New Jersey needs volunteers who know COBOL, a 60-year-old programming language

Key Points
  • If you know how to code COBOL, the state of New Jersey wants to hear from you.
  • Systems that power unemployment benefits in New Jersey are running off of 40-year-old mainframes that require COBOL
  • New Jersey plans to ask for volunteers with a variety of skills, including technologists
A man using a computer in the 1960s.
Getty Images, Ullstein Bild

If you know how to code COBOL, the state of New Jersey wants to hear from you.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy says that the state is looking for volunteers with skills that can be used to help in the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, and one of those skills is knowing your way around a 61-year-old programming language used on big, old, mainframe computers. 

COBOL is an old computer programming language that was first developed in the 1950's in conjunction with the Department of Defense. Today, most programmers prefer and use more modern languages, but there are pockets where old software written in COBOL remains in use, particularly financial applications and in large enterprises or government agencies.

New Jersey needs COBOL programmers because many of the state's systems use older mainframes, and those systems are now seeing record demand for services as the coronavirus outbreak disrupts the economy.

For example, an unprecedented 362,000 people have applied for unemployment in New Jersey as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, and the state's IT department is working to have the 40-year-old mainframes that power that service up and running, New Jersey's commissioner of labor Rob Asaro-Angelo said on Saturday. 

"Literally, we have systems that are 40 years-plus old, and there'll be lots of postmortems. And one of them on our list will be how did we get here where we literally needed COBOL programmers?" Murphy asked on Saturday. 

Since Governor Murphy put out the call for COBOL programmers over the weekend, he's gotten a lot of people volunteering to help, he said on Monday at a public briefing.

"Someone called me the COBOL King, I'm not sure that was a compliment, but we've gotten a lot of folks who have raised their hands and said they know how to program in COBOL," Murphy said.

While many states have publicly asked people with medical training to sign up to contribute to the response to the coronavirus outbreak, New Jersey's request for programming volunteers is one of the first examples of a state asking for help from technologists. Currently, the state is asking for volunteers with medical training, but the state plans to update its COVID-19 website to make it easier for people to volunteer technology skills, too. 

"People are coming out of the woodwork to help us," said Beth Noveck, New Jersey's chief information officer. "We are using a lot of volunteer help already and we are going to stand up a site this week to allow us to take volunteers of a wide variety."

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