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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Like it or not, COBOL keeps on running

The venerable programming language COBOL is in the news a lot these days, after the governor of New Jersey went on live TV and explained that the state wasn’t able to process an avalanche of unemployment claims because the state was in desperate need of “cobalt” programmers to shore up its ancient systems.

My mother-in-law was a COBOL programmer. Twice. She took it up in the 1970s, one of many women who were looking for a career opportunity and went to technical school in order to become a computer professional. (I can’t tell you how many people I’ve run into who had a mother, mother-in-law, or grandmother who was a COBOL programmer.) Then my mother-in-law came back to it in the late ’90s when there was a desperate search for people capable of reprogramming systems to avoid the Y2K bug.1

Tech nerds love pointing and laughing at old languages like COBOL and Fortran, but I wonder if perl and python and PHP will still be running 60 years from now, with minimal maintenance?

Back in 2015 my pal Glenn Fleishman found the oldest computer program still in use for MIT Technology Review, and guess what:

In 1958, the United States Department of Defense launched a computerized contract-management system that it dubbed Mechanization of Contract Administration Services, or MOCAS (pronounced “MOH-cass”). The system was designed to use the latest in computation and output technology to track contracts in progress and payments to vendors.

Fifty-seven years later, it’s still going…. MOCAS is written in COBOL.

Yes, I know it’s horrifying to think that important parts of our economy might be held together with programs that were written 50 or 60 years ago. But at the same time, they still run! Rewriting programs costs money, a lot of it. Many organizations looked at their mainframes and simply never saw the reason to spend a lot of money to replace what works. Decades passed. And here we are.


  1. For my younger readers, a lot of 20th century programs only used two digits for years, meaning they’d break the moment the year became “00”. They all had to be revised to properly support the concept of post-1999 years. 

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