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

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".

  • 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 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.

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

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

    Park seems to like a**es

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 26, 2012 @02:37PM (#40122303)

    COBOL is really the most advanced programming language ever developed. I don't see why the U.S. government has abandoned COBOL for slower, more complex languages like C, Java, Python, and Ruby. All new government development should be taking place in COBOL, and it's really inappropriate for the U.S. CIO/CTO to go out there and say otherwise.

  • 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 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.


  • 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 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 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.

  • Wrong priorities! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bradley13 ( 1118935 ) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @03:07PM (#40122509) Homepage

    Most good coders are not going to be hugely interested in whether they are a GS-12 or if they have a shot at moving to GS-13. They want decent pay, good working conditions and colleagues, and interesting projects.

    There are good people (and great bosses) in the federal government. The problem is that there is also a huge amount of dead weight: petty people building their personal little empires and playing pathetic office politics. The "iron rule of bureaucracy" will not be denied - even if you are lucky enough to work in a super organization, don't worry: its soul will eventually be sucked out by bureaucrats interested only in extending the bureaucracy.

    This is why government organizations should be kept to a minimum. In industry, when the deadwood has accumulated, either it gets cleared out or the company dies. In government, you just get a funding increase.

  • by jgrahn ( 181062 ) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @03:09PM (#40122519)

    I work in one of those places who still maintain large COBOL systems. One of our problems is getting the customers to change. We provide them a modern system, and the customers still prefer to run batch programs and have reports print out. They just refuse to change their process.

    Have you tried to give them something which matches their processes, then? I don't know much about batch processing, but God knows there are plenty of "modern systems" I wouldn't touch because they don't fit the way I work.

  • 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.

  • 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 Surt ( 22457 ) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @03:35PM (#40122679) Homepage Journal

    I'm sorry, but if you're developing in anything other than machine language, you're really leaving performance on the table. No namby pamby assembly, no wishy washy COBOL, no effete C, and definitely none of those worse options. Write it in machine language or know that you're an incompetent hack.

  • by DoofusOfDeath ( 636671 ) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @03:46PM (#40122747)

    This is why government organizations should be kept to a minimum. In industry, when the deadwood has accumulated, either it gets cleared out or the company dies. In government, you just get a funding increase.

    I agree with the deadwood issue, but there are also some dynamics that favor having work done by government. The big one is that there's essentially no profit motive. In a well-functioning federal agency, all of the staff are encouraged to "do the right thing" for the people they serve, rather than maximize profit.

    Secondly, because it's harder to fire someone from the U.S. federal government than from a U.S. private company, employees may be more willing to report illegal activity, because there may be less fear of effective retribution. Although my confidence in this has been eroded in recent years by seeing less whistle-blower protection than I would have expected.

  • 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.
  • by Digicaf ( 48857 ) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @04:56PM (#40123147)

    The big one is that there's essentially no profit motive. In a well-functioning federal agency, all of the staff are encouraged to "do the right thing" for the people they serve, rather than maximize profit.

    You've touched on something that I discuss with my socialist friends on a regular basis. They fail to recognize that there's always a profit motive. In government jobs its not a corporate motive, it's a personal motive. I'd argue that personal profit motives are much worse than corporate profit motives, because corporate motives are typically enabled by groups of people that are effectively hindered by their disagreements. In individual profit motives, there is no such limitation. Also others are not likely to call them out on their behavior due to fears of confrontation, and because they receive little or no incentive to ever raise their voice. Most of the time, they just don't want to be noticed, and calling out someone else is a great way to get the wrong kind of attention.

    In a nutshell, an overwhelming number of government employees "do the right thing" for the people they serve, true enough. You just have to remember that they consider themselves as the #1 person they serve.

  • 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".

  • 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 theshowmecanuck ( 703852 ) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @07:15PM (#40124101) Journal
    These guys reminded me of the web developer in this old IBM commercial. [youtube.com] Yeah man, let's put flaming skulls on there, it'll be kick ass! If either of those two guys looked at source code they'd probably have an aneurysm.
  • by DoofusOfDeath ( 636671 ) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @08:58PM (#40124835)

    Okay, let me explain the structure a little. That might clarify the issue for you. I'll use the problem of information assurance officer (IAO) as an example. These are the people that will shut down your computers because they have a concern, often without talking to you, and with no sense of risk/benefit trade-offs.

    (Joe programmer) - Guy working on project.

    (Jane first-line manager) - Joe's boss. The one whom we're debating whether or not she's a "good" manager.

    (Mordak) - Denier of Information Services. The IAO for Joe's and Jane's organization.

    (Michael Scott) - The lowest-level government operative who has the authority to balance Joe's project needs vs. Mordak's paranoia.

    The problem: Even though Mordak and Joe might be part of the same government agency, Michael Scott works in Washington, and has no clue that Joe can't get work done because of Mordak. There are 8 layers of org-chart between Joe and Michael Scott. And still 7 layers between Jane and Michael Scott.

    Result: Michael Scott will never hear about Joe's problems, until 75% of the people under Michael Scott have the same problem as Joe. And then, the day before Michael Scott takes action, he's promoted to some other job, and Joe goes back to square one.

    In a situation like this, there's basically nothing Jane can do to fix the problem, aside from running over Mordak in the parking lot. Which is tempting, but ultimately a poor choice and one to be avoided.

  • Re:Pfffffttttttttt (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Ihmhi ( 1206036 ) <i_have_mental_health_issues@yahoo.com> on Saturday May 26, 2012 @11:49PM (#40125843)

    When I told people that the space shuttles still had stuff like floppy drives and basically were equipped with computers from the 70s-80s, there were very confused. Why isn't NASA running the latest hardware?

    It rings true for governments and business alike - reliability and stability are important, and "good enough" is king. There's a pretty decently big local hardware store (7-8 figures of business yearly) that STILL uses the custom cash register and inventory software that they ordered in the 80s. Why? "It works, and unlike Windows PoS our software doesn't really crash or fuck up."

  • Re:Pfffffttttttttt (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jythie ( 914043 ) on Sunday May 27, 2012 @12:59AM (#40126213)
    *nods* people often get wrapped up in the enthusiasm for sexy new kit and forget that technology is a tool that does a job, not something that exists for its own sake.
  • 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.

  • by wcgOtt ( 959191 ) on Sunday May 27, 2012 @02:26PM (#40129513)
    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, it's often about "how many years of XYZ do you have?" it's not the programming languages that are important or the brand of datavase server, it should be "how good of an engineer am I hiring." Also, equally unfortunate is the prefiltering HR departments do on resumes, older engineers often don't even get an interview. I've removed about half of my experience from my resume so it doesn't go so far back - age is easy to deduce when you experience going back to 80s.

I THINK MAN INVENTED THE CAR by instinct. -- Jack Handley, The New Mexican, 1988.