Banks scramble to fix old systems as IT 'cowboys' ride into sunset

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.

Cowboys and youngsters

In 2013, Hinshaw launched a new company COBOL Cowboys, which connects companies to programmers like himself. His wife Eileen came up with the name in a reference to "Space Cowboys," a 2000 movie about a group of retired Air Force pilots called in for a trouble-shooting mission in space. The company's slogan? "Not our first rodeo."

Of the 20 "Cowboys" that work as part-time consultants many have reached retirement age, though there are some "youngsters," Hinshaw said.

"Well, I call them youngsters, but they're in their 40s, early 50s."

Experienced COBOL programmers can earn more than $100 an hour when they get called in to patch up glitches, rewrite coding manuals or make new systems work with old.

For their customers such expenses pale in comparison with what it would cost to replace the old systems altogether, not to mention the risks involved.

Antony Jenkins, the former chief executive of Barclays, said for big financial institutions – many of them created through multiple mergers over decades – the problems banks face when looking to replace their old technology goes beyond a shrinking pool of experts.

"It is immensely complex," said Jenkins, who now heads startup 10x Future Technologies, which sells new IT infrastructure to banks. "Legacy systems from different generations are layered and often heavily intertwined."

Some bank executives describe a nightmare scenario in which a switch-over fails and account data for millions of customers vanishes.

The industry is aware, however, that it cannot keep relying on a generation of specialists who inevitably will be gone.

The risk is "not so much that an individual may have retired," Andrew Starrs, group technology officer at consulting firm Accenture, said. "He may have expired, so there is no option to get him or her to come back."

International Business Machines, which sells the mainframe computers that run on COBOL, argues the future is not so bleak. It has launched fellowships and training programs in the old code for young IT specialists, and says it has trained more than 180,000 developers in 12 years.

"Just because a language is 50 years old, doesn't mean that it isn't good," said Donna Dillenberger, an IBM Fellow.

But COBOL veterans say it takes more than just knowing the language itself. COBOL-based systems vary widely and original programmers rarely wrote handbooks, making trouble-shooting difficult for others.

"Some of the software I wrote for banks in the 1970s is still being used," said Hinshaw.

That is why calls from stressed executives keep coming.

"You better believe they are nice since they have a problem only you can fix," he said. Hinshaw said the callers seem willing to pay almost any price and some even offer full-time jobs.

Turning point

Oliver Bussmann, former chief information officer of UBS, said banks usually tap into their networks of former employees to find COBOL experts. Accenture's Starrs said they go through a "black book" of programmer contacts, especially those laid off during or after the 2008 financial crisis.

The industry appears to be reaching an inflection point, though. In the United States, banks are slowly shifting toward newer languages taking a cue from overseas rivals who have already made the switch-over.

Commonwealth Bank of Australia, for instance, replaced its core banking platform in 2012 with the help of Accenture and software company SAP. The job ultimately took five years and cost more than 1 billion Australian dollars ($749.9 million).

Accenture is also working with software vendor Temenos Group to help Swedish bank Nordea make a similar transition by 2020. IBM is also setting itself up to profit from the changes, despite its defense of COBOL's relevance. It recently acquired EzSource, a company that helps programmers figure out how old COBOL programs work.

In the meantime, banks' scramble has revived careers of those who retired or were let go, and whose expertise, until recently, was considered obsolete.

One COBOL programmer, now in his 60s, said his bank laid him off in mid-2012 as it turned to younger, less expensive employees trained in new languages.

In 2014, the programmer, who declined to be named to avoid jeopardizing current professional relationships, was brought in as a contractor to the same bank to fix issues management had not anticipated.

"The call back to the bank was something of a personal vindication for me," he said.