Bill Hinshaw is not a typical 75-year-old. He divides his time between his family – he has 32 grandchildren and great-grandchildren – and helping U.S. companies avert crippling computer meltdowns.
Hinshaw, who got into programming in the 1960s when computers took up entire rooms and programmers used punch cards, is a member of a dwindling community of IT veterans who specialize in a vintage programming language called COBOL.
The Common Business-Oriented Language was developed nearly 60 years ago and has been gradually replaced by newer, more versatile languages such as Java, C and Python. Although few universities still offer COBOL courses, the language remains crucial to businesses and institutions around the world.
In the United States, the financial sector, major corporations, and parts of the federal government still largely rely on it because it underpins powerful systems that were built in the 70s or 80s and never fully replaced.
And here lies the problem: if something goes wrong, few people know how to fix it.
The stakes are especially high for the financial industry, where an estimated $3 trillion in daily commerce flows through COBOL systems. The language underpins deposit accounts, check-clearing services, card networks, ATMs, mortgage servicing, loan ledgers and other services.
The industry's aggressive push into digital banking makes it even more important to solve the COBOL dilemma. Mobile apps and other new tools are written in modern languages that need to work seamlessly with old underlying systems.
That is where Hinshaw and fellow COBOL specialists come in. A few years ago, the north Texas resident planned to shutter his IT firm and retire after decades of working with financial and public institutions, but calls from former clients just kept coming.