine (1502) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @02:46PM (#40122375)

    We blazed a trail with COBOL. Other languages may be better, but COBOL was the early language that made computers useful to a large number of business's and governments. The reason there is so much of it, is that it works.

    ~S

  • by Bogtha (906264)

    So what are VanRoekel and Park looking for? 'Bad a** innovators â" the baddest a** of the bad a**es out there,' Park explained (video), 'to design, create, and kick a** for America.'

    They sound like teenagers.

    Also, good job fucking up Unicode yet again, Slashdot. It's been how many years?

  • by Eil (82413) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @02:49PM (#40122387) Homepage Journal

    There, I said it.

  • by icebraining (1313345) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @02:54PM (#40122407) Homepage

    The US CIO/CTO is a brogrammer.

  • This is how you create and recruit brogrammers. They want frat boys to do their systems.

  • The author of that 'old fogies' article explains how he used to agree old (over 40) programmers were laughable, but now that he's reached that age, he seems to feel that experience superior to youth and well worth the extra money.

    Now, In my experience, this is only true up to a point. There seems to be very little difference in productivity beyond say 5 to 10 years of experience, while an additional 10 years of experience in a technology phased out years ago and not at all used in a company's current projec

    • by Red_Chaos1 (95148)

      It's common sense to shoot yourself in the foot and go for the guy with less flexibility? No wonder our economy is so fucked up. Reward the one trick ponies and screw the versatile guys. Bravo!

    • Your comment would make sense if you were simply looking for coders. But if you are looking at programmers - people who turn top level concepts into software - the C++ guy will know all the things that go wrong, all the "this works" higher level schemas that 5 years of Scala alone won't have taught anybody. Twenty years ago the business problems were basically the same. The fact that Microsoft could screw up a leap year 29th February in 2012 shows exactly why there is no substitute for wide experience.

      I'll

  • by GeneralTurgidson (2464452) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @03:02PM (#40122483)
    It may be hard to maintain, but COBOL works and it works without too many bugs. COBOL is usually replaced with web GUIs which are prone to exploits and require a lot more processing power. They do look pretty though.
  • by Aggrajag (716041) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @03:35PM (#40122685)
    I always remember the following Dilbert strip from 1997 when I hear the words Cobol programmer:

    http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/1997-11-04/ [dilbert.com]
  • I thought all the COBOL programmers tacked a zero onto their rates in 1999, did one last deathmarch for Y2K, then retired.

  • by hawguy (1600213) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @05:11PM (#40123259)

    What's so scary about running COBOL? If there are systems written in COBOL that are doing what they need to do, why is that scary? You could spend millions of dollars rewriting the system in something more kick ass (not sure what's considered kick ass enough for the US Government - Java? .Net? Ruby?) and then you end up with million dollar system that does the exact same thing as the system before, except for the inevitable bugs that creep into any large software project.

    Or you can start from scratch, and write new specs for the system and build a system with new kick ass functionality, then you end up spending millions getting the stakeholders together to write the specs, then millions more actually writing the new kick ass software, and decade later, it's been deployed with all of the major bugs worked out (or worked around). Except that whatever kick ass software you chose to write it in is no longer kick ass, so you need to start over again with something more kick ass.

    I worked at a company like that once - the new CEO decided that the old system written in C was no longer kick ass enough, so he decreed that it had to be written in something modern and kick ass -- in this case, it was Visual Basic that was deemed kick ass enough for it. So the company spent years specing and rewriting a system to be deployed across 1500 remote locations. In testing, they found that their VSAT communications system couldn't provide enough bandwidth and adequate latency to each location, so they embarked upon an expensive project to replace all of the VSAT connections with high bandwidth wired connections (this predated DSL and other cheap ways to get fast ethernet connections). In the meantime, the core developers of the original project saw the writing on the wall and left the company to start their own consulting company - they made a killing maintaining the original system while the company focused on building the replacement.

    5 years later, this 2 year project still wasn't ready for deployment, the company got bought out before the project ever got off the ground, and I'm sure the CEO got a healthy bonus for his "vision".

  • Joke all you like (Score:5, Interesting)

    by excelsior_gr (969383) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @06:11PM (#40123677)

    You people can joke all you like about old languages.. I'm getting paid to use, maintain and write FORTRAN code.
    In the past, I have written FOSS in FORTRAN and put it in the public domain. People still download it on a weekly basis.
    FORTRAN has gone through 10 updates and code that was written on cardboard in the sixties can work together with OO code from last week.
    FORTRAN is the back-end for the NumPy and SciPy numerical libraries. Python is just a fancy way of writing FORTRAN.
    And, no, I'm not an old fart (yet), but I can chase you off my lawn nevertheless.
    Now go away, or I shall taunt you a second time...

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